My Favorite Books of 2014–Nonfiction

I’ve been reading more nonfiction the past few years, following some of my interests, which you’ll see reflected in this year’s reading. I posted my favorite fiction last week, so scroll down for that one.


The Innovators: How A Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
I read this for my nonfiction reading group and had a good time revisiting the early years of the computer industry. Isaacson is a terrific guide through the technology and personalities. He writes about the brilliant researchers who were able to see the potential for personal computing and information access while others were blinkered. The women mathematicians at the Moore School in the early days of computer development–who, by the way, were the first real programmers–was a reminder of how  men have claimed the field as their own. (There’s a lovely documentary, Top Secret Rosies: Female Computers of WWII,  about this group.)  I remember our first computer, a Commodore 64, a machine that required endless patience for a small payoff, but opened our eyes to what was to come. Isaacson often referred to the book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff, so I read that book next. Markoff focuses on the West Coast and the personalities of the people involved in the early PC world who had a very different “take” on the role of the technology. Drugs, est, The Whole Earth Catalog, the Free Speech Movement, and the Grateful Dead were all in the mix, shaping and predicting the path of the R&D. East Coast computer R&D culture was hierarchical and influenced by its beginnings as a resource for the military.

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention by Guy Deutscher. Henry Holt, 2006.
If you’re interested in how language evolves, this is the book to read. Deutscher explains things I never thought could be explained about how languages change over time. His writing is just right: never ponderous, even when explaining complicated issues, and filled with delightful, cheeky humor. I also read and enjoyed his later book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages but the earlier one is a gem.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
by Jane Jacobs. Random House, 2011 (50th Anniversary Edition)
At my nonfiction book group we talked about reading this for several years and finally dove in. Even at 50+ years old, Jacobs’ ideas about how to make cities livable remain brilliant and compelling. She had a terrific ability to cut through the noise and point out the obvious. It will change the way you see urban–or even small town–streetscapes. There’s so much anger in the book about bad city planning and the “starchitects” whose bad decisions are enshrined in our urban environments. I wonder what she would have thought of the HighLine.

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. Knopf/Doubleday, 2014.
The opening pages of Sotomayor’s autobiography are riveting, about how this 8-year old girl, just diagnosed with life-threatening diabetes, realizes that in order to survive she can’t rely on her parents to give her insulin shots. She has to learn to do it herself. Self-reliance is a theme here, as well as the support of family members and friends. A very heartwarming and inspiring story that’s not the least insipid or sentimental, filled with intelligence and insight.

Amsterdam, A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
by Russell Shorto. Knopf/Doubleday, 2013.
I loved Shorto’s earlier book about New York, The Island in the Center of the World, for its focus on the personalities of the early settlers in New York and its origins as a commercial hub. He does a similar history of Amsterdam, but focuses on the city’s liberal tradition. There was no feudalism in Holland; in order to survive, everyone needed to work together to reclaim the land from the North Sea. This early sense of community set Holland apart from the rest of Europe. His theory about the liberality of Amsterdam is often hard to sustain through out its history, but it does provide a lens to see the city’s history and the history of the Netherlands in general. Shorto frames the book with the story of an elderly Holocaust survivor that is quite affecting.

A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance–Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester. Little, Brown, 2005.
Manchester packs so much information into this book, from art to religion, politics, and exploration. It was a turbulent period, filled with religious barbarity (and depravity) and sublime art. If you’re interested in this period, read also Stephen Greeblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which tells the story of how the Catholic Church did its best to suppress all knowledge of classical civilization, and how the determined scholars who searched out classical literature jumpstarted the Renaissance. As an example, I recently learned that the techniques of concrete work, practiced in Rome, were “forgotten” after 500A.D., until the 1300s.

The Parthenon Enigma by Joan Breton Connelly. Knopf/Doubleday, 2014.
I’m a classical art and history junkie and with a trip to Greece planned (at last!) I was free to read and re-read for several months before our trip last spring. I re-read the Mary Renault novels about Theseus (they’re still gripping), and was riveted by Connelly’s interpretation of the Parthenon sculptures. Her interpretation is novel and I know there are naysayers, but I found it consistent and compelling. The usual interpretation sees the Parthenon and the annual Panathenaic procession as the way Athens venerated its protecting deity, Athena; Connelly has a different approach. She writes about the mythological basis of the Parthenon sculptures, the way they provided a visual record of the founding myths of Athens and reinforced ideas of Athenian democracy, including sacrifice for country. Her interpretation of the friezes and metopes tells a very powerful story, one that would have resonated for Athenians, for whom myth and history were intertwined. After reading this book, walking up to the Acropolis following the ancient route of the Panathenaic procession, was a thrilling experience.

A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
by Patrick Leigh Fermor. New York Review of Books, 2005.
Here’s a link to my review of this travel memoir from earlier this year. Leigh Fermor was a great prose stylist and one of the best travel writers.

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. Random House, 2014.
Definitely the best book cover of the year, but it’s far more than a pretty face. Taibbi’s a great guide through our turbulent and hypocritical times, puncturing holes in what we think we know just because we read the newspapers. I’ve just started reading this and it’s very upsetting–what a friend used to call “a 20 minute burn” book. You read for 20 minutes then stop to let the steam out of your ears.  His opening story about the prosecution of the employees of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown (according to Taibbi the only bank to be indicted for mortgage fraud), and how the employees were brought to court in chains, is only the beginning of his scathing attack on our financial and justice systems and politicians of all stripes. It’s pretty scary stuff but necessary.

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