My favorite books from 2014 are all nonfiction, a thoroughly unsurprising result of it being way easier for me to get through a 700-page historical tome than a 200-page novel. Sorry, novels: this year it was especially true that the truth is stranger and more fascinating than fiction.
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves by James Nestor
I wrote about Deep at ThinkChristian and will keep writing about it to get people to read it. Despite submerging to depths few humans can withstand, Nestor only breaks the surface of what there is to know about the ocean and the people who explore it. He nimbly interweaves his experience learning how to freedive, which is like scuba diving sans equipment, with science of the deep and what we’ve yet to illuminate about the dark depths of our world.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris
Good to see this getting love from other year-end lists. The adept synthesizing Harris did in his first book, Pictures at a Revolution, shows up again in Five Came Back, which follows five top Hollywood directors through their unique wartime experiences. They encountered nearly every major part of the war, at home and abroad, and bring back hard-won lessons and personal experience that inform and mold their postwar work.
The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr
Wrote about this in October. It’s important to convey that Carr doesn’t think automation is bad (Alan Jacobs makes this clear in his review at Books & Culture), only that we have to make sure that it doesn’t make us worse off. Because there’s so much automation can do for us, it’s easy to start ceding other things to it without considering the consequences. Carr provides a good foundation for that consideration.
The Hard Way on Purpose: Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Giffels
A series of essays on living in Akron, heart of the Rust Belt and perpetual underdog. Giffels writes about LeBron James, the Cleveland Browns, Chuck Taylor, about watching all his friends leave and the travails of Ohio living. Midwesterners who have seen their town, however big or small, decay amidst the wreckage of industrialization and unforgiving weather will find something familiar and bittersweet in Giffels’ writing.
What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
I just got this at a used bookstore because I couldn’t resist. It’ll also give me a chance to better absorb the wonderfully rendered comic scenarios and Munroe’s dry humor, which I first devoured in one sybaritic sitting. Never before had I considered what would happen if someone tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light, but thanks to this book I now know. Great fodder for book groups and coffee tables of nerds.
At one point in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mason asks his father if there’s magic in the world. Probably not literal magic, his dad replies. But then he asks the boy: if you didn’t know what a whale was and someone told you there was a giant mammal that lived underwater with a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through, wouldn’t you find that pretty magical?
Perhaps it’s because the book I read before Deep was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, a meditation on the earthly omnipresence of the divine. Consistent with the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Teilhard, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, saw the natural world’s evolution not in conflict with the eternal Divine, but convergent with it. Thus the “divine milieu” is not just in heaven but on earth too, manifest in the world around us. Deep, though a study in scientific phenomena, aligns in fascinating ways with the spiritual phenomena described in The Divine Milieu.
Consider the “master switch of life,” a term that refers to the physiological reflexes in the human body that are triggered when we enter the water and intensify the deeper we go. This transformation, writes Nestor in Deep, “protects our organs from imploding under the immense underwater pressure and turns us into efficient deep sea-diving animals.” But this isn’t an automatic switch. It requires intensive training, coupled with total peace of mind and body, to fully realize its power and unlock the so-called “doorway to the deep,” the point at about 40 feet down where the ocean stops trying to spit us out and instead draws us down. Surrendering to the immersive power of the ocean is the only way to survive.
Likewise, writes Teilhard in The Divine Milieu: “The man who abandons himself to the divine milieu feels his inward powers clearly directed and vastly expanded by it with a sureness which enables him to avoid the reefs on which mystical ardor has so often foundered.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the freedivers Nestor meets all describe their underwater experiences in spiritual, almost mystical terms: “transcendent, life-changing, purifying. A new shimmering universe.” They could see new things in a way that a life on land couldn’t fathom.
The ocean, like the world itself, seems suspended between the tangible and mysterious, the clearly natural yet utterly magical. Nestor’s book is an ode to the people who inhabit that space in-between, who plunge into the unknown to push the limits of human understanding, like theologians of the sea. (Is sea-ologians a word? It should be.) The water beckons us to explore, to contend with the mystery of the divine as Paul does in Ephesians 3:18-19: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
A dive into the water, taken on faith but also with a clear mind, transforms and renews us all. Only when we’re in over our heads, holding our breath as we’re baptized into the deep, do we really live. Sounds like a divine milieu to me.