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2014's Best Books: War, Capitalism and Wonder Woman

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Here is my selection of the 10 best nonfiction books of 2014, listed alphabetically by author.

  1. Edward E. Baptist, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”: In this assiduously researched and tightly argued volume, Baptist gives us what is by far the finest account of the deep interplay of the slave trade (especially within the nation’s borders) and the development of the U.S. economy.

  2. James Booth, “Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love”: Although this admiring and eminently readable biography does not entirely rehabilitate the great poet’s stained reputation, it presents a compelling portrait of a complex and perhaps misunderstood genius.

  3. Harold Holzer, “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion”: A leading chronicler of Lincoln’s career lays out in colorful detail how our greatest president used and abused the newspapers of the day, and offers rich and chilling tales of the many editors persecuted for their anti-war views during Lincoln’s administration.

  4. Jill Lepore, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman”: Set powerfully against the history of 20th-century feminism, the stories of both the famous superheroine’s creation and her creator are fabulous, and heretofore not deeply explored.

  5. Ian Leslie, “Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It”: As we become more ends-driven and lose the thirst for knowledge for its own sake, says the author of this splendid if uneven polemic, we put at risk many of the qualities on which civilization is built. Yes, the Internet is his principal villain.

  6. George Marsden, “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief”: In this short, tragic intellectual history of the U.S. in the years after World War II, the author locates the roots of the split between well-educated elites and the masses that endures to this day.

  7. Ian Morris, “War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots”: Although reviewers have pointed to the occasional historical error, Morris offers a challenging and persuasive tour de horizon for those who suppose that war has always and everywhere retarded social progress.

  8. Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”: Yes, critics have scored telling points against his use of data, and parts of the argument are dramatically overstated, but the fundamental theme on the differences between returns to capital and returns to labor is one that Piketty has brought, quite properly, to the center of policy discussions.

  9. Adam Tooze, “The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931”: This sprawling, comprehensive book may prove a little dense for casual readers, but for anyone with a serious interest in history -- including how the world became what it is today -- this volume is absolutely indispensable reading.

  10. The New Yorker, “The 40s: The Story of a Decade”: Ordinarily I would never recommend this sort of nostalgic collection, but the essayists whose wonderfully crafted prose appeared in the magazine during that remarkable era (A.J. Liebling on the fall of France! Rebecca West on the Nuremberg trials! E. B. White on democracy!) were a magnificent lot, and are presented here in top form.

(Note: With the exception of Piketty’s tome, which I read on Kindle, I read all of these books in hardcover. I mention this because of recent discussions of whether we experience and evaluate books differently depending on how we consume them.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net