Best non-fiction books of 2013

by on November 20, 2013 at 6:35 am in Books | Permalink

There were more strong candidates this year than usual.  The order here is more or less the order I read them in, not the order of preference:

Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschmann.

Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities.

Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.

I liked Neil Powell, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music and also Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century.

M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath.

Rana Mitter, China’s War With Japan 1937-1945, the US edition has the sillier title Forgotten Ally.  The return to knowing some background on this conflict is rising.

Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.

William Haseltine, Affordable Excellence: The Singapore Health System.

Clare Jacobson, New Museums in China.  Good text but mostly a picture book, stunning architecture, no art, full of lessons.

Mark Lawrence Schrad, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.

Paul Sabin, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: An Authorized Biography, from Grantham to the Falklands.

From books “close at hand,” I very much liked John List and Uri Gneezy, Virginia Postrel on glamour, Lant Pritchett, The Rebirth of Education, and Tim Harford on macroeconomics.

Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia gets rave reviews, although I have not yet read my copy.  From the UK I’ve ordered the new Holland translation of Herodotus and Richard Overy’s The Bombing War and have high expectations for both.

If I had to offer my very top picks for the year, they would all be books I didn’t expect to like nearly as much as I did:

Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region.

Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy, Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.

Mark Lewisohn, Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, volume I.

Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.

Apologies to those I left out or forgot, I am sure there were more.

michael November 20, 2013 at 7:48 am

I ordered “Confessions of a sociopath” from my library, but guess what, it has not been returned by the current borrower, and is over a month overdue!

P November 20, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I downloaded a pirated copy of it.

DK November 20, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I purchased Kindle version. What can I say? She is a riot:
“I have an incredibly green thumb for money, particularly in the stock market. I fully funded my retirement by the time I was thirty years old. Since I started investing seriously in 2004, I have averaged a 9.5 percent return in the stock market—257 percent better than the 3.7 percent average returns of the S & P 500 over the same period. Beating the market this soundly and consistently is unheard of and many argue it is impossible (or due solely to luck). In 2011, only one out of five mutual fund managers beat the S & P 500, and only a handful of individuals have managed to do so with any regularity. I do it every year. I am not trading on better knowledge. In fact, I am a relatively unsophisticated investor. Instead, I am trading on a special vision. When I look at the world, the flaws or vulnerabilities in people and the social institutions that they’ve made jump out to me, as if they were highlighted for me and only me to see.”

I am not sure I will be able to finish this “one of the best books of 2013″

JC November 21, 2013 at 1:59 am

One problem. From everything I’ve seen of her on TV and from the book, she’s not a sociopath. She’s at best a narcissist who latched on to the sociopath label because it had greater sex appeal.

Lotta Moberg November 20, 2013 at 7:52 am

Correction: the author of “How Asia Works” is Joe Studwell.
/Lotta

Tyler Cowen November 20, 2013 at 8:00 am

Thanks, fixed…

Widmerpool November 20, 2013 at 8:11 am

Agree on “Going Clear” – and The Master is an excellent film to see afterwards.

Z November 20, 2013 at 8:49 am

Herodotus is on my reading list. The reviews have been glowing, which can be misleading. In order to appear sophisticated, reviewers often praise the classics, even when done poorly. But, Herodotus is hard to ruin if you are a fan of the period. At least I think so. I’ll find out soon enough.

Ray Lopez November 20, 2013 at 10:45 am

Herodotus he says. He wants to read an English translation of Herodotus. As a Greek speaker, I prefer to read the original… LOL, just kidding. I do speak and read modern Greek but it’s nothing like ancient Greek, which a lot of Brits trained in the classics can read much better than I. I meet them on occasion in Greece, Blue Guide book in hand, and they often know more about ancient Greece than me.

Z November 20, 2013 at 11:56 am

You don’t read Greek? Pity. I kid. I’m of the age where Greek was fading from the curriculum. Latin was still required and a modern language, but Greek had been dropped a few years earlier. I suspect that was due to the one Greek teacher retiring or dying. I wonder if any America primary schools teach ancient Greek these days.

kiwi dave November 20, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Latin was still required and a modern language

You can’t be that old.

Roy November 20, 2013 at 5:29 pm

My mother took Church Latin as her second “modern language”, the ancient languages were Attic Greek and Hebrew (the latter is kind of funny now if you think about it), of course it was a Catholic college but at the time in some circles it was almost a spoken language. She actually used it in Italy, and Germany too, she said that when you were lost you just looked for a priest.

