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  • Ken Ilgunas

The best books I read in 2014

I spent about the first quarter of 2014 researching books on the Great Plains—many of which were great, but few of which would interest the general public, and therefore don’t make this list (with the exception of Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner).

For the rest of 2014, I struggled to find a decent book. It used to be my policy to finish all books that I start, but with millions of books out there, why waste time on a book I clearly don’t like when I could be reading something better? My new policy: If a book doesn’t grab me by the first 30 pages, I move onto something else. I must have skimmed, started, or stopped well over 50 books this year (of many different varieties), and have read in full a great deal more than are present on this list. So the ones that make this list are special. If your tastes happen to align with mine, here are a few recommendations to hopefully save you a bit of the time it takes to find something worthwhile.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Perhaps my favorite book of all time. When I get disillusioned with what passes for style and storytelling nowadays, I reread Freedom to remind me that there are still true novelists out there. Franzen has a beautiful style—rich metaphors on every page, sparkling dialogue, gleaming insights. To me, Franzen has the elegance of the best 19th Century British writers (Eliot, Hardy, Austen), yet I favor Franzen because, unlike his predecessors, his concerns speak to my own as a youngish, 21st-Century male American who's concerned about the state of the world. I think what makes Franzen so readable is that it’s clear that he’s had fun writing this book. I imagine him, at his keyboard, when he’s thought of something funny to write, tilting his head back and letting out a hearty chuckle.

“A navigational beacon in Katz’s black Levi’s, a long-dormant transmitter buried by a more advanced civilization, was sparking back to life. Where he ought to have felt guilty, he instead was getting hard. Oh, the clairvoyance of the dick: it could see the future in a heartbeat, leaving the brain to play catch-up and find the necessary route from occluded present to preordained outcome.”

A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy

One of my interests is American mythology: how we got to be the way we are; why we believe the things we believe; how we came to define our own particular brand of American “freedom.” Purdy goes back to our nation’s founding and finds compelling insights into, say, why we deny climate change or buy into libertarianism. Purdy is a lovable guide: it strikes the reader that he has no “agenda” except to discover the plain truth of things. “Americans’ foremost secular creed is the belief that common sense, the heart’s impulse and the mind’s untrained judgment, solves all problems and removes all mysteries. This appealingly democratic idea has the price of honoring our habits and prejudices as self-evident truths, enabling us to hold together our radicalism and our conservatism without fully confronting either.”

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I’d read this once before, but I picked it up again because I’m writing a book about my own cross-country walk, and desired to re-familiarize myself with successful books on the subject. I read it in two days, and I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Bryson is lovable, despite being cranky and sometimes mean, partly because he’s so honest about it and partly because he’s quick to make fun of himself whenever he can. The dialogues with his hiking partner, Katz, are superb.

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.”

Energy of Slaves by Andrew Nikiforuk

Nikiforuk’s research is flabbergasting. He borrows from countless disciplines, taking us on an odyssey through our smoggy 21st Century world. We learn that food, obesity, social relationships, population, and (needless to say) the environment are all very much connected to our dependence on fossil fuels. Immensely readable, full of fascinating studies, philosophical theories, and jaw-dropping statistics. Should be required reading for our species. “‘It may be impossible to conceive a reorganization of society adequate for the removal of some admitted evil without destroying the social organization and civilization which depends on it.’ [writes Alfred North Whitehead] ‘An allied plea is that there is no known way of removing the evil without the introduction of worse evils of some other type.’ … Whitehead’s assessment wasn’t far off the mark. Mechanical slaves, powered first by coal and later by oil, effectively eliminated the need for widespread human slavery and serfdom.”

Stoner by John Williams

(Has nothing to do with pot or being stoned.) It’s about a young student’s journey into academe. It’s full of social awkwardness, painful shyness, stupid decisions, and absurd squabbles in academic departments. Stoner is a hero you want to root for, even if he’s far from heroic. I'm not sure if the book has a core message, but if it does, it's this: that society should endeavor to promote rich emotional lives within its citizens and that each and everyone of us ought to strive to “know thyself."

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart."

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Superb book on climate change, climate change denial, and the current state of the environmental movement. See my full review here.

