Thoreau once advised: “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” In our first installment of 2014’s top picks, we asked Truthdig staff and reviewers to select the best, hoping that you will have the chance to read them.

Whether on climate change, soaring wealth inequality, or the surveillance state, this has been a year of calls to action — and above all, it’s been a great year for digging for the truth..

1. “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” by Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt’s powerfully argued “Pro” brings our attention to life before the watershed Roe v. Wade decision and critically examines the ensuing abortion wars of the last decades.

“Pollitt is an equal opportunity critic,” writes reviewer Ruth Rosen. “Part of her book is a brilliant attack against the ‘pro-life’ movement and the strategic war it has waged against women and abortion. At the same time, she offers a frank and critical appraisal of the abortion rights movement and what it might have done differently…. Aside from women’s sexuality, Pollitt brilliantly demonstrates how opponents’ views are linked to ‘anti-feminism, the shaming of sexually active girls and single women, fears of white demographic decline, and conservative views of marriage and sexuality or outright misogyny.’ ”

For Rosen, this “wonderfully accessible book keeps the dream alive. [Pollitt’s] conversational style helps the reader grasp her dazzling dissections of right-wing politics. ….For those who have somehow ignored the endless abortion wars, Pollitt’s book just may remind them that the right to have an abortion has already disappeared in vast regions of the country. Ultimately, her important, well-researched and fascinating book asks, ‘Do you care?’ ”

2. “The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan” by Jenny Nordberg

New York Times reporter Jenny Nordberg’s fascinating account of survival in a deeply segregated context does as much to challenge conventional stereotypes as it does to shed light upon an extraordinary Afghan subculture. In an almost entirely male-dominated context, where the birth of a girl is more often than not a cause for mourning, the book examines the bacha posh — girls temporarily raised as boys and presented to the outside world as such.

For reviewer Rachel Newcomb, Nordberg has produced a “striking and nuanced work that explores the current status of Afghan women through one of their subcultures. ‘The Underground Girls of Kabul’ does not seek out the stereotypically oppressed, burka-clad woman in need of a savior, but rather shows Afghan women as active agents navigating a culture that often disadvantages them and making the most of their limited options for freedom and autonomy.

“After reading this finely written book, readers will have a much greater sense of what’s at stake for Afghanistan’s women in the event that the Taliban returns to power. In recent history Afghan women are not just an ‘issue,’ Nordberg writes, but ‘at the very core of conflict.’ There are no easy answers, but gaining a sense of Afghan women’s struggles through a study of those who seek to escape their gender offers an unforgettable perspective on the complexities of their lives.”

3. “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert

Deftly blending natural history and field reporting, Elizabeth Kolbert has produced an exceptional, dramatic account of mass extinction in “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” As Louise Rubacky describes in her review, Kolbert “weaves together stories of mass and single species extinctions, competing scientific theories through history, and personal observation of current research on waning species to transform this saga of worldwide loss into a riveting read.”

Amusing and ominous in equal measure, “to have shaped this distressing, wide-ranging material into so approachable, engaging and sometimes funny a form is quite an achievement.” For Rubacky, “the author’s sly and smooth maneuvers with prose are especially valuable in a volume with such important bad news. … There’s genius synthesis of staggering information here. And yes, ‘The Sixth Extinction’ is heartbreaking. Because despite the many smart, sincere and dedicated people who fill its pages, more often than not, their efforts to understand and stop the devastation of species after species are failing, or worse, too late. As with the ammonites, Kolbert reminds us, there are traits that were advantageous to species for millions of years, until some change made them lethal. Mostly, we are that change.”

4. “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” by Matt Taibbi

Rolling Stone regular Matt Taibbi’s gonzo, take-no-prisoners approach has provided for scathing, often hilarious and always well-deserved takedowns of some of the worst culprits of the financial crisis. In a survey of the country’s “grifter class,” his 2010 book, “Griftopia,” characteristically depicted Goldman Sachs as the “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.”

With “The Divide,” Taibbi is “more Lincoln Steffens than Hunter Thompson, reviewer Peter Richardson notes. In fact, “he even goes out of his way to be reasonable.”

Investigating the nexus of growing wealth inequality and mass incarceration, Taibbi “explores why Wall Street bankers are seemingly exempt from criminal prosecution, even as New York City targets petty crime — much of it manufactured by police in minority neighborhoods — more aggressively than ever.”

As the book reveals, “Taibbi’s is an important voice, especially in today’s media ecology. Support for investigative reporting has never been a given; when it comes to muckraking, you take it where you can get it. Taibbi has shown that he can deliver the goods, and ‘The Divide’ is his most important book-length contribution to date.”

5. “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein

The status quo is no longer an option, former Truthdigger of the Week Naomi Klein warns in her urgent and wide-ranging climate change polemic. Her “quest is essential, seemingly quixotic and urgent: to rapidly get large numbers of currently unengaged people to agree that what our leaders say are the best insights into economic organization and human behavior are in fact preventing the species from taking the necessary steps to save itself.”

In “This Changes Everything,” the accelerating environmental crisis cannot be extricated from the crisis of capitalism. But Klein’s optimism suggests that our response to climate change has the power to transform broken economic and cultural priorities and to heal long-festering historical wounds. The result is the most effectively argued and cogent environmental book since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Read the introduction, “One Way or Another, Everything Changes,” here.

— Compiled and written by Roisin Davis.

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