Ray Lopez November 20, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Google Translate (GT) is your friend…

Διάβασα ελληνική αλλά και σύγχρονα ελληνικά, που ονομάζεται «δημοτική». Μετάφραση Google είναι φίλος σου, φίλε!

Let’s see how GT translated this into English, off by one word but not bad:
Read Greek and [sic, BUT not 'and'] modern Greek, called ‘popular’. Google Translate is your friend, buddy!

ummm November 20, 2013 at 9:12 am

looks like another strong day for stocks.
still no correction, crisiss, stagnation, or recession. maybe finally close above 16000

jtf November 20, 2013 at 9:16 am

It’s interesting how the English language publications bumble around with the Sino-Japanese theater of WWII. Mitter is a Chiang Kai-Shek apologist and therefore has to demonize Stilwell. Edgar Snow is a Mao admirer and his biases are also apparent. Tuchman was a Stilwell apologist and gets the brunt of Mitter’s ire. It seems impossible to find a set of histories that agree.

Disclosure: In my opinion, they were all bastards.

Roy November 20, 2013 at 9:33 am

It is pretty hard to have any knowledge of Chinese sources and not demonize Stilwell. Chiang Kai Shek could never be as bad as the general Non Chinese received wisdom thinks, so it is also hard for anyone who actually knows anything about China to not look like an apologist for him. Interestingly current PRC scholarship tends to agree with Mitter on the Generalissimo.

The chief difference between Mitter and Snow and Tuchman is that Mitter can read and speak Chinese.

jtf November 20, 2013 at 9:44 am

To which I’d reply, it’s pretty hard not to demonize Stilwell if, after one biographer pissed them off (it might actually have been Tuchman), the Stilwell family refused access to his diaries. In general I think that the modern revisionist perspective that has tried hard to rehabilitate Mao and Chiang Kai-Shek has swung the pendulum in the other direction on current historical opinion of Stilwell; he may have been a bastard, but he was a bastard that was largely correct in all of his predictions about Chiang.

Relying on the Chinese perspective as Mitter did obviously paints a different picture than other contemporary Western histories but by no means does it paint a definitive one; at best this is just another voice among the cacophony of new books coming out now that China matters in the West once again.

I can speak and read mandarin as well, though to continue the disclosure it’s because my mother maybe kinda-sorta lived under Chiang’s dictatorship and had was forced to praise him in rallies and taught to shame her parents because they spoke Taiwanese at home… so I suppose I have a personal reason to despise any rehabilitation of Chiang.

Chris November 20, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I think the issue is whether the predictions about Chiang were correct.

First, all the predictions Chiang’s enemies made about Mao and the “agrarian reformers” were vastly incorrect. Those predictions wasn’t just done by out and out Communists or even sympathizers, but people with strong anti-Communist credentials. They were fooled, but Chiang wasn’t which means Chiang might have had more intelligent insight than his detractors. In similar regards, new information coming out of Mao’s administration of the Yenan Soviet point that almost 99% of what was said about it in the West was false. People accepted the mythology too uncritically.

Second, if Chiang was really as bad as all that, why did his rule in Taiwan turn out to be so successful (while acknowledging its repression) especially relative to Mao’s rule of the PRC? Shouldn’t the same flaws that caused Chiang to lose the mainland ended up ruining Taiwan? Since it didn’t, could there be factors explaining the Nationalist defeat outside of Chiang?

Third, the extent of Soviet support for Mao during the Civil War is far better known now than before. Without that support, it is highly unlikely Mao would have won. Without the US constantly interfering in the Civil War by cutting off arms to the Nationalists or pushing Chiang to agree to ceasefires, could Chiang have won anyway – perhaps not in Manchuria, but keeping control south of the Great Wall or Yellow River? There’s a lot of evidence he could have.

Fourth, China’s poor performance post 1942 is entirely due to it being the only major Allied belligerent to not receive Lend Lease in any quantity. China received only a minuscule amount, and most of THAT actually went to the US forces in China, not the Chinese. The lack of supply was due to the cutting of the Burma Road, and the responsibility for that is entriely due to Stilwell and the British.

