This is not another best books list. Rather, these are a few of the books published in 2014 that Quartz’s staff have read and enjoyed. There’s no theme to our choices, except that in aggregate they capture the eclectic interests of a broad swath of our team of reporters and editors. And they would all make for good holiday reading. So, without further ado…
In Age of Ambition, this year’s National Book Award winner in nonfiction, Evan Osnos moves past these top-down tropes to tell the stories of individual aspirations as diverse as any country of 1.3 billion would have to be. There is Li Yang, who hopes to further the cause of Chinese nationalism by teaching English learners to shout at the top of their lungs. And Cheung Yan, the “Queen of Trash,” who cast off her stodgy revolutionary given name and made a fortune by recycling American waste. To name just two.
Osnos is an excellent writer, but what sets the book apart is the strength of his reporting. He appears to have spent all eight of his years in China talking at length to any interesting person he could find. Age of Ambition is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand from afar what “the China dream” means to China’s dreamers.
—Nikhil Sonnad, Things Reporter
Bad Feminist: Essays
By Roxane Gay
2014 has been quite a year for public displays of feminism, and yet there are always high profile critiques whenever someone famous makes a statement. And that’s OK, because women make up half the world, and we’re allowed to disagree sometimes. That’s what Roxane Gay’s book of essays does—she makes it OK to be a woman with conflicting emotions about issues that are about women but affect everyone.
Gay recognizes that some of Kanye West’s music is incredible, but a lot is misogynistic and completely degrades women. She listens to both, it seems. Does that make her a “bad feminist,” or negate all her other work and beliefs? The answer is no, it does not. I love a few things about this book—most of all, that I can make it last. I’m still not all the way through; every week I’ll read another essay or three, and on every page there’s at least one thing that’s so identifiable—not necessarily on an academic, idealistic level, but on the level of being a regular woman trying to navigate the world and its conflicts. She is funny and snarky—but also uses personal experience and things that everyone knows about—to reveal how entrenched different forms of gender bias are, and how she deals with it all.
More than anything else, Bad Feminist removes the barrier of entry for feminism; you don’t need to be perfect, just aware. So men, especially: don’t be afraid of the pink typeface—pick up this book.
–Sonali Kohli, education reporter
It’s always fun to read something that makes your jaw drop—and I recall being slack-jawed for several minutes while reading an article of Nestor’s in Outside Magazine in 2012, incidentally titled “Open Your Mouth and You’re Dead,” about competitive freediving.
Freediving, the act of submerging oneself as far underwater as possible on a single breath, is objectively dangerous and clearly insane. To make a sport of it seems reckless. Nestor acknowledged this in his dispatch from the World Freediving Championships, where over a hundred athletes took turns diving 100, 200, 300 feet below the Mediterranean Sea, sometimes losing consciousness during their descents, sometimes seizing or nosebleeding upon resurfacing. Nestor also decided he wanted to learn how to do it himself.
That’s how Deep starts, picking up where the Outside piece left off as Nestor travels around the world and under the sea to find out just how capable a set of human lungs can be. It’s a beautiful journey, one in which Nestor learns how to flip the “Master Switch,” comes face-to-face with whales, and discovers that we are more amphibious than we seem. It’s kind of like Born to Run for aquaphiles. It also eliminates any doubt over whether the ocean is more interesting than outer space.
—Svati Narula, general assignment reporter
By Akhil Sharma
At the outset, I knew it would be really really hard for Akhil Sharma to top The Obedient Father—one of my favorite books of all time, and a must-read for anyone trying to understand India. And as I turned the last page of Family Life, the quickest read of my year, my initial thought was that it indeed was not as good.
And then it haunted me for days. Just like Sharma’s first novel.
Family Life tells the story of how a drowning accident upends the worlds of a recently arrived family from India. The book revolves around a dramatic moment but it is memorable (and haunting) for its universality. This is family dysfunction that is recognizable the world over. You smell the stench of urine on the sheets as Birju, the brother, lays in a vegetative state. You smell the alcohol on the father’s breath as he struggles to cope with what has been lost. You feel the bumbling loss of virginity as young Ajay struggles to find his place in high school, sexuality, the world. Masterfully, Sharma renders the story simply, his prose and voice changing as the young boy grows into a man. I am giving nothing away by saying there is no resolution—mere acceptance of the madness and love that will always be family.
