Forget all the fearmongering about the state of publishing and literature: 2014 has been a brilliant year of debut novels, genre-bending experimentation, thought-provoking nonfiction and superb NYC-inspired fiction. As a testament to the fervor and devotion of readers, St. Mark’s Bookshop found and opened a new East Village home, and dreamy French bookstore Albertine began business on the Upper East Side. And we’ve spent the year reading, and re-reading, just to cull down the books of 2014 to one list of the best, essential reads. From poetry and fairy tales to essays and speculative stories, these are the recent publications that caught our attention and still linger with us.
RECOMMENDED: Best of 2014
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press)It’s the 1970s in a small Ohio town, and Lydia, the Lee family’s beloved middle child, is dead. So begins Ng’s tender debut, a tried-and-true story of tragic loss tinged with familial guilt and tension. In utterly impeccable prose, the author unravels a story of long-hidden secrets and deftly shows how heartbreak can disintegrate the very notion of “home.”
Buy Everything I Never Told You
Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial)Gay—fiction writer, cultural-commentator extraordinaire and editor of the newly launched site The Butter—has had no shortage of success this year, but if we had to choose our favorite of her accomplishments, it’s this collection. With her signature wit and skill for cutting to the core of issues, Gay moves fluidly between topics ranging from abortion to "Sweet Valley High."
Buy Bad Feminist
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straux and Giroux)Like her readers, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Robinson sometimes misses her characters after finishing a book. So she goes back to them. In Lila, the novelist and essayist returns for the third time to Gilead, Iowa, to when Reverend John Ames meets his wife, Lila, and in doing so, she puts forth another quietly magnificent work filled with graceful contemplation of life.
Station Eleven: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)After years of wonderful but under-recognized work, Mandel’s talents come together in a burst of brilliance in this year’s apocalyptic novel. Weaving together moments of ordinary life before a population-destroying pandemic and after, as we follow a traveling Shakespeare troupe around North America, the author creates a warm page-turner about the strength and perseverance of humanity.
Buy Station Eleven
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press)Don’t let the title fool you: Biss’s expansive exploration of vaccination is anything but a cold, scientific study. Weaving together her in-depth research with mythology (Dracula is a pervasive theme), personal stories and more, the author turns the privileged act of disease inoculation into a moving metaphor for compassion.
Buy On Immunity
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio (Tin House)D’Ambrosio, a master essayist, has already developed a cult following and for good reason. Rather than assuming the role of an expert on the wide range of topics he covers, the author admits, willingly, that he often just doesn’t know. It’s a refreshing take that gives this collection of old and recent nonfiction pieces a uniquely comforting air of understanding.
The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf Press)What does it mean to feel, both physically and emotionally, and how can we better feel for others? Such grand questions Jamison handles with imitable thoughtfulness and care in her breakout, award-winning book, proving that—more than essay collections or debut novels—2014 has been the year of considering and practicing empathy.
Buy The Empathy Exams
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Coffee House Press)If all the awards weren’t enough of an indicator of its value, let us add our two cents: McBride’s debut presents what may have been an ordinary story—complicated family relationships, sexual awakening—in an utterly extraordinary way. Her stylized stream-of-conscious narration places us directly into the titular girl’s worldview, creating a deeply emotive experience rarely found in today’s fictions.
Buy A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)After a year of particularly grim racial tensions, Rankine’s latest book of poetry-cum-essays has become a vital part of our contemporary cultural conversation. Alongside images by artists including Glenn Ligon and Mel Chin, the poet analyzes the realities of discrimination in a meditative work that should be on everyone’s required-reading list.
Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey (FSG Originals)In the (hands-down) best book of the year (and Lacey’s debut), the author shares an incandescent story about living through loss and the strange spiritual alienation people often feel within themselves. We’re in awe of this masterful work, and, hey, even Joss Whedon is a gobsmacked fan.
Buy Nobody Is Ever Missing
Most likely to replace The Brothers Grimm: How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales by Kate Bernheimer (Coffee House Press)
Most likely to make you weep with sympathetic laughter: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (Harper)
Most infuriating (in the good way): Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books)
Poetry book most likely to win over your poetry-avoiding friends: Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones (Coffee House Press)
Best argument for re-reading the classics and totally judging all the characters: Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg (Henry Holt and Co.)