Tag Archives: thomas sowell

2012: The Year in Books

library strahov theological hall

I wish.

As is now tradition on this blog (2009, 2010, 2011), here are capsule reviews of all the books I read this year. The usual rules apply: only books I actually finished made the list, and I recommend them unless stated otherwise in the review. My approach is less extreme than Tyler Cowen‘s, but I still tend not to finish a book unless I feel it’s worth the time and effort; hence the mostly favorable reviews. If you see any that interest you, I hope you’ll check them out. A good book is one of life’s genuine joys, and one well worth sharing.

  1. Daron Acemoglu  and James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
    Why are some countries rich while others are poor? According to this book, institutions are the answer. Countries with extractive political and economic institutions are poor and despotic. Countries with more inclusive institutions prosper.
  2. Tom Bethell – Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher
    Hoffer was a dockworker and philosopher who wrote the massively influential The True Believer. This biography does a good job of blending Hoffer’s personal and intellectual lives, and reveals that he may have been an illegal immigrant from Germany. Which, of course, only reinforces my pro-immigration views.
  3. Peter Boettke – Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
    An insightful collection of 22 articles about teaching economics, and what economics can teach us — and what it can’t. The economist should see himself as a student of society, not its savior. Humility, not certainty.
  4. Daniel J. Boorstin – The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination
    A lengthy history of the arts spanning 3,000 years, told mainly through biography. Almost all of its 70 chapters tell the life story of one or more great artist, and describes their works. Poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, photography, and more all get their moments.
  5. Donald J. Boudreaux – Hypocrites & Half-Wits: A Daily Dose of Sanity from Cafe Hayek
    I sometimes give a lunch seminar to CEI’s interns about writing, and assign them to write letters to the editor. Don taught me much of what I know in that department. This excellent book, which collects 100 or so of his best letters, shows why I learned from the best. My personal favorite is the final one.
  6. Jim Bouton – Ball Four
    A baseball classic. A tell-all diary/memoir/autobiography of Bouton’s 1969 season pitching for the Seattle Pilots. It’s as funny as it is cynical.
  7. Michael Breen – Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader, Revised and Updated Edition
    Unimpressive, but still valuable. Breen’s use of bad pop psychology to analyze Kim Jong-il’s character wastes valuable pages, and he is an awkward prose stylist. But he has gathered a lot of valuable inside information from his years as a journalist covering North Korea, and shares it eagerly.
  8. Robert Caro – The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1
    The first of four lengthy volumes published so far. The series is a study of power as much as it is of LBJ himself. Caro, while ideologically sympathetic to Johnson’s Great Society, is unafraid to paint him — accurately — as power-obsessed, manipulative, and often just plain mean.
  9. Robert Caro – Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 2
    Glad I read this during an election year. The heart of the book is the story of Johnson’s 1948 Senate race against Coke Stevenson. The two men could not be more different, which alone makes it interesting. But the lengths to which Johnson went during the campaign reveal much about the politician’s mindset. Johnson stole the election all but openly; the rest is history.
  10. Kenneth Clark – Civilisation: A Personal View
    The companion book to Clark’s masterful BBC art history documentary, which I also recommend. Clark never does define “civilization,” but he shows 280 examples of it in this lavishly illustrated book.
  11. Bill Clinton – Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy
    Quick-hit book of progressive policy ideas. Recommended for young economists learning about opportunity costs, comparative advantage, and other Econ 101 concepts. Lots of places to apply them here. I also reviewed it for RealClearBooks.
  12. Benjamin Constant – Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
    Published in 1815, the same year as Waterloo. Constant was a French political philosopher heavily influenced by Enlightenment ideals. But this is a world-weary work; Constant lived through the French Revolution, the Terror, and Napoleon’s wars. Above all else except for human freedom, he yearned for peace and quiet. I can get behind that.
  13. Martha Derthick and Paul J. Quick – The Politics of Deregulation
    Dry as dust, but informative. Tells the story of how a perfect storm led to airline, trucking, and telecom deregulation under Ford, Carter, and Reagan. In a bit of disciplinary squabbling, The political scientist authors repeatedly go out of their way to disparage by name economists such as Anthony Downs, Bill Niskanen, and Mancur Olson. But their Homo economicus-based criticisms reveal that they probably haven’t read them, and certainly don’t understand them.
  14. Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu – The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet
    This ad hominem-free deluge of data and arguments made me feel embarrassed for buy-local activists such as Michael Pollan. Like watching a cat play with a mouse.
  15. Peter K. Diamandis and Steven Kotler – Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
    Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation. He has excellent insights into our biological predilection towards pessimism, and gives a tour of innovations that could change the world and end poverty over the next few decades.
  16. Paul Dickson: Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick
    Veeck was a baseball innovator and showman who also had a healthy sense of humor. He put the ivy in Wrigley Field, last names on players’ jerseys, set off fireworks after home runs, and once sent 3′ 7″ Eddie Gaedel to bat during a regular season game. He also played a major role in baseball’s racial integration.
  17. Brian Doherty – Ron Paul’s rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired
    This book is more about Ron Paul supporters, warts and all, than it is about Paul himself. A fun read, if not terribly edifying. Could stand to be a little more critical.