Fifth, Stillwell deserves criticism because he did not do the things he was ordered to do. He frequently disobeyed his direct superior in the China Theatre (Chiang) in ways that would not be tolerated elsewhere (Stilwell’s difficulty was noted by other Allied generals as well). He never created a staff system which was a major responsibility as Chief of Staff in the China Theatre. When Wedemeyer replaced him, Stilwell left him nothing which was a major breach of professionalism. Much of the reason why Ichigo was a huge success for the Japanese was that Stilwell refused to support the Chinese forces fighting in Hunan and Guangxi, preferring to keep the best Chinese troops in Burma.

Sixth, some of Stilwell’s statements about Chiang are now known to be lies, or at best highly convoluted interpretations of actual facts. Stilwell frequently blamed Chiang for decisions and events outside of his control. After Stilwell left and was replaced by Wedemeyer, mysteriously lots of things Stilwell said Chiang would never let happen, happened. The difference was that Wedemeyer accepted Chiang’s political control of the country and army, and never attempted to remove him from command which was the main goal of Stilwell.

Seventh, much of the criticism applied to Chiang isn’t actually against Chiang. It applies to much of his political opponents which includes many people inside the Kuomintang. Chiang agreed with much of the criticism of the KMT. Whenever Chiang had political dominance to assert direct control, conditions in China improved dramatically during the Nanking Decade as they did postwar in Taiwan. Chiang’s major problem was that much fo the KMT and China were not under his control, and he actually functioned more as a first among equals than supreme ruler. He had difficulties that none of the other major belligerents had. Chiang’s reluctance of reform was not because he did not want to do, but that he had to pick the right time to do it. Premature reform in 1930 set off the Central Plains War which almost bankrupted the government. That instilled in Chiang a desire to implement reforms only slowly in order to keep the peace. Much of the early criticism against Chiang ignores this.

Chiang was a Confucian paternal autocrat, and he was never ideal by American standards. Nevertheless, he was far more capable thn given credit for, and his American critics were more wrong than right now that we have historical hindsight. Chiang could not overcome the huge challenges he faced (one of which was an ally – the USA – that did not support him as much as the USSR supported his enemy), but it is hard to see who else could have done a better job in those same circumstances.

It’s easy to dislike Chiang. But it was probably better for the Taiwanese that he was in charge of them, and not Mao.

jtf November 20, 2013 at 2:06 pm

This is a discussion for another time and place, but I’m glad to see that there are fellow enthusiasts here at MR. And just so we’re not starting off on the wrong foot, absolutely Taiwan was better off with Chiang than with Mao.

kiwi dave November 20, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Appreciate the discussion, jtf and Chris. Learning about things I knew so little about is one of the great things about MR.

Viscount Slim’s “Defeat Into Victory”, aside from being an amazing (and under-acknowledged) story in itself, has a lot of interesting stuff about Stilwell, his dealings with Chiang and the incredible difficulty of supplying China.

Roy November 20, 2013 at 5:47 pm

I basically agree with what Chris said,

As to Taiwan My Guoyu even has a Taiwanese accent, one of my closest friend’s grandfather was executed by the KMT after 2/28, along with every other non elderly adult male in their family, so I know all about Formosa Betrayed. But even my friend will admit that the White Terror never equaled what happened on the Mainland. I have never met a Taiwanese Nationalist who had a kind word to say for Mao. Anyway Stillwell had nothing to do with China after 1944, so it is beside the point. Stillwell was probably the single worst allied general to send to China diplomatically speaking, and he was a lousy field commander as well. If he had led US troops in battle he would be ranked somewhere between Hooker and Braxton Bragg.

Steven November 20, 2013 at 10:00 am

Do any of you commenters read anything close to this number of books in a year? Did you see the nonfiction list? This just looks like bragging to me. Not exactly a “humble brag” but some cousin of that. A brag masked as discussion about something else.

Widmerpool November 20, 2013 at 10:25 am

Why get caught up in that Steven? Take it for what it’s worth. Tyler’s lists have directed me to a number of books I would otherwise not have noticed (Knausgaard most particularly), although I must say I don’t understand his (and others) enthusiasm for Claire Messud.

In general, lists of this sort from writers/thinkers you are on the same wavelength with are always welcome.

kiwi dave November 20, 2013 at 10:46 am

Tyler names about 23 books by my count — over a year, that’s less than one a fortnight, which isn’t all that much if non-fiction reading is one of your main leisure activities (although some of these, e.g. Herodotus, are pretty long and dense), what’s intimidating is that this is just the selection of the best. Although I think he mentioned elsewhere that he doesn’t necessrily read every book end to end, or feel compelled to finish every book he starts if he doesn’t like it.

