Best non-fiction books of 2015

by on November 23, 2015 at 12:53 am in Books, Education | Permalink

These are in the order I read them, more or less, not in terms of preference.  And I would say this year had more good entries than ever before.  Here goes, noting that most of the links go to my earlier reviews of them:

First, here are the economics books:

Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect, by Joshua D. Angrist and Jörn Steffen-Pischke, technically late 2014 but it was too late to make that list.

Dani Rodrik, Economics Rules.

Richard H. Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics.  Self-recommending.

Garett Jones, The Hive Mind.  Why national IQ matters.

Scott Sumner, The Midas Paradox.  Boo to the gold standard during the Great Depression.

Greg Ip, Foolproof: Why Safety Can be Dangerous, and How Danger Makes Us Safe.

And the rest, more or less the non-economics books:

Robert Tombs, The English and Their History.

R. Taggart Murphy, Japan and the Shackles of the Past.  The last section is brilliant on current Japanese politics.

Michael Meyer, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.  Adam Minter has a very good and useful review of a good book.

Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey.  Will improve your listening.

The Mahabarata, by Carole Satyamurti.  Rewritten and edited to be easier to digest, intelligible and rewarding.  As “an achievement,” this book does have some claim to be number one.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers.  You can never read enough commentary on the Torah.

Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, North Korea Confidential, how things really work there (speculative), rain boots for instance are a fashion item and black markets are rife.

Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, a good general history of the country.

Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi.  He’s a very smart guy.

Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.  Goes deep into a place most people are ignoring.

Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People.  The Nordics, that is.

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth.  He succeeded in writing an original book about the Holocaust, which is hard to do.

Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie?  Background on France being screwed up.

Niall Ferguson, Henry Kissinger, vol. I.  Background on America being screwed up.

Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane.  How to talk, think, and write about the British countryside.

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.  The best of the various recent books on Humboldt.

Frank McLynn, Genghis Khan.  Background on a whole bunch of other places being screwed up.

Daniel P. Todes, Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science. I didn’t have time to read all of this book, but it seemed very good in the fifth or so I was able to read.  By the way, the whole salivating dog at the bell story is a fiction.

Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, readable and useful.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: At her Zenith: In London, Washington, and Moscow, vol.2 of the biography, 1984-1987.  This one I haven’t finished yet.  I ordered my copy advance from UK Amazon, it doesn’t come out in the U.S. until early January.  There is some chance this is the very best book of the year.

I don’t quite see a clear first prize.  If I had to pick, I would opt for a joint prize to the biographies of Musk, Kissinger, Thatcher, and Genghis Khan.  This was the year of the biography.

Sorry if I forgot yours, this list is imperfect in various ways!  And the year isn’t over yet, so I’ll post an update on the very good books I read between now and the end of the year, probably on December 31.

1 TuringTest November 23, 2015 at 1:04 am

These lists are so tiresome …

2 dan1111 November 23, 2015 at 2:37 am

It must be a real annoyance to read all the way to the end of an entire 600+ word post and realize “Awww man, that was just a list of books!” I suggest in the future Tyler make sure that the title to any such post is prefaced by the word “LIST: ” in all caps. In addition, in case that is missed, the post could be prefaced with text such as this:

Warning: what follows is a list of book recommendations, which may be considered dull by some readers. Please proceed with caution.

That way, he can be sure that readers such as you can easily avoid the undesired content.

Alternatively, he could just ask you what topics you find interesting and only blog about that. That may be easier.

3 Thiago Ribeiro November 23, 2015 at 3:36 am

“suggest in the future Tyler make sure that the title to any such post is prefaced by the word ‘LIST’ in all caps. In addition, in case that is missed, the post could be prefaced with text such as this: ‘Warning: what follows is a list of book recommendations, which may be considered dull by some readers. Please proceed with caution.'”
I like it, trigger warnings for book lists. But it begets many questions. Does each book on the list count as one separeted microaggression (or they count and count and count)? Or is the list itself a macroaggression? Isn’t a 731-page book about Pavlov and his drooling dogs a mega-agression? Can someone hold my hand, please?

4 Enrique November 23, 2015 at 3:43 pm

There are something like 26 or 27 books on this list … Tyler must have an elastic definition of “best”

5 elppa November 23, 2015 at 4:50 pm

More likely just as we would consider say 2% of the books we read as best , since TC reads probably 100 imes what the average commenter on this blog reads , , 26 or 27 is not an unreasonable number. And it also help readers choose among them based on interest rather than if he listed only 4 or 5.

6 Dzhaughn November 23, 2015 at 9:04 pm

Comments about how tiresome things are so tiresome, I personally always refrain from making them.

7 austrartsua November 23, 2015 at 2:02 am

Hi Tyler have you read “the evolution of everything” by Matt Ridley? It’s actually not that well written overall, although it has some very good passages. I thought it would be right up your alley – all about the invisible hand in language, economics, morality, biology etc. I think it deserves to be on this list.