  18. Susan Dudley and Jerry Brito – Regulation: A Primer, Second Edition
    Highly recommended. Excellent overview of the different types of regulation, their rationales, and the regulatory process. The link goes to a free PDF version.
  19. William Easterly – The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good
    The title, drawn from Kipling, refers to the West’s haughty condescension towards the Rest. Easterly draws a dichotomy between Planners — top-down, grandiose, and bureaucratic — and Searchers, who take a more bottom-up, humble, and effective approach to aid.
  20. Robert Heinlein – The Man Who Sold the Moon
    A collection of sci-fi stories and a novella. As dated as some Heinlein stories are, the better ones have a simple joie de vivre that both leavens and complements his usual anti-authoritarianism.
  21. Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe – The Sufferings of Young Werther
    A work of much passion and emotion, and little sense. Reminds me of what it was like to be 19 years old. From an aesthetic standpoint, though, it is simply beautiful.
  22. Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni – Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar
    This book weaves together three themes. The first two, tightly intertwined, are Cato’s life story and the end of the Roman Republic, in which he believed strongly enough to die for. The third is his legacy, which endured all the way from St. Augustine to Dante to Addison to Trenchard and Gordon to today’s Cato Institute.
  23. Blaine Harden – Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
    The story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who is believed to be the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to ever escape alive. Besides describing the unimaginable hardships he endured, it tells of his new life as a human rights activist, and the difficulties he has faced adjusting to life on the outside. Shin also receives 50 percent of this book’s royalties, if you need further incentive to buy it.
  24. F.A. Hayek (Stephen Kresge and Leif Wenar, eds.) – Hayek on Hayek: An Autobiographical Dialogue
    Hayek’s easiest read. He spoke much more clearly than he wrote. Still, it’s not a good introduction. A basic prior knowledge of his major works is essential to get much out of it. A valuable read, but Hayek neophytes are better served by the relevant parts of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism.
  25. Gene Healy – False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency
    An update to 2008’s superb Cult of the Presidency, this short e-book looks at the abuses and expansion of executive power over the last four years. Obama doesn’t deserve the blame, though. The public’s unrealistic expectations for the office are what drive its constant expansion. I wrote more about the book here.
  26. Christopher Hitchens – Why Orwell Matters
    Hitchens waxes eloquent on why Orwell was a principled opponent of all kinds of totalitarianism, whether from the right or the left. He is not afraid to criticize Orwell’s regrettable prejudices (women, gays, Jews), but he paints an overall picture of a an archenemy of arbitrary power, and a master of language.
  27. Christopher Hitchens – Mortality
    Hitchens’ account of dying of esophageal cancer. Difficult to read.
  28. Mike Kim – Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country
    Kim, a Korean-American, gave up a career in finance to move to the Chinese-North Korean border and help refugees. The stories he tells about the people he met and helped are harrowing, yet ennobling.
  29. Mark Kurlansky – Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man
    Clarence Birdseye was the fellow who invented frozen food. He was also a colorful character. An enjoyable look at how innovation happens, and filled with random facts about food, Labrador, the physics and chemistry of freezing, and much else.
  30. Robert E. Litan and William D. Nordhaus – Reforming Federal Regulation
    Published in 1983, so some parts are dated. But it contains useful discussions of numerous reform ideas, including an entire chapter on the regulatory budget, a personal favorite. If there’s a budget for how much government can spend, there should be one for how much it can regulate, too.
  31. Steven Malanga – Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer
    A public choice-influenced book that examines rent-seeking from public sector unions, community organizers, and allied politicians at the state and local levels. The picture Malanga paints is not a pretty one for taxpayers, especially in California and New Jersey.
  32. David Maraniss – When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi
    Lombardi is something of a god in the football world. Maraniss brings him down to earth while confirming his legendary stature. Lombardi’s drive and personality never allowed him to achieve Machiavelli’s preferred balance of fear and love, though he did try.
  33. Michael L. Marlow – The Myth of Fair and Efficient Government: Why the Government You Want Is Not the One You Get
    Hayek wrote that “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist.” Marlow, at least in this book, is only an economist. Still, this would make a decent free-market policy primer for an undergraduate. The trouble is that Marlow’s monomaniacal focus on efficiency leaves out all the other reasons markets are preferable to their alternatives.
  34. Allan Massie – The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain
    Follows Scotland’s royal family from its murky origins as stewards (hence Stewart, or Stuart) to earlier Scottish monarchs, to the family capturing the crown for itself, on through James VI and I’s unifying the Scottish and English crowns, Charles I’s 1649 “shortening,” the Glorious Revolution that made Parliament supreme, to the line’s extinction after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s failed plot to reclaim the crown. Good stuff.
  35. Dierdre McCloskey – Crossing: A Memoir
    Deirdre, one of my favorite economists, was once Donald. This is the story of her transition. It makes one appreciate just how hard it can be to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. As with all of her books, it is superbly written.
  36. Ludwig von Mises – Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
