Many things were published in 2014—things we liked; things we hated; things we didn't understand. And since it's that time of year where we shame you for reading all the wrong things, we've collected our favorite books, essays, short stories, lists, and blog posts into one place. We've also included selections from years past that caught our attention in 2014. Enjoy.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals) In a year writhing with slippery, oblique narratives (the earlier, good half of True Detective, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370), the first entry in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy was the most disorienting. VanderMeer's Area X, a Bermuda Triangle-like area of land, is beyond even its explorer protagonist's understanding—is she looking at a tunnel or a tower? That's how you write an unreliable narrator, 2014 style.
Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz (Little, Brown and Company) A heaping serving of gossip that I devoured earlier this year. Ritz, who co-wrote Franklin's notoriously underwhelming 1999 memoir From These Roots, took the legend's life into his own hands with his unauthorizedRespect. I couldn't stop reading it, talking bout it (to whomever would listen), going back over parts of Franklin's career that I had missed, and marveling over the incredible humanity (and deep shade) of this musical genius.
"The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit" by Michael Finkel in GQ This is just a great story. How often do you read a story about a hermit? I didn't even know there were still hermits, but apparently there was at least one left.
"The American Room" by Paul Ford on Medium This is terrific analysis. Paul Ford is a genius. It's really hard to write a lot of words describing something that seems simple (the backdrops of YouTube videos) in all its complexity without sounding like a total dipshit and bore. But Paul Ford always does it.
"King of the Click: The Story of the Greatest Keyboard Ever Made" by Adi Robertson for The Verge Very good design writing. It's an article about a keyboard that's not boring, but in fact very charming. That's not easy to do!
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (Scribner) This is a really extraordinary book if you are interested at all in humanity and the continuation of it. Solomon is a patient and sensitive reporter, unlike most of the egotistical hacks working today, and this study of families and children and resilience and adaptation is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. I cried a bit in places and I typically have very few feelings.
This old interview with Gloria Steinem in The Guardian, especially this part: "Did men's attitudes to her change after she became a feminist? Were relationships more difficult? 'No, on the contrary. It attracted people. It's much worse if you're pretending [not to be a feminist]; then you attract the wrong person. At New York magazine, I was the only woman, and after I wrote the abortion article, my [male] friends there said to me: 'Don't get involved with these crazy women. You've worked hard to be taken seriously.' And I thought: they haven't a clue who I am, and it's my fault because I never told them.'"
Hunts in Dreams and Pacific by Tom Drury (Houghton Mifflin) Last year, I picked Drury's The End of Vandalism—the first book of his Grouse County trilogy—as one of the best things I read. Hunts in Dreams and Pacific, the second and third books in the trilogy, are as hilarious, strange, and wonderful as the first.
"The Trials of White Boy Rick" by Evan Hughes on The Atavist Hughes's fascinating and disturbing account of the rise and fall of White Boy Rick, one of Detroit's most infamous drug dealers in the late 1980s, was the best true crime story I read this year.
Anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Stacia L. Brown, Rachel Kaazdi Ghansah, and Jelani Cobb I devoured instantly. They are, and remain, a joy to read: brave, compassionate, unsparingly curious, and dense (but never overly bloated)—everything great writing should aspire to be. The two books I couldn't quite shake this year were White Girls by Hilton Als and We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. But there are four particular stories that haunt me, even now. Together they form an unsettling portrait of contemporary America. I could never do them justice, so I'll present them here, without comment, for your consideration.
10:04 by Ben Lerner (Faber & Faber) It's possible that lots of people have already told you to read Ben Lerner's wonderful second novel, and that is because you should. It's crazy that you haven't yet.
"Amazing Proposal Stories" by Simon Rich in The New Yorker Simon Rich is a brilliant and envy-inducing humor writer who looks so young it's crazy. He has a baby's face and a genius's brain. This is a very funny thing he wrote.
"5 Iconic Movie Scenes That Were Actually Fake" on ClickHole ClickHole is the best website on the Internet and this is the first ClickHole piece that I read in ClickHole's debut year, 2014. For that fact, it will always hold a special place in my heart, until I forget about it. It is perfect.
The Penguin Book of Witches edited by Katherine Howe (Penguin Classics) People have never been as interested to hear about a book I was reading as they were when I spent a few weeks in October carrying around The Penguin Book of Witches. The text is a collection of primary source documents culled by Katherine Howe from hundreds of years of alleged witchcraft in England and America. When I started the book, the sections I was most eager to read were the ones containing court documents from American witch trials, but ultimately the account I find myself thinking of most often is a short news story about a Philadelphia widow who was beaten and stabbed in the street on suspicion of being a witch. In 1787! Ben Franklin was alive and you could still be publicly stoned to death in Philly for being a witch. Crazy. This book is a good gift to give to single women you know.
"Do you know a girl scout?" by Julia Alvidrez via email When Gawker HQ received this email on February 4th, 2014 from then-operations manager Julia Alvidrez, I liked it so much that I immediately added it to a Google Doc just so I could remember to include it in an end-of-the-year "Best Reads" round-up. The obvious choice for best line is Julia's surprising account of what happened when she tried to phone the Girl Scout council local to the Gawker Office, but something about the ominous phrase "If we get a girl in here…" makes me laugh every time.