Ray Lopez November 20, 2013 at 10:55 am

I read about 12 books a year not related to my field. I am finishing some of the books TC has on his list. But I don’t speed read like TC does. Also you got to remember TC, as a kind of idiot savant, is really good at reading and absorbing information, like a fetus. TC won the NJ State Chess championship back in 77-78 and his memory must be vast. He probably knows entire books of chess openings by heart. He can probably play blindfold chess too (most players can, even a relative patzer like me) and for a sports analogy would be the guy in the weight room that can bench press twice his body weight, while the rest of us struggle to get to one times. He is an intellectual giant. No really he is. We are mental midgets by comparison.

Thor November 20, 2013 at 11:19 am

I read about a book a week (non-fiction) and then as many as 2-3 works of fiction a week. Concurrently, not consecutively.

I’m reading 3 of TC’s recommended books now..

Z November 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I have found my book reading has declined to about a book a month. My other reading has gone up considerably. I bet I read a book’s worth of text a week on-line. My work requires a lot of reading as well, but mostly technical stuff. I wonder if that’s not true of most non-academics. On the other hand, the number of non-readers seems to have gone up, despite book sales remaining flat so I have no sense for what constitutes “the reading public” these days.

Another Tom (Though There Are Others) November 20, 2013 at 11:58 am

Like TC, I am a bit of a natural speed-reader. I’ve finished over 100 books this year for the third consecutive year, with non-fiction the majority of those. Those totals do not include books I start and don’t finish for whatever reason, nor do they include the times I pick up a book I’ve read before and re-read favorite passages. If I were to dedicate myself to reading as much as TC seems to and dropped some other hobbies, plus did a better job of controlling my online reading and replaced that with books, I believe I could get to 250 books a year. If instead of reading all those I ruthlessly weeded out the ones that were uninteresting to me the way TC does, I could probably get to 400 or more if I had people sending me oodles of review copies.

Steven November 20, 2013 at 12:46 pm

It might not seem so brag-like if the regular commenters here also had similar reading habits. I for one do not. I only read blogs. I don’t have the attention span anymore for any book, and certainly not 23 books like these.

This blogpost reminds me of the time that Tyler offered his list of “most walkable cities” and then proceeded to list about a dozen international cities from the furthest corners of the globe. Sure, TC’s been everywhere, and been there enough times to actually have an opinion on how “walkable” they are, but hasn’t everybody?

Roy November 20, 2013 at 5:56 pm

I’ve read 45 books this year outside my field cover to cover, but then other than textbooks my field only produces papers, and mostly short ones at that. While I will admit a couple of books of poetry, about half the total were novels, 16 were respectable non fiction, and only two of them were non academic titles. Of course I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I usually hit at least 55 books a year, cover to cover. The net has certainly hurt my raw numbers, but the books I read now tend to be better.

Hadur November 20, 2013 at 10:18 am

I can’t believe a social scientist would waste his time reading Herodotus. If you have any respect for rigor, the first historian is Thucydides and Herodotus is at best a reference material for explaining obscure references in literature.

karl November 20, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Ever heard of “reading for pleasure”? Even grinds like Tyler Cowen do it occasionally.

Roy November 20, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Herodotus is very useful, so you are basically saying you think all pre-modern history is worthless. Herodotus is a far better source than anything on earth that predates him, and many of his “lies” have turned out to have real kernels of truth to them.

Unsympathetic November 21, 2013 at 11:40 am

You just described disinformation.. not “kernels of truth.” After reading your comment I am even less inclined to read herodotus than before.

Vernunft November 21, 2013 at 2:18 am

You have a very weird, bad, and anti-intellectual view of what makes for good reading, and I think you probably want people to think you’re smarter than you are. I am so sorry for you.

gfa November 20, 2013 at 10:33 am

What about Axworthy’s Revolutionary Iran or Dikotter’s new one on China?

Ed November 20, 2013 at 11:12 am

The war in China is covered fairly extensively in both Beevor’s and Hasting’s excellent one volume histories of World War 2, both of which probably should be on this list. It is an under-explored facet of the war. By the way, both are critical of Stillwell.

One problem with writing history of the war in China is that Japan essentially won. In 1944 they were able to go on the offensive and capture even more Chinese territory. At that point the US gave up on turning China into the equivalent of the Eastern Front in Europe. The Japanese got beaten by the Red Army in Manchuria in 1945, but first they were facing the Red Army, and second they had transferred their best units back to Japan at that point to defend Japan.