    Originally published in 1922, and very prescient. The prevailing thought at the time was that a planned economy would be wealthier than an unplanned market economy; Mises showed this not to be true. People thought socialism would free people; Mises showed why the total state would enslave them.
  37. David Nasaw – The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy
    The Kennedy patriarch was a remarkable man, if not always a pleasant one. Nasaw’s biography is Caro-esque in its level of detail. This is mostly for the good, though it spends entirely too much time on his ambassadorship in London and his alliance with Neville Chamberlain.
  38. Bruce Nash and Alan Zullo – The Football Hall of Shame
    Not the most intellectually stimulating book, but it is laugh-out-loud funny. The literary equivalent of a blooper film.
  39. Tom Palmer (ed.) – After the Welfare State
    A collection of essays about the welfare state and its alternatives. The historical essays about mutual aid by David Green and David Beito are especially valuable. You can download a free copy at the link.
  40. Roger Pearson – Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom
    The author needs a remedial lesson in comma usage, but this is still a wonderful book. One can’t help laughing along with Voltaire as he crushes l’infame.
  41. Martin Redfern – The Earth: A Very Short Introduction
    Part of Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series. A densely packed geology primer written in an engaging and occasionally humorous style. Good for anyone from a high school student to an interested layman like this writer.
  42. Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men
    Nature is good and civilization is bad, according to this early work of Rousseau’s. His later works reached the same conclusion, but fortunately with more nuance. Voltaire wrote to Rousseau about this book, “Reading your book fills one with the desire to walk on all fours.” Like Voltaire and unlike Rousseau, I would rather be man than animal.
  43. Steven Saylor – Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome
    Historical fiction that does justice to both words. Follows the ebbs and flows of a single line of descendants over 1,000 years. Different personalities and common themes both shine through. Pre-Romulus and Remus mythical times, the Age of Kings, the entire life of the Republic, and the rise of Caesar and Augustus are all covered in vivid detail.
  44. Peter Schweizer: Throw Them All Out
    No one will be surprised by this book’s thesis: most politicians are corrupt, and it is a thoroughly bipartisan problem. Most people would be surprised by the many details that Schweizer reveals.
  45. William L. Shirer – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
    Long, but very good. The hardback edition I have is a two-volume set. The definitive history of Nazi Germany. A weakness is that it focuses on diplomacy, political maneuvering, and military strategy at the near-total expense of social history.
  46. Thomas Sowell – A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
    Very insightful. Sowell compares the constrained and unconstrained visions of the world, and shows why they tend to talk past, instead of to each other. The unconstrained vision believes in the unconstrained power of intellectuals to achieve desired social results. The constrained vision believes the world is too complicated for such plans to work, and prefers ever-evolving, bottom-up processes.
  47. George J. Stigler – The Intellectual and the Marketplace: Enlarged Edition
    Stigler, a Nobel-winning economist, was as well known for his wit and his sharp sense of humor as he was for his technical excellence. This surprisingly funny book shows that wit in full flower.
  48. John Stossel – No They Can’t: Why Government Fails – But Individuals Succeed
    I don’t care for the unsubtle title, but Stossel is one of today’s better popularizers of libertarian ideas. Not much original material here, but well-suited for people interested in classical liberal ideas but unwilling to slog through the primary sources.
  49. Sean Trende – The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs – and Who Will Take It
    I’m not much on the political horse race, but this was a good read. Trende persuasively argues that there are no permanent majorities, and that most pundits are pattern-seeking, hyperbolic windbags. I’ve long thought the same thing myself.
  50. Bob Uecker – Catcher in the Wry: Outrageous but True Stories of Baseball
    In true Uecker fashion, I bought this book for one cent. Better, I paid nearly 400 times that — $3.99 — for shipping. It was well worth it. Uecker’s self-deprecating brand of humor is always good for a smile.
  51. Bryan Ward-Perkins – The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
    A darker counterpoint to Peter Wells’ sunnier take on post-classical Europe. Not as pessimistic as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, but he emphasizes across-the-board declines in living standards, population, trade, literacy, architecture, and the quantity and quality of consumer goods.
  52. Peter S. Wells – Barbarians to Angels: Reconsidering the Dark Ages
    A mostly successful attempt to improve the Dark Ages’ dismal rehabilitation. Surviving texts are mostly from the declining Romans’ pessimistic perspective; hence the dominant view. Wells prefers a different historiographical perspective: archaeology. In his enthusiasm he oversells his case, but he makes an excellent point. I blogged about the book here.
  53. Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Jurst Laviana, and L. Kelly – Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door
    Not a biography. This is the story of how Wichita detectives caught Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. It took them 31 years. Kudos to them for their patience and persistence in tracking down a particularly elusive monster.
  54. David Wessel – Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget
    Very little here in the way of original thought. But it’s a good primer for the layman on the ticking fiscal time bomb. Wessel is studiously non-partisan, a huge plus in my book. Though he does favor fiscal stimulus, which makes me question his economic acumen; broken window fallacy and all that.
  55. Richard Wrangham – Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
    Absolutely fascinating, and highly recommended. Cooking food makes it easier to digest, and allows otherwise indigestible nutrients to be absorbed. This is what made the large, energy-intensive human brain possible. We are literally evolved to cook.

