Best non-fiction books of 2018

First let me start with three books from my immediate cohort, which I will keep separate from the rest:

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education.

Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

All of those are wonderful, but Stubborn Attachments is the best of the three.  Otherwise, we have the following, noting that the link often contains my longer review.  These are in the order I read them, not by any other kind of priority.  Here goes:

Varun Sivaram’s Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet.

Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game.

Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking.

David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here.

Nick Chater, The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.

Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.

Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.

Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: Passion, Death, and Resurrection, 1815-1849.

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History.

Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.

W.J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Concise History.

Victor Sebestyen, Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror.

Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir.

M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal.

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

There are also books which I think very likely deserve to make this list, but I have not had time to read much of them.  Most notably, those include the new biographies of Alain Locke, Thomas Cromwell, Gandhi, and Winston Churchill.

Overall I thought this was a remarkably strong year for intelligent non-fiction.  And as always, I have forgotten some splendid books — usually it is yours.  Sorry!


Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin said that when he travels abroad he always checks out the local book stores, and in every single book store in the world the overwhelming majority of books about Russia (aside from Putin biographies) are about Lenin, Stalin, Gulag, repressions, camps, and so on.

So which two Russia-themed books Cowen offers in his fiction and non-fiction lists? Right.

@inertial - have you visited Russia? I don't speak Russian but have visited more than three times and I can assure you, Russia offers nothing to world history except Marxism, terror, and so on. Other than food and medieval Italian designed buildings and a corrupted Greek alphabet. They are also good at deciphering languages and some maths.


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Of course Cowen is drawn to books that depict the depravity of government; he is a libertarian. Not that he must search very hard, for the history of government is a history of depravity. And it complements the zeitgeist: exposing historical myths, especially myths involving formerly admired historical figures. I am of the South, and we have our share of myths and mythical figures, which presents a challenge: how does one write an accurate history of the South without exposing myths, including the myth that the South reflected limited government while the North reflected activist government. How limited is government that enforces human bondage.

"how does one write an accurate history of the South without exposing myths"

Why is "not exposing myths" a criteria? That's generally what good history does.

'All of those are wonderful, but Stubborn Attachments is the best of the three. '

My first reaction was to proclaim again that this is the best satire site on the web, but actually (leaving aside the 'wonderful'), that statement is thoroughly accurate in all likelihood.

Which may suggest Prof. Cowen needs to use a more exacting standard than GMU Carow Hall colleagues when declaring himself the best of three authors.

Seems you are stubbornly attached to criticizing Prof. Cowen.

I would also love to see a post on the "Worst Non-Fiction Books of the Year":

Interesting list, