Why bother reading new books when there are too many great classics for one person to finish in a lifetime? Because people keep writing new classics. Zócalo’s top 10 nonfiction books of the year prove not only that there are worthy new subjects to tackle (the history of color, the rise of Soul Train) but also that offering a new take on a familiar subject (Beethoven, the fall of the Berlin Wall) can shake up the way you see a person, an idea, or a moment in history. Just as our articles and events strive to bring new perspectives to issues, problems, and stories that matter, our favorite books of 2014 will have you reconsidering everything from your morning cup of joe to your local library.
Murray Carpenter’s Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us exposes the truth about a drug many of us openly cop to being addicted to. Carpenter’s book is full of fun facts (in 2011, enough single serve K-Cup coffee pods were produced to circle the equator six times) and vivid tales of travel from Colombian coffee fields to Chinese factories.
Seth Davis’ Wooden: A Coach’s Life deconstructs a secular saint of sports and Los Angeles—the coach who led UCLA basketball to 10 championships in 12 years and launched a cottage industry of books and guidance on teamwork. But in Davis’ clear-eyed telling, John Wooden was very much a figure of our times, looking for every conceivable advantage in life and never letting his ideals stand in the way of winning.
Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: A Photographic Essay shows the great variety of American libraries—from the one in the middle of Death Valley National Park to the Mockingbird Branch Library in a strip mall in Abilene, Texas—and the heartbreaking decay that happens when we abandon them. A bonus: essays from some of America’s most famous writers (Barbara Kingsolver, Charles Simic, Amy Tan, to name a few) about what these book-filled temples have meant to them.
Victoria Finlay’s The Brilliant History of Color in Art is a global, historical journey into the origins and science of color. Ever wondered how the first color photograph was created? Where the Lascaux cave painters got their dyes? Or why we call small dots of digital color “pixels”? Finlay’s lucid stories are accompanied by gorgeously reprinted art from many of the greatest artists of all time.
Nelson George’s The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style shows how Don Cornelius, the founder and long-time host of Soul Train, built his empire—and defined cool for decades. George explores how a TV show became a cultural phenomenon, and guides readers through the iconic dances that moved from the California club scene to Saturday-night dance floors across America.
Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal is a riveting read about how the most urbane British spook of them all came to outsmart his own Queen and country, and their American allies, throughout the first half of the Cold War. MacIntryre provides a nuanced portrait of English wit, class distinctions, noblesse oblige toward the world, and, ultimately, of conflicting loyalties.
Joshua H. Nadel’s Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America was the right book for a year when so many of us took a month off to watch the World Cup in Brazil. Nadel explains why fútbol is more than just a game in Latin America: From Brazil’s “jogo bonito” to Argentina’s “la nuestra,” distinctive non-European styles of play were instrumental in creating distinctive national identities across the continent.
Miriam Pawel’s The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography is a page-turning, warts-and-all biography that, by revealing Chavez at his weirdest and worst, shows far better than previous hagiographies the extraordinary nature of his work, accomplishments, and rise to prominence. It also makes the case that the extreme effort and behavior required to make great change can be self-sabotaging; Chavez’s weaknesses and strengths were close relatives.
Mary Elise Sarotte’s The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall challenges our narrative of the Soviet Union’s collapse, 25 years after the Wall’s fall. Sarotte deftly balances individual human agency and contingency with larger political forces to show that the Berlin Wall coming down was neither inevitable nor the result of global power shifts alone.
Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph is both magisterial and personal, meticulous and conversational. Swafford brings the music and the man to life, and shows why we’re still in thrall to Beethoven’s art almost 200 years after his death. Yes, we did need another Beethoven biography.