2010: The Year in Books

Since last year’s reading list was one of this blog’s most popular posts, I’m reprising it for this year. Following Plutarch’s advice, I put a special emphasis on reading biographies this year. The life stories and personalities of great individuals are not only interesting for their own sake; reading about them is also one of the most effective ways to learn history. I also took care to branch out into a few new genres that I haven’t explored before, such as Greek tragedy and science fiction.

I also got a Kindle this year, and a smart phone with a Kindle application. They are not a replacement for paper books. But they make a great complement. I also find that I’m reading more now that I have them, without blocking off any more time for it. They make it easy to sneak a page or two when I’m taking out the trash or walking to the store.

As with last year, books that I started and didn’t finish are not listed. I liked almost all the books, or else I wouldn’t have taken the time to read them through. If you have any bibliophiles on your holiday shopping list, you might find some good ideas:

1. Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
Stoicism’s finest hour. Marcus comes off as a kindly soul, an even rarer quality in an emperor than his philosophical bent. Re-reading the first chapter has become a source of calm and comfort whenever stress is getting the better of me.

2. Phil Barber – The Official Vince Lombardi Playbook: His Classic Plays and Strategies; Personal Photos and Mementos; Recollections from Friends and Former Players
A good introduction to the X-and-O aspect of football. Lombardi’s schemes were simple compared to today’s offenses. They make a good step towards understanding today’s spread formations, multiple tight end sets, unbalanced lines, and other esoterica. Colorful stories also abound about Lombardi and his players.

3. Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein – The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One: Microeconomics
Bryan Caplan recommended it, and I liked it. I share his criticism that Bauman and Klein emphasize the wrong things — too little time on trade, and too much on game theory, for example. But overall, not only is this book (graphic novel?) a creative way to explain the economic way of thinking to the masses, it is well-executed. I eagerly await volume 2.

4. Boethius – The Consolations of Philosophy
At once the last work of classical philosophy and the first work of medieval philosophy. Boethius had a moving life story, which pervades the book. He was a senator who rose all the way consul (the Roman equivalent of prime minister) before he was falsely imprisoned and executed by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric around 525 A.D. The Consolations of Philosophy, written in prison, was Boethius’ way of searching for hope during his despairing last days.

5. Etienne de la BoetieThe Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude
Very much the product of a young mind. Its 22-year old author asks an obvious question that everyone has pondered at least once: if there is only one king, and millions of subjects, why do people obey him? Why does nobody overthrow him? There is strength in the peoples’ numbers! Before his death at age 33, Boetie would go on to a lucrative career as a judge and a member of the Bordeaux Parlement; this may be one answer to his question.

6. Jerry Brotton – The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction
Takes a much more global approach to the period than other texts. Its short length makes that an especially tall task, and the book suffers a bit for it. I was especially left wanting in terms of art and philosophy. But it’s a fresh way of thinking about the Renaissance, which is of some value.

7. Albert Camus – The Stranger
From the very beginning, Meursalt, the protagonist, is impossible to sympathize with. But he is intended to personify Camus’ then-fashionable alienated existentialism, not to be likable. An occasionally grating look into an utterly foreign mindset.

8. Susan Dach – Donkeys Can’t Sleep in Bathtubs, and other Crazy Laws
Not exactly a weighty tome; a ten-year old could read this book and enjoy it. But it’s given me ideas for a few Regulations of the Day, and there’s a laugh on almost every page.

9. Lance S. Davidson – Ludicrous Laws and Mindless Misdemeanors
More source material for silly regulations.

10. Devra Davis – Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family
Not recommended reading. According to Davis, cell phone radiation causes everything from cancer to infertility to Lou Gehrig’s disease (!) to plain old grouchiness. None of which, of course, is true. What puzzles me about Davis is her oddly selective understanding of public choice theory. She understands very well the corporate side of rent-seeking. But she blithely assumes that government regulators are immune to their own self-interest. She is also more eager to impugn the motives of those she disagrees with rather than argue against them on the merits.

11. Barbara Demick – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
A very emotional read. It starts with a bit of exposition: the Korean War, the North-South split, and the rise of the North’s Juche regime. Very helpful for neophytes like me. But this book is about six real people who escaped North Korea. It tells their stories of hardship, hunger, loss, and oppression, and what they went through to escape. The sheer hellishness of it all is hard to take in. But it was actually harder to find out that most of the six were unable to find happiness on the outside.

12. Bob Dorigo Jones – Remove Child before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest, and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever
Recommended reading for anyone who is thinking of becoming a lawyer, or who has a positive view of lawyers.

13. Will Durant – Transition: A Mental Autobiography
An intellectual’s coming of age story, lightly embellished. Durant flirted with radical socialist anarchism in his youth before meeting his wife Ariel, settling into a more mature, nuanced, and kindly (if skeptical) view of the world, and, finally, becoming a father. The Durants would go on to write the 11-volume Story of Civilization together. That series did much to give this young thinker what little wisdom he has.