8 gregor November 23, 2015 at 2:28 am

When I was growing up, my dad told me to never read Mahabharata as the mere act of reading it will lead to family discord of the proportions told in the epic.

Perhaps Carole Satyamurti’s translation is reason enough to take that risk.

9 Thiago Ribeiro November 23, 2015 at 3:37 am

“When I was growing up, my dad told me to never read Mahabharata as the mere act of reading it will lead to family discord of the proportions told in the epic.”
Why?

10 So Much For Subtlety November 23, 2015 at 3:55 am

I hope he banned you from reading Lords of the Rings

11 MRComme ter1 November 23, 2015 at 6:41 am

Try “neuro tribes” by Silberman

12 Mark D. White November 23, 2015 at 7:26 am
13 rayward November 23, 2015 at 6:46 am

“It is very rare for an official biography to be also a revisionist biography, but this one is.” That’s the first sentence of the review of Niall Ferguson’s biography of Henry Kissinger in the NYT by Andrew Roberts. Here are the last two sentences: “Niall Ferguson already has many important, scholarly and controversial books to his credit. But if the second volume of “Kissinger” is anywhere near as comprehensive, well written and riveting as the first, this will be his masterpiece.” Something I learned about Kissinger (or I had forgotten) from the review is that Kissinger supported limited nuclear war (which Ferguson, to his credit, opposes in his biography). One wonders if Kissinger were advising the next Republican president he would promote the use of nuclear weapons in (for example) Syria and Iraq. Of course, controversy follows Kissinger everywhere he goes, even to the review of his biography in the NYT. Here is the NYT editor’s note to the review: “After this review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger was published, editors learned that the reviewer, Andrew Roberts, had initially been approached by a publisher to write the biography himself; he says he turned the offer down for personal reasons, and Ferguson was eventually enlisted to undertake the task. In addition, Roberts and Ferguson were credited as co-authors of a chapter contributed to a book edited by Ferguson and first published in 1997 (Roberts describes their relationship as professional and friendly, but not close). Had editors been aware of these connections, they would have been disclosed in the review.” Doubt everything. That’s the advice given to his students by a well-known Yale history professor.

14 dan1111 November 23, 2015 at 9:09 am

Note: the reviewer means “revisionist” in the sense of presenting a picture different from the popular one, not “revisionist” in the sense that it is ahistorical.

Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to read “revisionist” as a pejorative meaning “not true to history”. Which is not the intended meaning here.

15 rayward November 23, 2015 at 9:22 am

That’s why I included the editor’s note and the historian’s dictum: what is truth, especially when it comes to someone like Kissinger and a biographer like Ferguson? But I agree that the reviewer used “revisionist” in the way you describe (i.e., Ferguson is revising the revisionists’ popular (and negative) depiction of Kissinger).

16 Bill November 23, 2015 at 8:10 am

Recommendation on public finance: On federal spending and tax policy: “We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money” by Edward Kleinbard (Oxford University Press 2015). A wonkish, nitty gritty book of federal fiscal details with in the weeds data and background written by the Chief of Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation and now professor at USC.

17 Ted Craig November 23, 2015 at 9:00 am

I looked at the Amazon page for that book and found this blurb:
“…a well-done progressive take on the expenditure side of fiscal policy.”
Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

18 T. Shaw November 23, 2015 at 8:24 am

Subtitle “Best Advocacy, Opinion, Revision Books of 2015.”

19 Ray Lopez November 23, 2015 at 9:18 am

I might buy the Torah commentary book. I’ve always been fascinated by Jewish scholars, who apparently treat the commentary on the original text as seriously as the actual text. It reminds me of the Japanese and law reviews (scholarly journals on the law): the Japanese ‘Supreme Court’ cites influential law professor articles from law reviews as precedent, whereas in the USA this is laughable and law journal articles are rarely cited by judges. Kind of like the difference between say Christian Baptists (literalists on the King James Bible) and say these Jewish Torah readers (if I can generalize, not sure I can, perhaps there are ‘strict constructionists’ in the Jewish camp too, that don’t put much weight on the commentaries).

From Amazon.com: “The newest book in Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s award-winning series of commentaries on the hebrew bible” (sic, they did not capitalize the last two words).

20 Joe Q. November 23, 2015 at 8:35 pm

Judaism has the concept of a “Written Law” (the Torah) and the “Oral Law”, a set of traditions as authoritative as the Mosaic revelation (and considered to be of the same era) but passed down orally until the Rabbinic era (around 1,800 years ago), at which point they were written down. Much of this Oral Law consists of commentary and expansion on the Torah.

