The Best Nonfiction Books of 2014

The CIA’s love affair with Dr. Zhivago, a female Thoreau’s fight to save sea turtles, the Parthenon’s secrets, and a history of the office—it was a good year for truth.

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden BookPeter Finn & Petra Couveé (Pantheon

The biggest fans of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel, it turns out, were to be found at CIA headquarters in Langley. Finn and Couveé’s book details the cloak-and-dagger saga of how of how the CIA used the book as a propaganda tool against Russia.

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismEdward E. Baptist (Basic Books)

The book of the year burst on to the scene when The Economist was forced to retract a review that contended that “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” The real takeaway from this thoughtful, unsettling history: Baptist turns the long-accepted argument that slavery was economically inefficient on its head, and argues that it was an integral part of America’s economic rise.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp DavidLawrence Wright (Alfred A. Knopf)

For the past few decades, Americans have read about endless bouts of diplomacy and negotiations in the Middle East with little real resolution. Wright’s engrossing drama of the three men involved—Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Jimmy Carter—in the 1978 Camp David negotiations looks into one of the few major diplomatic achievements from that region in the past 50 years.

The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food BusinessChristopher Leonard (Simon & Schuster)

Leonard, the former agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press, exposes the lie that there is variety in the supermarket. This scorcher of a book shows how nearly all food comes from four companies, and how they have built a system similar to that in the early 1900s before the meat monopolies were destroyed.

The Parthenon EnigmaJoan Breton Connelly (Knopf)

After hundreds of years, do we still not really understand what the Parthenon was used for? For starters, it turns out that it may not be the big symbol for secular Athenian democracy we’d assumed it to be.

Cubed: A Secret History of the WorkplaceNikil Saval (Doubleday)

Who knew office culture could be so interesting? Saval’s examination of two centuries of office work shows how much has change, and yet how it still remains a bosses’ world.

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No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan EyesAnand Gopal (Metropolitan Books)

More than a decade has passed since the start of the Afghan war, and yet few people, inside or outside the government, are sure what to make of it. Gopal, a journalist who covered the war, gives a devastating account of how the conflict was astoundingly mishandled.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New ChinaEvan Osnos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Chinese world is headed for a crash, Osnos argues, fueled by the increasingly divergent aims of the controlling Communist Party and an increasingly individualized Chinese populace. Given the sophisticated level of insight he sheds on modern Chinese life, one feels almost sheepish calling Osnos’s book entertaining. But fun and insight are not always mutually exclusive, certainly not here.

Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland IslandWill Harlan (Grove Press)

Carol Ruckdeschel, a woman who can only be described as wild (she really will eat roadkill without batting an eye), has spent a good part of her unconventional life battling Carnegie heirs and the National Park Service to save Georgia’s Cumberland Island and the endangered sea turtles that lay their eggs on its beaches.

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS JeannetteHampton Sides (Doubleday)

Anything that could go wrong did go wrong for the crew of the Jeanette. Two years into an Arctic expedition, they were forced to abandon ship a thousand miles north of Siberia. In a history book with a thriller’s pace, Sides tells the terrifying tale of the crew’s attempt to make it back alive.