14. Alan Ebenstein –Friedrich Hayek: A Biography
I’m told Bruce Caldwell’s Hayek biography is better. But Ebenstein does a fine job telling the story of Hayek’s life, summarizing his major works and ideas, and showing how the two were often related.

15.   Akbar Ganji – The Road to Democracy in Iran
Ganji has a different take on human rights than the Lockean view familiar to most Westerners. He is no doctrinaire libertarian. But his ideas seem more compatible with his native Iran’s situation, and would mark a positive step on the long journey towards a truly liberal Iran. This is valuable. Because institutions are sticky, a sudden transition to Lockean liberalism would almost certainly fail. Something must come in between; hence Ganji. He was imprisoned for several years for the crime of putting his ideas on paper, and as a result won the 2010 Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. He was a controversial choice. But overall, I think he was a good one.

16. Ann Louise Gittleman – Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1,268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution
Not recommended reading. Think Devra Davis’ Disconnect with half the IQ. The opening chapter delves into homeopathy and The Body Electric, and goes downhill from there. One chapter even includes recipes(!) intended to minimize the harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation. Some friends and I made the roasted asparagus and the grass-fed beef steak with garlic, wine, rosemary, and exotic mushrooms. They were quite tasty, so Zapped was not a complete waste of time.

17. Leland H. Gregory, III – Great Government Goofs: The Unofficial Guide to the Wacky Mistakes Our Leaders Don’t Want Us to Know About
If you need a few laughs and a dose of skepticism, this has plenty of both.

18. Daniel Hannan – The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America
Tocqueville meets Hayek. Hannan strikes me as hyperbolic about the EU’s threat to liberalism. Then again, as a member of European Parliament, he knows far more about the situation than I do. The central theme of the book is a warning to America not to Europeanize its political system, and to stay true to its founding ideals.

19. F.A. Hayek (ed.) – Capitalism and the Historians
A compilation of essays by different scholars about the early Industrial Revolution. Contrary to the conventional Dickensian view, the data show that even the early proletariat were better off in the factory than the farm. Besides, they would have gone back to the farm if they weren’t.

20. Robert Heinlein – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
My first venture into science fiction. The American Revolution reprises itself on a lunar colony. Also features musings on anarchism, alternative family arrangements, and a supercomputer with a sense of humor.

21. Robert Heinlein – Stranger In a Strange Land
I liked The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress enough to give this one a try. It was worth it. If libertarians loved that one, this one was a hit with 1960s countercultural types. A human born on Mars, the lone survivor of a failed colonization attempt, is raised by Martians and returns to Earth as an adult. He tries to understand human nature, which is understandably alien to him. As he adjusts, he dabbles in free love (one reason why hippies devoured this book), skewers one religion, and founds another.

22. Paul Johnson – Churchill
Johnson clearly has a great affection for his subject. Churchill’s accomplishments justify that, though Johnson’s hero worship makes the reader wonder what was omitted. Could have used more examples of Churchill’s famous wit.

23. John J. Kohut – Stupid Government Tricks: Outrageous (but True!) Stories of Bureaucratic Bungling and Washington Waste
More Regulation of the Day fodder.

24. Donald Kagan – Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy
It is a difficult task to reconstruct the personality of a man who died in 429 B.C. The sources are just too limited. And those that survive have their biases. Kagan tries to give a flavor of what Pericles was like as a person, but there is only so much he can do. So he turns mostly to narrative instead, and writes about Pericles’ many accomplishments as a statesman in troubled times.

25. Robert D. Kaplan – Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece
A well-traveled neighbor was kind enough to lend this to me. It isn’t quite history, and it isn’t quite travel narrative. By not fitting into either genre, Kaplan carves his own niche. And he does a good job of it.

26. Jeff Koon and Andy Powell – You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant: 101 Real Dumb Laws
Yet more Regulation of the Day source material.

27. Jeremy Lott – The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency
Books about presidents are everywhere. Vice presidents, not so much. As with everything Jeremy does, the prose reads well. His, ahem, unique sense of humor also shows itself throughout. Full disclosure: the author is a friend and former colleague.

28. Jeremy Lott – William F. Buckley
A different take than the usual biography, and well-written as usual. This book focuses on how Buckley’s Catholicism influenced his thought, and how Buckley embraced a big-tent approach to conservatism, which he called fusionism. Jeremy takes special delight in sharing colorful stories, and he loaded this book with plenty of them. I interviewed Jeremy about the book here.

29. Deirdre N. McCloskeyEconomical Writing, 2nd Edition
Most semesters, I give a lunch seminar to CEI’s interns about writing and communicating effectively. McCoskey’s little guide is at the top of my recommended readings. Her advice is sound, and she also practices what she preaches.

30. Joel McIver – To Live Is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica’s Cliff Burton
McIver is a clumsy writer at times. But he took the time to interview just about everyone who knew the late, lamented bassist, from family members to former roadies. Burton comes across as a laid-back, high-IQ guy who loved what he did and was unafraid to work hard at it. The bus accident that killed him at age 24 was a huge loss for music.