In traditional Judaism, studying the Torah without a commentary is considered to be improper at best, heretical at worst. Children learn the major commentaries along with the actual text starting from a young age.

21 Urstoff November 23, 2015 at 9:35 am

Compare an contrast: the prickly reception of a massive biography of on Kissenger, a morally questionable Republican, and the rapturous reception of a massive biography of LBJ, a morally questionable Democrat.

22 John L. November 23, 2015 at 9:48 am

Well, Wilson was a morally questionable Democrat. Satisfied? Don’t worry you, you will find another excuse to be what you are. And there had never been moral questions about Kissinger, only answers.

23 Urstoff November 23, 2015 at 9:54 am

Uh…what?

24 Gochujang November 23, 2015 at 10:51 am

Of these Misbehaving is the only one I have read so far. It was better than I expected. I’ve read a fair amount on behavioral economics but still this book provided a more complete and historical view.

To be honest it is not as funny as is claimed, but perhaps on an economic scale it is very funny indeed.

25 Bob November 23, 2015 at 10:58 am

Which of these books did you read in their entirety? You’ve mentioned before that you mention and review books often without reading them or just reading a few pages or skimming them.

26 Tyler Cowen November 23, 2015 at 11:55 am

It is stated when I didn’t read the full book…

27 Anon November 23, 2015 at 4:54 pm

Having a long commute I borrow Books on Tape from the library . Over a year managed to finish far more than if I tried to find time read them. Can commenters suggest some non-fiction, preferably more than 2 years old ( otherwise they are not either ontape yet nor procured by the libraries). TIA.

28 Todd Kreider November 23, 2015 at 5:29 pm

Taggart Murphy’s book is not so “brilliant on current Japanese politics.”

He is correct about U.S. heavy handed treatment against Japan, but Murphy doesn’t understand how bad it was with respect to absolute U.S. incompetence with respect to Fukushima. The Obama administration is directly at fault for through politics including Reid insisting Obama appoint an amateur bully to head the NRC, who resigned under the threat of perjury charges to Congress, but a year too late for 3/11. The U.S. screwed over Japan during 3/11. Full stop.

The Obama administration was also incompetent in late 2009 with respect to Okinawa and agree with Murphy on that but there is no way even the incompetent Obama administration could “take down” PM Hatoyama. He took himself down. .

29 Hoosier November 23, 2015 at 8:13 pm

That book was so partisan and political I couldn’t finish it. The guy was obviously in the tank for Hatoyama and it got real annoying. Anyone who things that the US-or anybody else- took down the Hatoyama administration has their head in the sand. He was naive and a poor leader. He has only himself to blame.

If you follow Japan I didn’t find anything particularly novel in this book. It was just repeating the old story all of us have been told a million times about Japan being held down by the west. Whether you agree or not it’s hardly a novel point. Disappointing.

30 John B November 23, 2015 at 6:18 pm

On Tyler’s recommendation (and my own interest), I decided to read Tomb’s History of the English People, which I thought was pretty good, though it took me a long time to get through as I had to read the hard copy which was a real wrist bender. But then I read Clark’s Farewell to Alms (from Tyler’s 2007 list, and mentioned some time this year on MR), which was an economists’ take on the same history (and downloadable on my Kindle), and I came away much more impressed with Clark than Tomb. It held my interest much more perhaps because Clark had lots of really interesting tables and figures to ponder than did Tomb. Now I know that McCloskey, among others, really hated Clark’s book, but for those interested in the industrial revolution, I have to say you will learn a lot more from reading Clark than from reading McCloskey, even if Clark’s “rich had more babies” hypothesis is ultimately not what becomes the accepted view. McCloskey and has published a journal article on Clark, and Clark has since published a reply, both available from Clark’s web page. Thanks for the reading tips, Tyler!

31 Widmerpool November 23, 2015 at 6:30 pm

I find it hard to believe a book called ‘The Gates of Europe’ is a good history of Ukraine rather than tendentious propaganda. It’s like having a book called ‘Norway: the Gates of Europe’.

32 Thomas November 23, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Great list, now if only the publishers would sell these books at a reasonable price for us poor Aussies.

33 Adrian Ratnapala November 23, 2015 at 10:18 pm

“The Mahabarata” is non-fiction?

34 Christine November 24, 2015 at 8:39 am

Amazon wish list duly updated!

35 Julia Snyder December 16, 2015 at 1:13 pm

I love these lists, keeps my tbr list at a tall measure. I am currently reading Linda L.T. Baer’s book called Red Blood, Yellow Skin. A memoir of sorts on her life in pre war Vietnam, and then into the post war era. It’s not solely military based from the side of the American’s, I find it’s hard to find many books that aren’t that way when it comes to Vietnam. lindaltbaer.com is her site and her book info is there I believe. But it’s intense reads like these that I feel give us the best look int some things that we know of from only one stand point.

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