—S. Mitra Kalita, Executive Editor at Large
GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History
By Diane Coyle
Economic growth is a massive obsession for watchers of the world’s economies, and most arguments about it hang their hats on gross domestic product. It’s a weird bit of jargon that measures huge amounts of information from countless inputs and tries to boil it down to a couple digits and a decimal point.
Diane Coyle pushes back against such essentialism with her history of GDP as a yardstick, the things it incorporates, and the shifts thereof. She reminds the reader that governments around the world estimate the size of their economies very differently, with today’s sleeper able to transform overnight into a dynamo with just a few tweaks in how it measures certain tidbits.
Her book is a quick and easy read that serves to rightfully rattle your assumptions about this all-important statistic and its underpinnings.
—Melvin Backman, finance reporter
Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?
By Karen Dawisha
Perhaps no single national leader from any country has received more constant infamy than Russia’s Vladimir Putin. That was even before he invaded Ukraine, began to buzz his neighbors with Russian military jets, and whipped up his country into an anti-Western fury.
Karen Dawisha gives us more grist for suspicion with a comprehensive account of the birth of the commercial dimension of Putinism in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Putinism is a business, and its actors the principal players in the Russian economy—their capture of power is no mistake, Dawisha argues—but a long, scripted action intended to retake power lost when the Soviet Union broke up. Dawisha’s original publisher, Cambridge University Press, canceled the book rather than face a potential libel suit from Moscow. It was then picked up by Simon & Shuster, and this book—a must-read to understand Russia—is the fine result.
—Steve LeVine, Washington Correspondent
General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was complicated: an awkward science professor whose moral rectitude encompassed education for blacks, but not freedom, he fought ruthlessly for the Confederacy. Initially ignored by his superiors, Jackson won stunning early victories with innovative tactics, and for a time was the most famous and feared general in America. His death from friendly fire well before the end of the Civil War helped popularize the “lost cause” theme of the South’s coming defeat. Gwynne uses Jackson’s letters to show how he ignored the abhorrence of slavery, perhaps to better rationalize his defense of Southern freedom before his strict yet malleable God.
Gwynne, a Texas journalist with an enveloping style, also wrote one of my favorite books of 2010, Empire of the Summer Moon, about Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche nation. Unorthodox battles during the early days of the American Indian Wars won the Comanches many improbable victories against superior Union firepower and technology. Sound familiar?
—Paul Smalera, Ideas Editor
Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games
By Michael Weinreb
If you are interested in sports, history, America or any combination of those, this book is well worth reading. Weinreb, a frequent contributor to Grantland and Rolling Stone, muses on the fascinating, strange and at times scandalous history of the activity that arguably reflects the true character of America more than any other: the notionally amateur yet highly commercial activity of college football. The book is a collection of 14 essays inspired by some of the most iconic and important games that have taken place since colleges began playing each other in 1869 in New Jersey. It is also a timely read. On New Year’s Day, college football will hold the first ever formal playoff in its long and controversial history.
—John McDuling, corporate reporter, huge sports fan
The Empathy Exams
By Leslie Jamison
While much of this year’s economic discourse looked at inequality, conversations were frequently punctuated with exclamations to “check your privilege.” Leslie Jamison does justice to the practice in her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, with the kind of introspection too often missing from today’s first-person discussions of race, class, and social issues. Whether working as a medical actor to help train doctors or taking a gang tour through LA, Jamison never lets herself off the hook, questioning her own motives and right to examine her subjects. She writes with a mix of the confessional, literary and cultural criticism, and journalistic exploration. In the process, she reminds us that even our humanity isn’t pure, which is a brand of honesty lacking from the cacophony of round the clock commentary. Her fresh voice and approach did not go unnoticed: Jamison landed a seven-figure, two-book deal with Little, Brown for similar works of non-fiction.
—Lauren Brown, Special Projects Editor
As the internet inveigles itself into our day to day lives, it also raises questions about how we are being transformed. Some of the most influential books on this subject are also the ones that come from a place of anxiety. These include The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, which explores whether the internet is making us stupid, and The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, which argues that the internet is narrowing rather than broadening our horizons.
