1. Michael J. Klarman, The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Excellent author, the chapters on the time period before the Constitution are good enough to make the “best books of the year list,” the rest is a much above-average summary and distillation, but of more familiar material. At 880 pp. of clear, limpid, and instructive prose, it is a winner in any case.
2. W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland. More of a mutual travelogue, with alternating contributions, than a series of letters, one learns that even in 1936: “There is little stigma attached to illegitimacy. Bastards are brought up on an equal footing with legitimate children of the family.” Furthermore, “All chocolate or sweets should be bought in London.” During the trip they run into Goering, yes the Goering.
3. Richard A. Posner, The Federal Judiciary: Strengths and Weaknesses. This is a grumpy book, but I don’t mean that in a grumpy kind of way, as I like many grumpy books: “The dominant theme of this book has been judicial standpattism — more precisely, the stubborn refusal of the judiciary to adapt to modernity.” By the end, Posner gives the federal judiciary a grade between B and B+, I was surprised it was so high.
4. Duff McDonald, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. “In the early 1920s, HBS was still without its own buildings at Harvard, faculty were crammed together in cramped offices, and classrooms were scattered around Harvard Yard.” This is a remarkably clear and engaging survey of its subject matter, the main drawback being it never explains the rise of HBS in terms of…management, as HBS itself might do so. There is thus an odd cipher at the book’s core, plus from the discussion of Michael Jensen onward, the book descends increasingly into ad hominem attacks and unfair moralizing. This volume is an odd mix, but still worth reading for its contributions.
Stephen Ellis, This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime, is one of the better books on that country: “…there are even private colleges in Lagos offering courses in credit card fraud and advance-fee fraud.”
Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion, is a series of essays on society and theology from one of the Mormon “grandmasters.”
After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum, collects many essays on the Piketty book and also on the topic more generally.
Shahab Ahmed, Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses of Early Islam, “…the early Muslim community believed almost universally that the Satanic verses incident was a true historical fact.” Ahmed, a brilliant scholar at Harvard, passed away in 2015, here is a short appreciation. If they wrote books for me, someone would be working on “Islam and Strauss” right now.