The Sandpit

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This blog is dedicated to finding and extolling smart non-fiction books. Each week I publish one essay (Tuesday) and a list of book recommendations (Friday). Sign up for the bi-weekly newsletter. Why “The Sandpit?” Read the introduction essay here.

The Best Nonfiction of 2014

The best part of December? The end-of-the-year lists. Here’s a roundup of my favorite:

• 100 Notables Books of 2014, according to the New York Times

• What books did Bill Gates, Lena Dunham and Anthony Bourdain like?

• The Guardian recommends the best science books of 2014

• MotherJones’ best nonfiction of 2014

• The best selling nonfiction books on Amazon

• 15 best nonfiction books, according to Flavorwire

• 12 Books Every Leader Should Read, as recommended by Stanford Professor Bob Sutton

My favorite book of 2014 is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. The book is about end of life care, how we get it wrong and what we can do about it. But, primarily, it is a book about how to live life—how to make priorities, how to communicate, how to develop values and follow them.

Gawande’s essential medical insight is that by talking about the end of life, we get more of it. Patients who opt for the fourth round of chemo or the Hail Mary surgery without discussing what they gain by extending life spend more time in the hospital, suffer more, and live less. Being Mortal is about knowing what to do when medicine extends life but diminishes the quality of living.

Gawande isn’t just writing about abstract values. One terminal patient made decisions based on very temporal criteria: the ability to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV. If the surgery prevented him from enjoying these activities, he would opt out. Others spoke about recognizing friends and family. If the chemo erased their ability to socialize with the people they loved, they would opt out.

Everyone makes the same conceptual mistake. We decide without really knowing what we can’t live without, typically because we only have a vague, hard-to-describe sense of what’s essential. Being Mortal is about end of life care, but, primarily, it is a book about how to decide. It addresses an unresolved conversation about what the function of life really is–what, in other words, Socrates meant when he said the unexamined life is not worth living.