This year, a new voice joined the (admittedly small) section of the canon reserved for those who fret about the ’net. In The End of Absence, Michael Harris, a Canadian writer, tries to remember life before the internet. The central conceit is this: “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After.” Harris offers no remedies nor prescriptions, but he does offer a new way to think, and that is simply to think about how we conduct ourselves and why we make the choices we make. Nobody forces people to carry their smartphones around all day. Like everything else, the internet—or the extent to which we become encumbered in it—is a choice. As Harris writes, “technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come.”
—Leo Mirani, technology reporter
The Future, Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action
By Mathew Burrows
No one predicted the Arab Spring, the shale revolution, or the rise of a militant Islamic proto-state in the form of ISIS. Yet every day, we hear knowing geopolitical and financial forecasts from Wall Street banks, independent consultants and think tanks around the world. That’s because there appears to be a bottomless appetite for their fare—we hunger to know the future, especially before it happens.
For a decade, Mathew Burrows led this function at the US National Intelligence Council, a body that combines the opinions of America’s 17 spy agencies into the daily National Intelligence Estimate and a colossal annual outlook called the Global Trends Report. Burrows is a serious man with a wide-ranging base of knowledge from which he does not so much forecast specific outcomes, but identifies the principal drivers of events—then places those within the context of big history so that his audience can be prepared. This is an excellent introduction into how to think about future events.
—Steve LeVine, Washington Correspondent
By Andy Weir
Space is having a moment. From landing a probe on a comet, to the maiden voyage of the Orion spacecraft, to the commercial and critical success of films like Interstellar, 2014 marked an important year for space exploration. Which is why the timing of Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian is impeccable.
At some point in the near future, botanist-turned-astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the red planet, believing him to be dead. On the surface, The Martian is your classic castaway story: a man is marooned in a hostile, unforgiving place (which, in this case, is 140 million miles away from Earth) and must use his ingenuity to stay alive until rescue.
But The Martian is more than that. Weir, a programmer who self-published the book before it was picked up by Crown, scrupulously researched how Mars missions might actually occur, and the result pings of authenticity. And in Watney, Weir injects his own humor and imagination, the two traits that help the character persevere in a world that is indifferent to his existence. The Martian represents the very best of what science fiction can do—it’s an audacious yet accessible yarn that transports us to the petrifying desolation of space—in order to look inwards at what we’re made of, and why we choose to live.
—Adam Epstein, television and media reporter
By William Gibson
When you’ve been writing about the future long enough, the present catches up to it. That was what happened to William Gibson, the sci-fi grandmaster who popularized the term “cyberspace”—his last three books were about the present day, which, according to one profile, had “started seeming weirder than anything he could imagine.” Fans of true sci-fi, then, will love the fact that Gibson’s latest thriller is set not in the future, but in two of them—the first just around the corner, the second somewhere around the turn of the next century.
To say much more would be to give too much away; aside from his imaginative sweep, Gibson is also an expert at explaining as little as possible, doling out clues on a drip feed so that it’s not until well into the book that you fully understand how the world he’s constructed works. That, combined with the taut plot, makes the 500 pages race by—filled, in true Gibsonian style, with inventions and hypotheses that manage to be both bleakly dystopian and frighteningly plausible.
—Gideon Lichfield, Senior Editor
The Quality Cure: How Focusing on Health Care Quality Can Save Your Life and Lower Spending Too
By David Cutler
Too many treatments of American health care get bogged down in the politically improbable and the assumption that it’s irreparable, or don’t come to grips with the poorly understood and not fully implemented Affordable Care Act.
This extremely efficient (171 pages!) and admirably chart-filled book from Cutler—a health economist and advisor to President Obama on health care—avoids that. It manages to talk clearly about the central paradox of American health care—that the country spends more than anybody else to remarkably poor effect—and actually offers cogent solutions.
Cutler will never be mistaken for a novelist, but he’s an admirably clear and concise writer on a tough topic to explain well. There’s so much about health care in America that’s wrong and dumb and fixable. Waste and bad treatment and deaths result from inertia, terrible incentives, and bad information. These issues have been largely solved at smaller scales through better IT, payment reform, and intense focus on quality of care. The lesson at the end of the day—it’s a tough problem, but a solvable one.
