From goshawk-rearing to an insider’s deliciously knowing stories of China, the future of democracy to the question of how to die better, these 15 books are a sampling of the most interesting non-fiction that came out in 2014.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): “Up close, the deepest changes were intimate and personal,” Mr Osnos writes of China, his beat for the New Yorker. “The greatest fever of all was aspiration... I watched this age of ambition take shape.” From the Party and its ministries of truth to entrepreneurs, dissidents and students, Mr Osnos has the best stories, backed by often sharp insight.
The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought To Live Since The Death of God, Peter Watson (Simon & Schuster): At a time when religion and its many prophets, followers, messiahs, warlords and believers are sometimes aggressive and always influential, Mr Watson’s history of contemporary Western atheist thought comes as a reminder that this is also humanity’s first golden age of on-belief.
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande (Viking): Mr Gawande’s reputation as a surgeon and as a writer known for his ability to question and explore the medical world’s quirks and beliefs underpins this extraordinary, influential book. Being Mortal argues, with informed passion, that humans could do better at the age-old business of ageing, dying and living well in between those two stages.
Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty (Belknap Press): The debates over Mr Piketty’s analysis of income inequality and wealth across 20 different countries made this one of the year’s must-reads.
The Empathy Exams Essays, Leslie Jamison (Simon & Schuster): “You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head,” Ms Jamison writes. Her subject is pain, and also endurance; sentimentality, and also genuine heartbreak, and these essays – on marathons, mysterious medical conditions, female trauma and anger, surviving assault, poverty tourism – are gems in the grand tradition of Joan Didion & co.
Flash Boys, Michael Lewis (Allen Lane/ The Penguin Press): For fans of Liar’s Poker, it will come as no surprise that Mr Lewis makes the world of high-speed, high-tech trading so fascinating, and so apparently easy to understand. Flash Boys lays the world of high-frequency trading bare to the outsider, and sparked much argument over Mr Lewis’ indictment of some of today’s market practices.
Gandhi Before India, Ramachandra Guha (Penguin India): At a time when Indian history is treated like the property at the centre of a joint family lawsuit – claimed and misrepresented by all sides – Mr Guha’s old-fashioned, solid scholarship is doubly welcome. This history of Gandhi’s life up to 1914 covers the South Africa years in illuminating detail.
Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra (Graywolf Press): This wonderful, small book on coding, literature and the pursuit of elegance and rasa common to both professions is a minor triumph. From Panini and Abhinavagupta to a potted history of the women in computer programming, Vikram Chandra makes several persuasive arguments, and sketches a wonderful East-West history of his own reading life.
H is For Hawk, Helen Macdonald (Grove Press): “A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.” The year Helen Macdonald spends hand-rearing a goshawk is also a year of intense grief, mourning and recovery for her. This unforgettable, unique memoir won the Samuel Johnson Prize; reading it is like inhabiting a wilder, darker but far more intense world than our own.
The Human Age, Diane Ackerman (WW Norton): Ms Ackerman’s take on the Anthropocene Age is immensely lively, and this book contains many small and quotidian pleasures among the larger arguments it makes about humanity’s place on earth.
If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me? India and The First World War, Vedica Kant (Roli Books): Amitav Ghosh said that this book captured “the conflicted, ambivalent cadences” of the sepoy’s voice better than most accounts; Ms Kant’s book is an excellent introduction to the role that Indians played in the first Great War.
Korma, Kheer and Kismet, Pamela Timms (Aleph Book Company): A vivid personal account of Old Delhi’s old and famous korma chefs, jalebiwallas and other custodians of the city’s most beloved recipes, by an old India hand and an expert in the kitchen, Pamela Timms, this is a food memoir to savour.
Political Order and Decay: From The Industrial Revolution to The Globalisation of Democracy, Francis Fukuyama (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): An enormous body of learning has gone into the second volume of Mr Fukuyama’s examination of democracy, which makes his views on order and disorder, the shakiness of democracies (even mature ones) and the difficulty of building lasting political institutions particularly valuable.
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt & Co): “Every extinction event appears to be unhappy, and fatally so, in its own way,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in this powerful and disquieting indictment of the human species as the agent of disastrous change. One of the most discussed books of 2014.
The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 100 Great Works, 1100-1900, B N Goswamy (Allen Lane/ Penguin): This book is a visual treat, an opportunity to see the history of Indian art through the eyes of one of its foremost chroniclers and custodians. A monumental work, this thoroughly enjoyable book will be a landmark for many decades to come.
Watch this space for the best fiction of 2014 next time