Subject: Do you know a girl scout?
Do you know anyone selling girl scout cookies? A lot of people in this office like them. If we get a girl in here we can order easily and help send her to space camp or whatever. If you know someone, put me in touch. I tried to do this last year but someone yelled PENIS when I called the local headquarters and they never called me back.
"The Man in the Woods" by Shirley Jackson in The New Yorker Many of the best things I've read this year—Rachel Kushner's two thrilling novels; Lydia Davis' short fiction; Beloved, finally—weren't published this year, and while racking my brain to remember something that was, I remembered a short story I'd read in the spring about a cabin in the woods and the strange people who live there. It was murky and surreal, and a little frightening, and though I've thought about it periodically in the months since then I still haven't gotten to the center. After searching through the New Yorker's fiction archives, I realized that while "The Man in the Woods" was first published in 2014, it too was written earlier—by the late master of horror Shirley Jackson, and uncovered by her children amid her papers at the Library of Congress.
"Miss American Dream" by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on Matter Taffy Brodesser-Akner set a new gold standard for celebrity profile write-arounds this year (see also: her piece on Nicki Minaj in GQ), my favorite being her month-long stay in Vegas to ruminate on Britney Spears' residency at Planet Hollywood. Not a single quote from Britney herself, but I feel I like I learned something new about her anyway.
"The Real Problem When It Comes to Diversity and Asian-Americans" by Jack Linshi in TIME I hate the headline. But that's not Linshi's fault, and his underlying argument, that Asians have been whitewashed in the battle for greater workplace diversity, holds true.
Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin Press) Most war literature is shitty because it's pedantic: It's either a jingoistic triumphal romp in which every soldier is a hero, or it's a maudlin bender of horrors in which every soldier is painted as a demon or victim. Phil Klay, a professional writer who served as a Marine in Iraq, managed to create a sheaf of archetypal war stories without falling into the usual cliches. Post-traumatic stress, hyper vigilance, moral conundrums, isolation, civil-military disconnect: They are all here, and they are thoroughly relatable, as are the reasonably complex characters. No wonder this collection earned Klay a National Book Award.
The Pigeon Needs a Bath! by Mo Willems (Disney-Hyperion) The striking art and cheeky humor of Mo Willems' pigeon series tickle parents as much as kids. The Pigeon Needs a Bath! is like drinking an orange cream soda through a crazy straw in a bubble bath while watching a Wes Anderson-produced cartoon: You may not admit it to anyone at work, but you fucking enjoyed the hell out of it. It's no Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, but few things in life are.
Why Does The World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright) This was the best book I read this year. Spoiler alert: he does not determine why the world, in fact, exists. But he does present a good overview most of history's philosophical and scientific ideas about why the world exists. Good material to contemplate, and bore people with.
Low Life by Luc Sante (Farrar Strauss & Giroux) I re-read Low Life this year. It's one of the best books on NYC and/or old-timey gangsters ever written. It takes you back to the time when New York City was cool—the late 1800s.
"The Case For Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic The paradox of black history in America is that it doesn't really exist, separably. Black history is accurate American history, accounting for the defining foundational facts of slavery and white supremacy. What it stands apart from is the strange collection of mythology, denial, and lies that white people have told themselves down through the years. So it took most of a century for W.E.B. Du Bois' straightforward analysis of the undoing of Reconstruction to supplant the untruths and nonsense put forward by racist academics like Woodrow Wilson.
And so Ta-Neisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations" arrived this year in the guise of a provocation, its title offering to promote a thoroughly marginalized policy proposal. Instead—but not instead—what the essay did was to synthesize and explain the facts of the American experience: how this nation was built on the wealth made possible by mass slavery, and how public policy from Emancipation through the present day conspired to keep the fruits of that unrecompensed labor from ever reaching black Americans. "If cotton was selling for 50 cents a pound, the Ross family might get 15 cents, or only five." The case for reparations was simply the story of America, honestly told and fairly weighed.
Months later, the heavily armed and overwhelmingly white police of Ferguson, Missouri, unleashed gas and rubber bullets on the poor and overwhelmingly black protesters there. Here was a broken and unequal society. Here were people living under laws that routinely robbed them and forced them deeper into poverty. Coates' seemingly quixotic project had taken on the power of prophecy.
"A Birth Story" by Meaghan O'Connell on Longreads Volumes and volumes of words have been written about childbirth. Nearly all of them are useless, when the event comes. Their effect is to bury the most agonizing and personal of experiences under layers of politics, platitudes, and aspirational falsehoods—a suffocating mass of judgments and expectations. Meaghan O'Connell gave birth, and it did not fit those expectations, and she wrote about it with horrifying and hilarious truthfulness:
I wanted the c-section so badly. I wanted it like you want a glass of water at a stranger's house, but you still feel like you should demur. I wanted it the way I wanted someone to stick a finger in my butt during sex, but would never ask for. I was thinking like a woman. I was in the most essentially oppressed, essentially female situation I've ever been in and I was mentally oppressing myself on top of it.