31. Joel McIver – The Bloody Reign of Slayer
This was ok. Slayer has put out so many albums, that half the book consists of album reviews. McIver is very opinionated, and his favorite songs differ from mine. He would have done well to spend less time opining and more on the band’s personalities and history.

32. Ludwig von Mises – Liberalism: The Classical Tradition
Liberalism in its original sense. It sure doesn’t read like it, but this was Mises’ attempt at a popular-level work. Written in 1927, Mises had seen the horrors of World War I, and knew a second war was coming. This was his warning, and his way of trying to show how economic and political liberalism might avoid another world war.

33. Dave Mustaine with Joe Layden – Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir
I have always heard that Mustaine is an unpleasant person. His autobiography confirms it. One also wonders how he is still alive after the massive drug use he describes in this book. It was uncomfortable reading at times.

34. Albert Jay Nock – Our Enemy, the State
Paranoid mid-20th century right-wing anarchism. Even though I’m neither right-wing nor anarchist, I found myself nodding in agreement more often than I thought. I cringed at other parts, and also at the general angry tone. Of historical interest: Nock was one of the first journalists to use economics to buttress his arguments, though his grasp of the subject was very basic.

35. P. J. O’Rourke – Driving Like Crazy
A collection of O’Rourke’s articles about cars over the last 30 years or so. I’m not a car guy, but his enthusiasm is contagious. His hijinks racing down the rugged Baja peninsula make for especially good reading. Other chapters, not so much.

36. P. J. O’Rourke – Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards
Love the title, even if it isn’t actually true. Parliament of Whores is better; if you’re new to O’Rourke, read that instead.

37. Robert Wayne Pelton – Loony Laws that You Never Knew You Were Breaking
Comedy gold.

38. D. D. Raphael – The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy
Tom Palmer recommended this to help me through Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Raphael is a philosopher, not an economist, so he has a different perspective than the average Smith scholar. The impartial spectator theory is at the heart of Smith’s moral thought. People try to treat others in ways that they think an impartial third party would approve. Some call this impartial spectator God; some call it conscience; some just call it a variation on the golden rule.

39. Tom Reiss – The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
Another Tom Palmer recommendation, and one of the best books I read this year. On its face, it’s a biography of the writer Lev Nussinbaum. He was an Azerbaijani Jew who escaped both Nazis and Communists by adopting the persona of an Easterner named Kurban Said. He was also a writer who gained worldwide fame, if only briefly, in his Eastern persona. Nussinbaum’s life – and Azerbaijan itself —  exemplify the porous, overlapping boundaries of East and West. This book also put the Azeri capital, Baku, on my to-visit list. Highly recommended.

40. Matt Ridley – The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
Ridley believes trade is the key to prosperity. Trade is what allows the division of labor to become more and more specialized over time. That increases productivity, which increases wealth. In a way, this is Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as written by an evolutionary biologist. I really enjoyed this book. If there’s a drawback, it’s that Ridley at times comes across as a free-market cheerleader. The world could use many more like him, but this has the effect of turning some people off, including, strangely, Bill Gates.

41. Kurban Said – Ali and Nino
Azerbaijan’s national novel, written by the subject of Tom Reiss’ The Orientalist. An East-meets-West, Muslim-boy-meets-Christian-girl love story, which fits religiously mixed  Azerbaijan perfectly. A wonderful way to learn about a country that few Americans give much thought to, especially when paired with Reiss’ book.

42. Harvey A. Silverglate – Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent
In 1787, America had four federal crimes. Today, there are over 4,500. Many of them are so vague, and so abused by prosecutors, that Silverglate argues that the average American commits three felonies in an average day. He proves his point by telling the stories of several ordinary people who did nothing wrong, but got railroaded by politically ambitious prosecutors. Chilling.

43. Cindy Skrzycki – The Regulators: Anonymous Power Brokers in American Politics
A bit of gold I found in the office library. Skrzycki is a Washington Post columnist. This is a compilation of her columns, plus plenty of additional content. This is a high-quality, non-ideological, look into the regulatory process. As a journalist, Skrzycki’s prose is more readable than most regulatory writers. If anything, this book helps the reader realize that intentions and results are often very different things.

44. Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Man as social animal. That is this book’s central theme, as well as the more famous Wealth of Nations. Man forms his various moral systems by taking others’ feelings and actions into account. Empathy is what makes us human. It seems as though every page has at least one keen insight into what makes people tick. For a man with a reputation for social awkwardness, Smith understood human nature extremely well.

45. Fred L. Smith, Jr. – The Quotable Fred
(Link goes to free online pdf file) An entertaining collection of excerpts from Fred’s many, many articles and speeches. This collection is about 15 years old, and I hear a sequel of sorts may be in the works. Disclosure: Fred is my boss.

46. Sophocles – Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Philoctetes
Only seven of Sophocles’ plays survive. The four listed above were my first foray into Greek tragedy. They will not be my last. What strikes me most about Sophocles is his moral ambiguity. His heroes are flawed. His villains have redeeming virtues. Often, it is unclear who the audience is supposed to root for. I think that was by design. It is an invitation to think for oneself; reading Sophocles is a wonderful way to practice that lost art.

