My favorite non-fiction books of 2012

by on November 23, 2012 at 3:04 am in Books | Permalink

Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History.

Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

David Hackett Fischer, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States.

George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe.

Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

Michael Dirda, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling.

James Fallows, China Airborne.

Greg Woolf, Rome: An Empire’s Story.

Odd Arne Westad, Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750.

Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography.

Barry Eichengreen, Dwight H. Perkins, and Khanho Shin, From Miracle to Maturity: The Growth of the Korean Economy.

I am sure I missed some, even of my own favorites!

Andreas Moser November 23, 2012 at 4:47 am

I am surprised to see Robert Kaplan’s “Revenge of Geography” included. I found it bad, bad, bad: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/revenge-of-geography/

Rahul November 23, 2012 at 9:33 am

+1 to @Noah below. How can you find a book bad if you never read it? Unless you’ve read it since you posted.

Noah November 23, 2012 at 6:16 am

@Andreas Moser, I’m surprised you found it bad, because according to your blog post you’ve linked there, you have not in fact actually read the book. I think I’ll put a bit more trust in the words of the blogger who has actually read the work in question.

Claudia November 23, 2012 at 8:55 am

An amusing comment given the non-standard definition of “read” here. Not that I have a problem with strategic, selective reading. I was taught professionally to only read what helps me write…sometimes an abstract or book cover will settle the matter of reading further. Also I’ve learned a lot from books (one above) and articles that I thoroughly disagree with the author’s conclusion. Who knows maybe “favorite” even has a contrarian spin here?

anon November 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Who knows maybe “favorite” even has a contrarian spin here?

+1

surprisesaplenty November 23, 2012 at 7:48 am

The Revenge of Geography looks interesting. Sadly, the Kindle version is somehow $2 more expensive than the hardcover – I’m registered as Canadian and purchasing the books with a Korean credit card, if that matters. I hope the library has a copy when I visit Canada next year.

JDR November 23, 2012 at 8:50 am

I’ve read every book by David Hacket Fischer and to be honest, I thought his most recent on New Zealand was his worst. I would recommend “Albion’s Seed” or “Washington’s Crossing” or “Paul Revere” all by Fischer for those looking into his books.

fallibilist November 23, 2012 at 9:18 am

Okay, but the other books you mentioned are not on the exact same subject.

On an absolute scale, do you find the last Fischer book to be good, bad, or middling?

tom mullaney November 23, 2012 at 9:52 am

For anyone who has ever visited New Zealand for more than a few days this is a fabulous book. It exudes Kiwiness.

Ian David Moss November 23, 2012 at 9:22 am

Do women write non-fiction?

Andreas Moser November 23, 2012 at 9:34 am

Yes, about dog puppies, cakes and how to marry a millionaire.

Thor November 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm

You “review” books you haven’t read, AND you are an idiot. Busted!

So Much for Subtlety November 23, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Well he may have reveiwed a book he didn’t read, and even be an idiot, but he does have a point. Women tend not to write serious non-fiction. The NYT probably has a quota, but here at MR people are probably just reviewing what they like. Read the comments. Has a single person recommended a book by a woman so far?

How many non-fiction works by women has MR ever recommended?

Claudia November 23, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Well from just a quick perusal of recent book posts … Tyler seems to be a fan of Camille Paglia and a bit less beloved of Sheila Bair. Jodi Ettenberg and Emily Oster also got shout outs. Not going to argue that women write fewer nonfiction books in the genres highlighted here, but Andreas still said more about himself in his comment than anything else.

Rahul November 24, 2012 at 12:01 am

It’s not just in non-fiction though. Of the 109 Nobels awarded for Literature only 12 went to women. I won’t speculate about the reasons but yes, women writers seem underrepresented.

So Much for Subtlety November 24, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Claudia, so that is four female authors mentioned in recent times. Twelve are listed above. None of them female.

Yes, I think we can agree women do not often write good non-fiction. I also agree that Andreas said more about himself – he said that he was willing to state the obvious regardless of the feelings of the politically correct. I am not sure that is a bad thing.

