The irrefutable best books of 2014, as determined by science*


It’s been a trying year here at Sorry Television. Sidetracked by work—and, let’s be honest, an endless procession of binge-worthy Netflix inventory—I am set to close out 2014 with a mere 32 books under my belt, near enough to bi-weekly that I should probably rebrand as You’re Welcome Television (subtitle: Reading Books Every So Often, Like When the Power Goes Out). I’m already planning redemptive 2015 reading goals (a book a day? a book an hour?) but for the time being I’ll have to accept mediocrity, and foist as much blame as possible on a shorter commute’s ability to stymie even the most dedicated bibliophile.

But I can claim a smidge of productivity this month, which is why I’m Indiana-Jonesing under the content door that is Christmas week to bring you The Irrefutable Best Books of 2014, a master list of this year’s greatest hits, as determined by 21 other “best of”s written by people who have actually read them. Let’s get into it.

In a bit of sheer serendipity, this year’s No. 1 book happens to be the only one I’ve read, in that I’m reading it right now: Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, which appeared on 11 out of the 21 lists surveyed. A gripping novel loosely centered on the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Kingston, Jamaica—which took place two days before a free concert meant to ease political and gang tensions—ABHOSK (or the 40% of it I’ve read so far) is truly stellar; I’m not surprised to see it on The List.

At No. 2 is Lila, the fourth novel from universally beloved author Marilynne Robinson. Years ago, I read and liked/disliked Robinson’s Gilead (which is beautifully written but didn’t resonate with me on an emotional level) and I think the shame of my disinterest—after all, Obama called Gilead one of his favorite books—has kept me away from Robinson ever since. Lila, which is the third book in a loose trilogy that begins with Gilead, seems to cover similar territory as its predecessors: After a hardscrabble upbringing, Lila marries a minister and must find a way to reconcile her past with his generous-but-judgmental Christian worldview. Whether or not I personally struggle with faith, I certainly appreciate that it’s a conflict central to modern times. I’m sure Robinson does it exquisite justice; 10 lists can’t be wrong.

The rest of this year’s crop is a mixed bag, a hodgepodge of styles and genres and subject matters. There’s The Sixth Extinction, a nonfiction “oh shit” moment whose tl;dr is everythingsdyingwerealldead. Just below T6E comes Phil Klay’s Redeployment, a timely collection of stories about soldiers on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan (which also won this year’s National Book Award for fiction). Two books by the inimitable Roxane Gay made the list—her novel, An Untamed State, and essay collection, Bad Feminist,. There’s also Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, a quirky graphic memoir from Roz Chast, and On Immunity: An Innoculation, Eula Bliss’s rebuttal to the idea that something controversial (in this case, the anti-vaccine movement) can’t be discussed without name-calling.

Here are the Irrefutable Top 21—books that showed up on at least 5 lists.
Happy reading, nerds.
(PS: Mom, don’t buy any of these until after Christmas!)

A Brief History of Seven KillingsMarlon James11BuzzFeed
LilaMarilynne Robinson10NPR
The Empathy ExamsLeslie Jamison10Library Journal
Station ElevenEmily St. John Mandel9The Washington Post
The Sixth ExtinctionElizabeth Kolbert9Time Out
RedeploymentPhil Klay8Publishers Weekly
The Bone ClocksDavid Mitchell8New York Times
Bad FeministRoxane Gay7Vulture/New York
A Girl Is a Half-Formed ThingEimear McBride6Amazon
An Untamed StateRoxane Gay6Kirkus
Being MortalAtul Gawande6Wall Street Journal
EuphoriaLily King6TIME (fiction)
Those Who Leave and Those Who StayElena Ferrante6TIME (nonfiction)
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?Roz Chast5The AV Club
Dept. Of SpeculationJenny Offill5Business Insider
Everything I Never Told YouCeleste Ng5Slate
On ImmunityEula Biss5Flavorwire (novels)
The Paying GuestsSarah Waters5Flavorwire (nonfiction)
Thirteen Days in SeptemberLawrence Wright5Boston Globe
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsRandall Munroe5The Economist
Wolf in White VanJohn Darnielle5Newsweek