47. Thomas Sowell – Economic Facts and Fallacies
Like physics, many (but not all!) economic questions have correct and incorrect answers. While few people get into heated arguments with physicists, they feel no such compunctions when it comes to economics. Sowell tries to set the non-economist straight, and largely succeeds.

48. George J. Stigler – The Citizen and the State: Essays on Regulation
Stigler was a Nobel-winning economist from the University of Chicago. This book is a collection of his most influential journal articles. Their connecting theme is one that Washington badly needs to hear: intentions are not the same thing as results.

49. Richard L. Stroup – Eco-nomics: What Everyone Should Know About Economics and the Environment
The economic way of thinking is essential to understanding environmental issues. This is true regardless of one’s views on global warming, resource depletion, or any other environmental issue. This short primer is the best of its kind.

50. Joyce Tyldesley – Ramesses: Egypt’s Greatest Pharaoh
Not nearly so vivid a portrait as Norman Mailer paints in Ancient Evenings. But Tyldesley’s less bombastic performance somehow feels much more true to life.

51. Marc Van De Mieroop – King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography
The sources are scanty when it comes to anything other than Hammurabi’s military achievements or his famous law code. Van De Mieroop teases out what he can, though the book often lapses into a conventional narrative of Babylonian history. It’s written at slightly too high a level for a novice like me, but I still learned a lot.

52. Jack Weatherford – Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
There have been some attempts to rehabilitate Genghis Khan’s fearsome image in recent years. This is one of them. Without ignoring his cruelty, Weatherford points out that Genghis opened up new trade routes between East and West, and fought to keep them open. Without Genghis Khan, Europe might never have left its isolationist Medieval period.

53. E.G. West – Adam Smith
When West wrote this book in the early 1960s, Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments was practically a forgotten work. This biography puts special emphasis on that book, and has played a role in reviving it for today’s scholars.

54. Lewis Wolpert – Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief
This book sat on my shelf for a good two years before I read it. That was about two years too long. This was one of the deepest, most rewarding reads I’ve had in a long time. It puts forth evolutionary explanations for everything from religious belief to racism, to why people believe in conspiracy theories and alternative medicine.

55. Andrew Young- The Politician: An Insider’s Account of John Edwards’s Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down
If you lack cynicism about politics, this book can help. John Edwards always struck me as a very pure politician. He never did anything but try to appeal to the median voter so he could gain power. Devoting one’s life to such an ignoble quest is an indication of severe character flaws. So I wasn’t surprised by his scandal. Andrew Young (no relation) was Edwards’ personal assistant, and this is his side of the story. Not exactly objective, but he was there through all of it, and pulls few punches.

2009: The Year in Books

It’s year-end list season. Thought I’d join the fun with a list of books I read this year, along with a few words about each. Books that I started and didn’t finish are not listed. Hopefully you’ll find a few you’ll want to pick up yourself. I enjoyed each and every one; I wouldn’t have bothered reading all the way through if I didn’t.

I read a lot about economics because it’s my job to. And I read a lot of history because I love history. But I’m a bit weak on literature and science. Any suggestions for good books in those areas are most welcome.

1. Dante Alighieri – Inferno
Dante was the last great gasp of the medieval mind, and arguably started Europe’s transition into the early Renaissance. You probably read this in high school. I did. And I hated it. But re-reading it this year, I loved every word. Since this work is very much a creature of its time and place, some historical background into late medieval Florence is essential. Fortunately, the abundant footnotes in the edition linked to above are extremely helpful, though they do slow things down. I’m 4 cantos away from finishing Purgatorio, and hope to eventually finish the trilogy.

2. Joel Best – Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists
A guide to the more common statistical fallacies that newspapers and politicians use. Some of those fallacies are due to ignorance. Some are intentionally misleading. This book seeks to prevent people from being misled in the first place.

3. Fernand Braudel – The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Volume 1
This book was a landmark event in the historiographical shift from kings-and-battles to everyday social history. It is also, unintentionally, the best case for modernity ever put to paper. The first hundred pages are a litany of disease, famine, early death, loneliness, cold, and drudgery. And that’s how life was for most people before the Industrial Revolution.

4. Marcus Tullius Cicero – De Oratore
Cicero was the best, most persuasive public speaker of his day. He was also one of the best prose stylists. De Oratore is his how-to guide for aspiring orators. This book made me a better speaker, a better writer, and was a revelation in how to keep my thoughts organized.

5. Hernando De Soto – The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism
A classic in the field of development economics, which focuses on how to make poor countries rich. De Soto’s answer is rooted in property rights. He wrote this book in the 1980s at great personal risk. Sendero Luminoso, a Maoist terrorist group in De Soto’s native Peru, bombed his offices and made several attempts on his life because this book was such a convincing refutation of their ideas.

6. Will and Ariel Durant – The Story of Civilization, Volume XI: The Age of Napoleon
The last of their masterly eleven-volume survey of human history. Eleven of the best books I have ever read. Oh, how they could write. And their integral historiographical approach was revolutionary in bringing history alive for the layman.

