2011: The Year in Books

It’s year-end list season. As is now tradition on this blog, here is a list of books I read this year, and a few words about each (see also 2009 and 2010). Hopefully you’ll find a few you’ll want to pick up yourself, or give to a friend. As in past years, books that I started but didn’t finish are not included.

Please do share any lists or recommendations of your own; I’m always looking for something new.

1.    Jenny Anderson and Paula Szuchman – Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes
I read this a month or so before my wife and I got married. Some of its advice, like utilizing comparative advantage in divvying up household chores, has made our life together a little bit better at the margin.

2.    J.C. Bradbury – Hot Stove Economics: Understanding Baseball’s Second Season
I like baseball, and I like economics. I liked this book. You may want to reacquaint yourself with the basics of regression analysis, though. It gets technical.

3.    J.B. Bury – A History of Freedom of Thought
Follows the traditional, oversimplified arc of classical times-good, medieval-bad, Renaissance-good. Bury’s commitment to free speech and religious skepticism is both admirable and heartfelt, though he isn’t always very tactful in expressing it.

4.    Bryan Caplan – Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think
Rest easy, helicopter parents. If you and your spouse are intelligent and successful, genetics say your kids probably will be too. Ease up on the piano lessons you both hate and play outside instead. Have fun with your kids.

5.    Tom Clancy – Rainbow Six
A colleague recommended it. If you like Tom Clancy novels, you’ll like this book. If not, then not.

6.    Arthur C. Clarke – The Lost Worlds of 2001
Both the book and the movie went through countless re-writes in the four years that Clarke and Kubrick spent on them. This contains early versions of many scenes, along with some of Clarke’s stories about what working with Kubrick was like.

7.    Arthur C. Clarke – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Not as vivid as the movie, nor as artistic. But good nonetheless. Certainly more comprehensible.

8.    Tyler Cowen – The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History and Will (Eventually) Feel Better
Provocative, and probably intentionally so. He’s right that this century has seen no innovations on par with the telephone or the automobile. Then again, one cannot predict the future. I also think he severely underestimates the Internet’s economic benefits.

9.    Michael Crichton – State of Fear
Similar to the Clancy book. My employer is also mentioned by name.

10.    Lee Doren – Enroll Responsibility: Avoiding Indoctrination at College
Lee is a former colleague. This is his advice for finding intellectual diversity in an environment that often disdains it.

11.    Will Durant – On the Meaning of Life
One of his minor works. Durant was best known for his masterful 11-volume Story of Civilization, written with his wife Ariel. Contains Durant’s correspondence about life’s meaning with everyone from H.L. Mencken to Gandhi to a prisoner in Sing Sing, bookended by Durant’s own thoughts, first playing the pessimist, then optimist.

12.    Desiderius Erasmus – The Praise of Folly
Erasmus was one of history’s most persistent enemies of capital-C Certainty. Also much funnier than your average 16th century Dutch philosophical text. This was on purpose.

13.    Joseph Gibson – A Better Congress: Change the Rules, Change the Results: A Modest Proposal
A colleague of mine likes to say that the problem isn’t the man, and it isn’t the party. It’s the system. Enter Gibson. He has many good ideas, and a few bad ones, about how to change the system. Better incentive structures give better results.

14.    Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch – The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America
Their libertarianism is more cultural than political, which is a breath of fresh air. Though, unlike the authors, I still think the Velvet Underground are the most overrated band in rock.

15.    Brian Greene – The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
Nobody will mistake this for hard science. But it’s a fun tour through theoretical physics.

16.    Tim Groseclose – Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind
Shrill book titles like this one turn off anyone not already sympathetic to the thesis from picking up the book and pondering it. The peer-reviewed empirical research in this book is convincing, regardless of one’s political persuasion. Groseclose’s left-leaning colleagues have repeatedly vouched for his integrity, though it will probably do little good with a book title like this one.

17. Robert Heinlein – The Menace from Earth
A collection of short stories, most of them apocalyptic in nature.

18.    Penn Jillette – God No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales
It’s as much autobiography as it is philosophical polemic. And he cusses like a sailor. But it’s an entertaining, if tangent-prone read.

19.    Paul Johnson – George Washington
A good introduction, but makes little of the important fact that Washington was perhaps the first man since Cincinnatus to give up power voluntarily.

20.    Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants
Some of his ideas are a bit out there, but I learned a lot about the nature of technological progress. Certainly an improvement over Kuhn’s soporific Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

21.    Israel Kirzner – Ludwig von Mises: The Man and His Economics
More of an intellectual biography than a personal one, written by Mises’ most famous and accomplished student.

22.    Christpher B. Krebs – A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich
A neighbor lent this to me when he learned of my interest in Tacitus. This book follows Germania’s career from the Dark Ages, when monks copied it down to preserve it for posterity, through the Renaissance, the birth of German romanticism and nationalism, and, finally, the horrors of National Socialism. Sometimes books have an unintended influence that would horrify the author.

