First there are the economics books, including books by people I know, including Piketty, The Second Machine Age, Tim Harford’s wonderful macro explainer, Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down, Lane Kenworthy on social democracy, The Fourth Revolution by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, Daniel Drezner The System Worked, and Frank Buckley on why the Canadian system of government is better. And Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. We’ve already talked, written, and thought about those plenty, and they are not what this list is about, so I will set them aside. Most of you are looking for excellent new books in addition to these, books you might not have heard about.
Here are the other non-fiction books of the year which took my fancy, mostly in the order I read them, noting that the link usually leads you to my previous review or comments:
Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. Long, exhausting, and wonderful.
Christopher Hale, Massacre in Malaya, a broader history than it at first sounds, fascinating from beginning to end.
Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.
The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert.
John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition. An excellent treatment of how much work remains to be done in the “nation building” enterprise in South Asia.
Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City. A sociology graduate student hangs out with lawbreakers and learns about police oppression, an excellent micro-study. My column on her book is here.
Gendun Chopel, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, Tibetan scholar goes to India and records his impressions, unusual.
George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of His World. I loved this one.
I’ve only read the first half of the new Tom Holland translation of Herdotus’s Histories (I will get to the rest), but surely it deserves note.
Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. This book won the National Book Award for non-fiction.
David Eimer, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China. A look at China’s outermost regions and their ethnic minorities. Just imagine that, we had two excellent popular China books in the same year.
The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa. Repetitious in parts, sometimes incoherent too, but it offers a smart and unique perspective you won’t get from any of the other books on this list or any other.
Jonathan Rottenberg, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. This treatment stresses the (partial) cognitive advantages of having a tendency toward depression.
Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary, assorted facts and insights about the English language, you don’t have to feel like reading a book about poetry to find this worthwhile.
David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition, huge, expensive, wonderful, more than just a cookbook though it is that too. I’ve spent some of the last few weeks learning these recipes and what makes them tick.
Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. A good overview of how some of the main pieces of today’s information technology world fell into place, starting with the invention of the computer and running up through the end of the 1990s.
Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.
Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life.
Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. As good or better than the classic biographies of the composer.
Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, vol. 1. This one I have only read a part of (maybe 150 pp.?), it is very long and does not fit my current reading interests, but it seems very good and impressive and also has received strong reviews. So I feel I should include it.
Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.
So who wins? If I had to pick a #1, it would be The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, not the kind of book I would be expecting to coronate, which is a testament to the magnetic force it has exercised over my imagination.
Then I would pick Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City and David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition as the runners-up.
My fiction picks were here. There are still some wonderful books to come out this year, and already-published books I will still read, especially after mining other “best of” lists, so around Dec.31 or so I’ll post an updated account of what I would add to this list.