7. Anthony Everitt – Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome
The third and last of Everitt’s biographies of great Romans. His books on Cicero and Augustus are the best of this generation; this one falls a bit short due to the poor historical record. As a result, it is about Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan as much as it is about Hadrian himself. Still a good book.

8. Bob Garfield – The Chaos Scenario
An opinionated take on the decline of old media and the rise of new media.

9. Phil Hanrahan – Life After Favre: A Season of Change with the Green Bay Packers and Their Fans
The author moved from LA back to Wisconsin to follow the Packers in their first season without Favre. Part travel memoir, part sports journalism, it’s about the fans as much as it is the players.

10. Peter Heather – The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians
A new take on Rome’s fall. He thinks it was external, not internal. The Empire was doing just fine in the 5th century, but population pressures in Asia forced mass migrations to the West at a faster pace than the West could assimilate. It’s often paired with Adrian Goldsworthy’s very different book on the same subject, which I haven’t read.

11. Christopher Hitchens – Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography
Short primer on Paine, with all the panache and hyper-erudition one would expect from a Hitchens book.

12. Darrell Huff – How to Lie with Statistics
A classic of its genre from the 1950s. A quick, easy read that taxonomizes the most common tricks used in charts, graphs, and statistics.

13. Steven E. Landsburg – The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics
The economist as philosopher. Very different, and very good.

14. Steven E. Landsburg – More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics
Another book along the lines of his The Armchair Economist and Fair Play. Landsburg’s absolutely relentless use of logic and economic reasoning is inspiring. He’s one of my favorites.

15. Peter T. Leeson – The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates
Pirates and economics, together at last. Leeson was pretty entertaining (not to mention radical) as a professor. So is his book.

16. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner – Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers should Buy Life Insurance
Better than the first one. Borders on being contrarian for its own sake at times. And a climatologist I know says that the physics behind one of the geoengineering schemes they describe in chapter 5 are flawed. But this book will make you think.

17. Niccoló Machiavelli – The Prince
Machiavelli was the original public choice theorist. He describes how Florence worked in his day, which is also how Washington works  in our day. I keep a leather-bound edition in my office, and a paperback edition at home. I make sure to re-read this every few years.

18. Thomas K. McCraw – Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destrtuction
Schumpeter had quite the life story, and McCraw tells it well. His explanation of Schumpeter’s intellectual work is top-notch.

19. Thomas K. McCraw – Prophets of Regulation: Charles Francis Adams; Louis D. Brandeis; James M. Landis; Alfred E. Kahn
If Plutarch wrote about regulation, he would have written something like this.

20. Ludwig von Mises – Human Action: A Treatise on Economics
Didn’t read it in college. Didn’t read it in grad school. Finally read it this year. And I see the world a little differently now. It’s not easy going, but this is the most definitive — and thorough — economic work since Adam Smith.

21. Charles Murray – Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality
Takes a sledgehammer to the Lake Wobegon school of thought. His pedagogy is a little traditionalist for my taste, but his policy recommendations are a breath of fresh air.

22. Johan Norberg – Financial Fiasco: How America ’s Infatuation with Homeownership and Easy Money Created the Economic Crisis
The sanest breakdown of the financial crisis that I’ve seen. Echoes of Tocqueville. I had more to say in an earlier post.

23. Edwin S. Rockefeller – The Antitrust Religion
Strident in tone, but a valuable introduction to the basics of antitrust policy.

24. Joseph A. Schumpeter – Can Capitalism Survive? Creative Destruction and the Future of the Global Economy
An excerpt from Schumpeter’s masterwork, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Contains his explanation of his theory of creative destruction.

25. William Caruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman – 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England
Easily the funniest book I’ve read in years. It came out during the Great Depression, and is still just as funny today.

26. Thomas Sowell – Applied Economics: Thinking beyond Stage One
From the content to the delivery, Sowell is one of the best economics writers there is. He’s in fine form for this book. His politics are to the right of mine, but this book is about economics, so there’s very little politicking.

27. Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets
The tone is haughty, but it contains valuable lessons about probability, certainty, and humility. Though the third seems to have escaped the author.

28. Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
More of the same from Taleb. This is a good thing.

29. Arnold J. Toynbee – Civilization on Trial
Toynbee was one of the best of the big-picture historians. Though his obsession with world government is a bit odd to an early 21st century reader. He thought history was unstoppably progressing in that direction.

30. Joel Waldfogel – Scroogenomics: Why You shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays
I liked it. My review will run tomorrow in the Washington Times.

31. Fiona Watson – Scotland: From Prehistory to the Present
A 300-page survey history that reads quickly. Found it in a gift shop in Scotland while there on vacation. It was exactly what I was looking for: a short introduction to the land I was visiting so I could better appreciate where I was.

32. Derek Wilson – Charlemagne: A Biography
This one was a little disappointing. Only half of this short book is about Charlemagne’s life. The rest is about Europe. Charlemagne was one of the great unifiers of the continent. He was the first post-classical European to reign over a territory as large as a modern nation-state. He set in motion a trend that continues today with the EU. That’s important. But I would have preferred more on his life and times, and less on all that.