–Max Nisen, management reporter
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
By Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
If the first machine age—the steam engine, electricity, and the internal combustion engine—provided the foundation on which our modern world is built, the second machine age has ushered in an era that will be similarly transformational.
The rise of the clever machine wrought by the exponential growth in computing power—write the MIT collaborators—has reached an inflection point. Think Google’s self-driving cars, or IBM’s Watson supercomputer that will soon outperform doctors in diagnosis. And as the machine takes on what were once considered uniquely human tasks, it hollows out the middle ground, amplifying the polarization between the richly compensated and the low-paid—and creating today’s winner-takes-all economy.
In the second part of their book, the authors offer some prescriptions for the resulting economic and social upheaval—ranging from better and cheaper higher education to more infrastructure investment, and a rethink of the tax system. (Cue: Thomas Piketty.)
At its core, Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s book has an optimistic message, for the recombinant power of digitization opens up innovation more widely than ever seemed possible. New technologies will eventually create better, more rewarding jobs. But wealth and jobs for who, exactly, is a question the rest of us will have to answer.
–Xana Antunes, Editor for New Initiatives
If 2013 was the year the world learned of Edward Snowden, then 2014 was his coronation. As more leaks poured across the pages of leading dailies around the world and reformists grew in prominence within the US Congress, Snowden appeared in interviews, at talks and accepted awards: nearly all via webcam from Moscow. Still, to outside observers not following the 24-hour news cycle, the overarching question of why he did it—and how he came to a place where it was worth everything in his life to do it—was left unanswered.
The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding, a former Russia correspondent for The Guardian, gives readers the answers they are searching for. Written as a thriller, it’s a page turner that does it best to understand Snowden and the forces—the NSA and GCHQ (its British equivalent)—that seek to destroy him.
Using an extensive record of Snowden’s messages in online chatrooms, where he posted under “TheTrueHOOHAA” for over a decade, Harding reveals a devout civil libertarian whose views on national security evolved from first despising whistleblowers to later becoming the world’s most famous one. The Snowden Files presents the story behind the story.—Daniel A. Medina, general assignment reporter
The 13th Labour of Hercules: Inside the Greek Crisis
By Yannis Palaiologos
Much of the analysis of Greece’s economic collapse is preoccupied with debt-to-GDP ratios, current account balances, and other somewhat abstract concepts. But it is, first and foremost, a human drama.
Palaiologos, a newspaper journalist in Athens, explains the origins of the crisis, and what it means to Greeks today, through an eye-opening series of vignettes that reveal “years of myopia, corrupted ideals and sheer, breathtaking incompetence.” Reporting from up and down the country—hospitals, garbage dumps, power plants—these stories show what it was, and is, like to live in a place where “the glories of its ancient past cohabit awkwardly with the sins of its debauched present.”
And for all of the baroque corruption and boundless fecklessness of many of the characters he encounters, Palaiologos manages to find signs of hope—however faint—amid the wreckage in this “rich, spoilt, talent-filled, violence-prone, proud, conspiracy-minded, dangerously atomized, stunningly beautiful country on the edge of the European continent.”
—Jason Karaian, Senior Europe Correspondent
Women in Clothes
By Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton & 639 others
Fashion can be punishing to follow, and harder to love. Clothes, however, are another matter. If fashion is like a fancy restaurant, clothes are like food: a human necessity, no matter how you serve it. And like a comforting family recipe or a Proustian madeleine, clothes can communicate what isn’t said aloud—whether across cultures, generations, or just across a room. It is this sort of richly intimate, clothing-inspired communication and interaction that’s explored in Women in Clothes’ 500-plus pages.
Unlike many books about style and fashion, this one doesn’t cast judgment and it isn’t prescriptive. The editors tapped their own stylish, literary circles (the likes of Kim Gordon, Lena Dunham, Roxane Gay, and Rachel Kushner are represented) and crowd-sourced online—hence the “639 others” credited as authors—for essays, conversations, surveys, and art projects about making, wearing, and observing clothes. The tone is confessional and compassionate—a highly enjoyable reminder that thinking about style need not be a shallow endeavor.
—Jenni Avins, lifestyle reporter