23.    Bob Lutz – Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business
He’s pro-bailout, so that’s strike one. He’s irrationally pro-Chevy Volt; strike two. But he also knows that a successful business needs passionate people in charge. Car guys, not bean counters. Accountants have their place. But not at the top. GM learned that the hard way.

24.    Deirdre McCloskey – The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce
Capitalism doesn’t just make people richer, it makes them more virtuous. Markets don’t work without trust, honesty, and respect. And mass prosperity lets people devote more time and energy to love, art, friends, charity, and more.

25.    Deirdre McCloskey – Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World
What caused modern prosperity? McCloskey thinks it was a change in rhetoric and public opinion around the time of the Enlightenment. Institutions, markets, and all the usual economic explanations certainly matter. But first, people had to lose their hostility towards commerce and a bourgeois lifestyle.

26.    Herman Melville – Moby Dick
I don’t read as much literature as I would like. So when I do, I usually go for the classics; I’m confident they’ll be good. And true to reputation, there was poetry in Melville’s prose. It also read surprisingly quickly, so don’t let its length scare you off.

27.    Ludwig von Mises – Bureaucracy
Markets have prices, profits, and losses. Bureaucracy’s distinguishing feature is that it doesn’t. Bureaucracies are inefficient because, unlike markets, they have no way to calculate the most efficient way to provide a service, or even the value of the service itself.

28.    Iain Murray – Stealing You Blind: How Government Fat Cats Are Getting Rich Off of You
Government isn’t for the people, it’s for government. Corporations are for corporations, not consumers. Unions are for unions, not workers. Rent-seeking is everywhere. Fortunately, Iain, a colleague, has many good ideas for reform. Click on the book title to see my more detailed Amazon review.

29.    Elizabeth Nash – Seville, Cordoba, and Granada: A Cultural History
My wife and I visited Seville and Granada on our honeymoon. This book helped to bring us up to speed on what we were seeing.

30.    Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia
The classic defense of minarchism. Nozick’s intellect was famously curious and playful, and it shows throughout. He asks dozens of fun questions for the reader to ponder without answering them for him, and thought experiments abound.

31.    Tom G. Palmer – Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice
A collection of over two decades of essays that somehow successfully coheres into a whole. Tom thinks and writes at a high level, yet it isn’t a difficult read.

32.    Tom G. Palmer, ed. – The Morality of Capitalism
Contains short essays from around the world by economists, philosophers, a Nobel-winning novelist, and a businessman about why market liberalism is more moral than its illiberal alternatives. A valuable addition to the debate.

33.    Mary Platt Parmele – A Short History of Spain
More travel reading for our honeymoon.

34.    Peter Pierson – The History of Spain
See above, but 300 pages instead of 100.

35.    Varlam Shalamov – Kolyma Tales
Fiction, but only barely. Readers of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich will know what I mean.

36.    Carl Sagan – Demon-Haunted World
Sagan’s paean to skepticism and the scientific method. Tangent-prone, and his lack of economic training shows in his policy prescriptions, but mostly excellent.

37.    Michael Shermer – The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—how We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths
This is an important book. Read it. Humans are wonderful creatures, and yet frustratingly irrational. Shermer’s concepts of patternicity and agenticity do much to explain why.

38.    Adam Smith – An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
It begins with Smith’s underappreciated theory of the division of labor, and ends with a call for American independence. In between is some folly and much, much wisdom.

39.    Timothy Snyder – Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
The worst of World War II’s horrors, including the Holocaust and the Ukraine famine, largely happened in Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia. Snyder calls this region the Bloodlands, and rightly so. Belarus, for example, lost half its population during the war. And not to immigration.

40.    Alex Tabarrok – Launching the Innovation Renaissance: A New Path to Bring Smart Ideas to Market Fast
A short e-book put out by the TED Foundation. Tabarrok is skeptical of most patents, wants more high-skilled immigration, and finds a depressing lack of competition and innovation in the three largest economic sectors – government, health care, and education. That makes optimism for the future difficult, but not impossible.

41.    Tacitus – The Agricola and the Germania
The Agricola is Tacitus’ encomium to his departed father-in-law, who served as consul, and did much to conquer Britain. The Germania is his description of the barbarian peoples who inhabited what is today Germany. Back then, it was the outer reaches of the Empire and beyond. He may or may not have actually visited the region.

42.    Mick Wall – Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica
I’ve been listening to Metallica for twenty years. Why not learn a little bit about them?

43.    Alison Weir – The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Not only did this book help me straighten out in my head this particular procession of queens for the first time, Weir writes in great depth about their personalities and what life was like in Tudor England for nobles and royals. A really good read.

44.    H.G. Wells – The Time Machine
The writing and plot are clunky, but this was still a fun read. This was the very first story to feature a machine that could travel through time.

45.    Robert Zaresky and John T. Scott – The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding
A dual biography of polar opposites, both in philosophy and personality. They were close friends at one time, but Rousseau’s paranoid tendencies in later life caused a rift that became the talk of Europe.


5 responses to “2011: The Year in Books

  1. I agree about Moby Dick. I read it this past year and was surprised at how fluid it was. I read it in 4 days but I wish I would have taken an extra few days to savor it.

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