Her essay should be mandatory reading at every childbirth-preparation class, and in a better world it would replace most of the existing mandatory reading.
"Faith-Based Diplomacy" by Nathan Thrall on Matter Nathan Thrall is one of the few writers out there who can explain the situation in Israel with patience and clarity. Besides illuminating the various actors and ideologies attempting to shape the future of the region, this essay serves as a capstone to Thrall's immensely useful commentary of the bloodshed in Gaza over the summer.
"Get Off the Bus" by Rebecca Solnit in the London Review of Books Solnit is one of the great anthropologists of late-capitalist San Francisco, and this essay is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the forces transforming the city.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt and Co.) I think we were all supposed to read this like, two years ago, but Ross Douthat wrote a column about it that gave me shivers so I ignored it. I finally cracked it this summer, and sheesh! Very good and depressing book. If you also somehow missed the boat on this one, don't worry, the references are still current.
The @AstrologyZone Twitter account Astrologist Susan Miller has been late posting her horoscopes nearly every month this year due to some mysterious illness. The more she tweets about it, the less I understand what's ailing her, but now I obsessively follow every update trying to piece it together. Her tweets are even more beautiful than her 'scopes.
"Get Out of Jail, Inc." by Sarah Stillman in The New Yorker Sarah Stillman's New Yorker coverage of the tyranny of the American justice system might be contemporary journalism's most vital reporting. Her June story on the for-profit parole industry, which needlessly and amorally traps some of our most vulnerable citizens in a hellish cycle of income extraction, is simply enraging.
"Jerry Football" by Don Van Natta Jr. on ESPN.com ESPN wizard Don Van Natta Jr. somehow talked his way into unprecedented access with Jerry Jones, the pussyhound owner of the Dallas Cowboys whose burning desire to prove his football expertise by winning a Super Bowl without any help is matched only by his incompetence as an evaluator of the sport. This piece has a number of moments so good that it could have ended perfectly like eight different times.
"How Young Thug Got Trapped By A $15,000 Advance From A Major Label" by Naomi Zeichner on BuzzFeed The rap industry is crumbling, and it has infected talent and executives alike with a sort of desperation. The pool of money at the top is shrinking, which means labels are looking to use the hottest unsigned rappers of the moment as lottery tickets, while artists are taking cash upfront from those labels and others even if it means locking themselves into situations disadvantageous to the longterm health of their finances and music. No one better exemplifies this broken system than Young Thug, who suddenly became one of America's most ubiquitous rappers this year even though something like five different labels thought they owned (or would own) the rights to his solo material. The story was broken by then-BuzzFeed music editor Naomi Zeichner in this exhaustive piece, which for my money is the best pop music reporting of 2014.
"Jaden and Willow Smith on Prana Energy, Time and Why School is Overrated" by Su Wu in T Magazine I made fun of this on our website but it's truly one of the most electric and compelling celebrity interviews in years. Much of what Jaden and Willow say here is nonsense that will embarrass them at some later point in life, but it's fascinating how resolutely off in their own world they are. It's going to be a blast watching these two grow up and I hope they eventually take over America. In the meantime, listen to their albums, which are dope.
"Memoirs of a Non-Prom Queen" by Ellen Willis in The Cut (excerpted from The Essential Ellen Willis) I spent an unfortunate amount of time this fall mired in arguments with people who seemed to understand all social interaction, through a lens borrowed from John Hughes, as a power struggle between "jocks" and "nerds." Willis' "Memoirs of a Non-Prom Queen," republished this year in The Essential Ellen Willis, was the essential corrective, a clear and stinging application of hydrogen peroxide to the infected self-mythologies of high-school victimhood. Originally written in 1976, it still managed to be the best essay I read about the pathologies at the heart of Gamergate; I have never encountered anything better or more accurate about being unpopular as a teenager.
Jelani Cobb on Ferguson for The New Yorker Jelani Cobb's writing about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the failure of the state to hold his killer accountable, was everything that great writing should be: sharply intelligent, historically conscious, rigorous, reported, experiential. It moved easily from the actual streets of Ferguson, where Cobb witnessed the civil uprising that took to the city's streets to demand justice, to the long road of black oppression and emancipation along which Brown's death was another marker. And it was vulnerable in a way journalism is not often allowed to be—aware of its power on its author as much as on its audience. It would be hard to choose a single dispatch out of the dozen or so that Cobb wrote since August, but if I had to I'd recommend "Between the World and Ferguson."
John Herrman on Content for The Awl If you want to know what it's like to write on (for?) the internet in the Epoch of Facebook, and you've already read the Book of Job and most Kafka stories, the Awl's "Content Wars" series contains the essential data points. Facebook is quickly and terrifyingly reshaping the way humans write and read—they way they live their lives entirely, really—and Herrman is the only person writing about it with any clear sense of the maddeningly arbitrary way we are all being consumed into its systems.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]