*aggregation, data entry, spreadsheets, coffee

115 thoughts on “The irrefutable best books of 2014, as determined by science*”

  1. Trust me, I won’t. I’m in the midst of a wonderful book: ‘All the Light We Cannot See.’ Actually reading something that’s won major awards. Next up, Matt Taibbii’s latest on income inequality. Then there’s the stack next to my bed that probably looks like yours ; )

  2. You are hilarious as well as extremely well-read (!) You will love Station 11. I’m a jillion years old and I couldn’t put it down. But neither could my daughter, who is probably more your Ballpark Age. (Hi, Kira’s Mom!) Anyway, your list gives me some great new material, so thank you. And if you do enjoy Station 11 as much as I think you will, give ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ a try. Amazing Michel Faber. I read it all at one go, it’s that addictive.

  3. Station Eleven has been sitting on my reading list for far too long. Thanks for reminding me to bump it up. 😉

  4. It is a shame I do not know a single book from your list. This is mainly due to the fact I was reading Song of Fire and Ice books for many months. I also went through Palahniuk’s Lullaby, or The Stranger by Camus. I was lucky and attended the Festival of Authors in Toronto, where I bought so many books that I’m still ashamed by not opening them. Thanks for your list though, I will definitely check it out.

  5. So looking forward to reading the whole list 🙂 Thanks for posting!

  6. I loved Gilead even though I had a difficult time relating to the speaker. I found it very moving, and I’m not religious.

  7. I believe that I am a good reader until when I enter a library or read notes from people like you. Then I get confirmed that I am an illiterate. Nice to see your blog. I would like to follow them.
    I thought the “Road to Wigan Pier” is good reading. Thanks for recommending Phil klay’s “Re-Deployment”.

  8. I am looking forward to Redeployment, On Immunity, and Being Mortal just as soon as those other people who go to the library get their grubby hands off of them. Nice overview.

  9. I just copied your list for my purse – so I can bring your suggestions with me when I escape this 25 below weather for some beach reading! thanks – I’ll read what you read – haha

    1. Nice! If you haven’t read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, I highly recommend it as a good beach read, or a good “sitting inside covered with blankets wishing I was at the beach” read.

  10. I too have been bad with reading books in 2014. I’m still caught up with The Goldfinch. I look forward to reading the David Mitchell and Sarah Waters books.
    Congratulations n being Freshly Pressed!

  11. As someone who considers themself a prolific reader I am ashamed to say I haven’t read any of these yet! However, I always tend to be a couple of years behind on books as I try to squeeze in as many classics as possible. I will be adding some of these to my neverending ‘to read’ pile, so thank you!

  12. Wow! Thank you for sharing this amazing list. May have to quit school so I can have free time to read. 😉

    Again, thank you,
    Anya N. Burnett

  13. Thanks for sharing the list. And are you serious about 32 books being mediocre? haha, that’s a good year for me when I have nice weather to lay out by the pool and read

    1. It’s a good run for a year, but considering the goal was 1/week, there’s def room for improvement!

  14. Gilead–I’ve been on the fence as to whether to read. I had heard so many good things but a quick scan–same as you–just was not resonating with me.

    1. Well the upside is it’s short. So maybe read that one to get a feel for her, and then decide about the rest.

  15. I see you are reading “Going Clear”. I read it early last year and I thought it was an extraordinarily good book on a somewhat taboo subject. Now I hear there is a documentary which I am anxious to see.

  16. Interesting list… would love to see a version with maybe the top 10 simply published in English language… would it change (not suggesting you do this – just a curiousity). A few added to my list but to be fair, I’d heard of few of these!

    Thanks for sharing

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