Claudia November 24, 2012 at 8:27 pm

I do not agree that women do not often write good nonfiction. I concede that they don’t show up here or on some other lists. (I will agree that some men here seem incapable of stating facts without being cute.) And if women aren’t on the lists above…is that a problem? Miles once argued in detail to me that literature would be greatly improved if dolphins could write too. Would literature be better if women wrote more?

So Much for Subtlety November 25, 2012 at 2:20 am

Sorry but you don’t agree? Why do you think so few women turn up here then? This is a genuine question as I am genuinely surprised you are rejecting the evidence. As I see it anyway. You think that all the readers of MR are engaged in a vast sexist conspiracy to keep good women down?

Is that a problem? Not for me. Unless I get a job at a Western university and do something crass like point it out. Then it may be a problem for me. I think it is a problem for some people though. I would tend to think that literature would be better if we had more diverse voices, but only if those voices were worth listening to. They have to be different and good. Not just different. I would carefully suggest very few good women non-fiction writers exist. It is not that there is a vast conspiracy. They probably just have better things to do.

Claudia November 25, 2012 at 8:34 am

“You think that all the readers of MR are engaged in a vast sexist conspiracy to keep good women down?”

Nah. I just don’t think some of you appreciate the gifts and talents of others. Also the market outcome is not always efficient, so I was unwilling to say that women don’t write good non fiction just because they are underrepresented on critical lists. Some of the best writers I know are women. They just don’t always appear in these forms (for many reasons). And the world changes so I wouldn’t want you to use gender as a marker of quality. To decide if someone is worth listening to, first you need to open your ears…err open your mind.

Patstercat November 23, 2012 at 9:22 am

“Turing’s Cathedral” is superb-tracing the origins of geophysical fluid
dynamics,game theory,computational biology,Monte Carlo simulation,
and many other things.Its a captivating portrait of Von Neuman and also
contains a history of the early years of the Institute for Advanced Study.
To really understand ALL of it is worth a BS degree,I think.

Nick Higgins November 23, 2012 at 9:30 am

Rome? Really? I came expecting great things following the reviews and went away dissapointed.

Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography was similar.

Why Most Nations Fail was the best for my money…

JoeDog November 23, 2012 at 11:57 am

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918. This is the best single volume I’ve read on the First World War. It really helps to place the major events in context. The Ludendorf offensive feels less like a desperate roll of the dice than a rational strategic decision given the circumstances of policy makers.

Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I. Too often the story of summer 1914 is told from the perspective of a few men in closed door meetings. This narrative provides plenty of bottom up perspective. You get a feeling for what it was like for the people who would pay the price for the ignorant behavior of a few vain and stupid men.

Honorable mentions: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 and Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves. After abandoning my quest for an affordable first edition I finally read Graves in paperback….

mkt November 23, 2012 at 2:53 pm

“The White War” was eye-opening, an account of one of the fronts of WW I which normally gets largely ignored. Thompson, the author, shows how Italy’s political and grand strategic decisions derived from its recent history (Italy only became unified in 1870 and some wanted to add even more territory — “Italia irrendenta”) as well as how those same politics later led to Fascism. More than any other military history book that I’ve read, it illustrates the influence of these political and military events upon art, from Italian Futurism to Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”. Yet another memento of the war is the “via ferrata”: steep routes with mountain climbing aids such as ladders, cables, and fixed anchors that hikers and climbers in the Alps can use to ascend terrain that would otherwise require advanced climbing and mountaineering skills. They were built by the Italians to facilitate the movement and supply of mountain troops. Thompson is perhaps a little too critical of the incompetence of the Italian military leadership — the outcome in the end depended less on the decisions of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire than on those of France, Britain, and Germany — but even he grudgingly admits that the Italians had the best military mountain engineers of the war.

Hydracos November 23, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Charels Murray, really?

mike November 23, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Why not?

KJiang November 23, 2012 at 12:53 pm

No Love for Zingales’ “A Capitalism for the People”?

Tyler Cowen November 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm

That is a very good book, I told you there were omissions…

Steve Roth November 23, 2012 at 5:24 pm

The Social Conquest of Earth?!