So despite the fact that the Japanese attacked the US and UK in the first place to seize resources (mainly oil) to enable them to keep the war going in China, the fighting in China itself did little to cause Japan’s defeat by the US.

kiwi dave November 20, 2013 at 11:31 am

I was going to mention Beevor (haven’t got around to reading Hastings one-volume effort yet). One of the things it impressed on me was how important Khalkhin Gol was for later in the war, in its effect on Japan and the USSR.

No doubt the growing economic and political importance of China (and the influence of 1937-45 on current Sino-Japanese relations) is connected to the increased prominence given to the role of China in WWII.

kiwi dave November 20, 2013 at 11:54 am

So despite the fact that the Japanese attacked the US and UK in the first place to seize resources (mainly oil) to enable them to keep the war going in China, the fighting in China itself did little to cause Japan’s defeat by the US

Which was in no small part because the unoccupied portion of China was landlocked and hemmed-in by the Himalayas, making it practically impossible to keep it supplied sufficiently to fight. China’s role in Japan’s defeat may have been limited, but Russia’s was pretty substantial: the fact that Japan had to keep over a million troops in Manchuria (including some of its best units) sitting out the war against the US and the British Empire was pretty major. Think of the difference they may have made to the Burma/India front or in the islands (assuming they could have been adequately transported and supplied).

Roy November 21, 2013 at 8:30 am

China was not so easy to conquer, the amount of Japanese men and material tied down in China made the war a lot easier to win.

And then there is the essential fact that the war aim of the Japanese was North China. The Japanese attacked the allies because certain groups in the Japanese state actually thought expanding the war would help them conquer China. Securing oil, rubber, tin, etc… and closing the Burma Road are the reasons Japan attacked the US, Brits, and Dutch. It certainly wasn’t because they coveted the Philippines.

john personna November 20, 2013 at 11:28 am

As an aside, I am looking for good reads previous even to 1913. Such works are well represented on Google Books, and as free downloads for my phone. These books are often enjoyable, and with a surprising twist here or there, as when a book on the ornithology of California gives instruction on cleaning one’s gun. Just to throw one example out there, I really liked “Camping and Cruising in Florida, by James Alexander Henshall.” It seems that I might hopscotch from there to similar works using GoodReads.com, thus creating a plan for my winter reading.

GovCo November 20, 2013 at 1:12 pm

It bridges that date, but check out A Mencken Chrestomathy.

john personna November 20, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Published in 1949, it is in that zone likely to be locked in perpetual copyright. The American Language, 1919, is available though.

robfordforpm November 21, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Sounds like a bunch of Jewish mind control to me.

Boonton November 22, 2013 at 8:53 am

William Haseltine, Affordable Excellence: The Singapore Health System.

I read this too since. At a Kindle price of $0.00 it’s hard to go wrong. But long story short, the system is basically Obamacare with more gov’t added in (for example, not only can you buy a plan with a high deductible, you *must* save some of your money by order of the gov’t in a savings account). Of course it’s not the exact same thing but it’s essentially a mixed system that combines a single payer type ‘base level’ health care for the poor and a mix of varying levels above that that depend upon how much the individual is willing to pay for enhanced services.

Julia Meadow November 24, 2013 at 1:17 pm

For me the best non-fiction read this year so far has been Joy Chudacoff’s What’s Next? http://whatsnextthebook.com. I found this book to be very inspiring and packed with great advice throughout. I ran my own small business for 10 years before taking a break to be a full time mother for a few years and it can be really difficult to just pick back up where you left off and move forward again with your business. What’s Next? was the perfect read at the right time for me and any woman finding themselves in a similar position should get their hands on a copy asap. Really wonderful book and easily my pick of the year for how it has helped and motivated me.

banana and radiation November 27, 2013 at 10:03 am

A highly recommended a book for geeks of science and all-night phylosophical conversations, and much more, trying to change life and death:
A sample in goo.gl/IUlSMu

Robert Jones December 1, 2013 at 12:57 am

Great list of books. I have read many of them and will be adding some more off your list to my own list of books to read. Another great book that recently caught my attention is the book, “Rich in Years” by author Johann Christoph Arnold. http://www.richinyears.com The book contains stories of real people who have overcome loneliness, dementia, disability and the fear of death and is inspiring me to do the same.

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