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

It’s about a spell that’s cast over a suburban town that makes all the women not want to have sex with their men—and what results. It’s lighthearted like a Jon Franzen read, also poking a friendly finger into the gut of liberal suburban America. The plot of the book might sound like a crafty way for Wolitzer to condemn male sexuality and champion female empowerment, but it's actually quite fair to males. Wolitzer might agree: It’s a happier world when we’re all getting laid.

"Sexlessness had awakened some churlishness in him. Was this all it took in order to find a bad side of a man? Was it like depriving him of an essential nutrient?"

Gun, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

I had some trouble reading through Diamond’s Collapse, so I was reluctant to open his magnum opus, but have been nothing but pleasantly surprised. It’s a study of why Europeans dominated the world (in a nutshell: guns, germs, and steel), but at its heart it's about something much bigger: the dawn of civilization. "Twelve thousand years ago, everybody on earth was a hunter-gatherer; now almost all of us are farmers or else are fed by farmers. The spread of farming from those few sites of origin usually did not occur as a result of the hunter-gatherers' elsewhere adopting farming; hunter-gatherers tend to be conservative.... Instead, farming spread mainly through farmers' outbreeding hunters, developing more potent technology, and then killing the hunters or driving them off of all lands suitable for agriculture.” I had some trouble reading through Diamond’s Collapse, so I was reluctant to open his magnum opus, but have been nothing but pleasantly surprised. It’s a study of why Europeans dominated the world (in a nutshell: guns, germs, and steel), but at its heart it’s about something much bigger: the dawn of civilization. “Twelve thousand years ago, everybody on earth was a hunter-gatherer; now almost all of us are farmers or else are fed by farmers. The spread of farming from those few sites of origin usually did not occur as a result of the hunter-gatherers’ elsewhere adopting farming; hunter-gatherers tend to be conservative…. Instead, farming spread mainly through farmers’ outbreeding hunters, developing more potent technology, and then killing the hunters or driving them off of all lands suitable for agriculture.”

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Easily the most revolutionary book I’ve read all year. Has me seriously doubting the wisdom behind conventional marriage and permanent monogamy, which has always seemed to me like a cruel and ultimately unappealing punishment. Sex at Dawn validates those feelings with hard science and keen insights into our sexual evolutionary origins.

"Only by arriving at a more nuanced understanding of the nature of human sexuality will we learn to make smarter decisons about our long-term commitments. But this understanding requires us to face some uncomfortable facts."

Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner

I’ve read a lot of books on the Great Plains. This is by far the best. It’s an autobiography by Stegner about his youth on the Saskatchewan plains. His descriptions are beautiful and vivid, yet I most respect him for looking at his home and the people with a critical eye.

“Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses. You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.”

The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson is perhaps the greatest writer-scientist of them all. He's built his career on studying on something as tiny as ants, but he can't help himself for setting his sights on the big picture.

“Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will forever be unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. Human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible and fortunately so. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes Barnes does a superb job ensuring that a novel does what a good novel must do: to have a sense of mystery and tension on every page. One of my fascinations is with memory, the inadequacies of which are central to the plot.

"We live in time - it holds us and molds us - but I never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return."


In 2014, two friends published books. I can’t claim partiality, but they’re as worthy of this list as any other.

A sci-fi apocalypse novel set in the Appalachian Mountains, Fugue is one of the most heretical books I’ve read. David is especially talented with dialogue, specifically the Socratic dialogue between teacher and student. Unbeknownst to the reader, by the end you’ve consumed more than a fair share of history, theology, and physics lessons.

“[Men] have ancient instincts in a crowded world that’s much too far from nature. Oh, they can channel their male instincts into the competitiveness of sports, or the cut-throat corporate world, but those things are a poor substitute for the real thing—you know, a horse or even a boat underneath you, the wind in your face, the stars over your head, the thrill of hope, and danger, and promise. That’s what men were made for.”

You’ll probably never want to eat Spam again after reading about the ghastly treatment of the animal and the workers who butcher them in slaughterhouses across America. It’s The Jungle for the 21st Century. “I sat and watched as evidence of our national industry and know-how arrived by the truckload. Our whole history of conquering the West, industrializing agriculture, and turning hog slaughter into a ‘custom meat operation’ arrived… And, in that moment, an illness like PIN and all the other social ills brought on by Hormel in their quest for increased output seemed an inevitable by-product of an industry that has grown too large and gained too much momentum to ever stop or even slow down.”


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