Luke Johnson November 23, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Very surprised to see Charles Murray on that list. He is an atrocious academic – in “The Bell Curve,” he suggests genetic difference may be a factor in racial discrepancies in IQ testing, which is why no one in the academic world (aside from other AEI “scholars”) takes him even remotely seriously. Not only is “Coming Apart” is full of absurd generalizations about “white” culture (which arguably doesn’t exist), it also completely eliminates race as a variable as its very premise, thereby eliminating its ability to provide any meaningful cultural analysis of this highly diverse nation. REALLY? Charles Murray? I’m disappointed. I like your blog otherwise though.

So Much for Subtlety November 23, 2012 at 8:38 pm

I agree that Charles Murray did mention genetics in the Bell Curve and that no one in the Academic world takes him seriously. But you miss the key point – that is not the same as being wrong is it? No one has remotely been able to show he was wrong. Not even close.

Coming Apart is full of generalizations about White culture but it eliminates race as a variable? Do tell. How can you simultaneously talk about White people, but not talk about Race? What is Whiteness but a racial construct? What is more, how can you condemn him for talking about genes on the one hand (which I assume is a way of saying race) while in the very next sentence condemn him for not talking about race?

My opinion of Murray has varied over time. I suppose I am a gradual convert. But even when I didn’t like him, I took him seriously. You should do too. He is a serious scholar in the way that Academic social sciences are not.

Ugly American November 24, 2012 at 8:41 am

A single copy of one gene involved in neural branching can raise your IQ 20% but two copies of the same gene causes schizophrenia. That gene is common in people of Jewish ancestry.

A single copy of one gene involved in red blood cell formation can make you very resistant to malaria but two copies of that gene give you sickle cell anemia. That gene is common in people of African ancestry.

Specific, measurable, repeatable genetic differences between humans of different ancestry is well documented (23andMe, etc).

We have identified genes that code for various neurotransmitter production. We know that changing the levels of neurotransmitters changes IQ and behavior. Claiming there is no genetic aspect to IQ or behavior is like claiming the planet is only 4,000 years old.

Mike Steinberg November 25, 2012 at 3:58 am

@ Luke Johnson,

Actually, when privately polled very few academics believe group differences in IQ are purely due to environmental variation. Far more consider both genetic _and_ environmental variation to play role.

And why would that be so surprising? Why would different physical and cultural environments favor the exact same physical and mental traits?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_IQ_Controversy,_the_Media_and_Public_Policy_(book)

D November 23, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Uh, Luke, Murray’s view, that genetics MAY be a factor, is pretty much the norm.

So Much For Subtlety November 24, 2012 at 2:58 am

I don’t think that Murray’s view is that genetics may be a factor. Nor is anyone else’s. After all, what distinguishes us from, say, dogs is more than an education. No amount of progressive education will teach a Shitzu ancient Greek.

Everyone agrees genes play a role. Most people also agree that variations in humans is partly genetic. Stephen Jay Gould even said so. Murray just takes a stronger line than most in saying that intelligence is largely genetic – and that we can’t do much about it. Society is the way society is because of the genetic inheritances of most people in society. The Left obviously does not like this idea. He added to this by implying, you may choose a stronger word if you like, that not only are poor people poor because of their genes, but most Black people are poor because of their genes. That is, racial differences are natural. The Left, obviously, does not like this idea.

As with Global Warming, the fact that they respond with insults in the main rather than reasoned argument probably tells you what they really think.

Mike Steinberg November 25, 2012 at 4:00 am

@ So Much For Subtlety,

With “A Darwinian Left” I thought Peter Singer attempted to counsel those on the left to accept that some group discrepancies may not be due to environmental unfairness, some may stem from diverse evolution.

Brett November 24, 2012 at 1:18 am

If the Eichengreen book wasn’t $40.00, I’d be tempted to get it.

I’ll take a stab at the Greg Woolf book, especially since he edited the Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World (which I really enjoyed).

Pam December 4, 2012 at 10:57 pm

If you want a good non-fiction book by a woman then read “Blue Ribbons, Bitter Bread” by Susanna deVries. This is the story of Joice Loch, an Australian woman, and the amazing work she did in Europe.
Anything by Susanna deVries is well researched and informative and written in an interesting manner. I highly recommend her books.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: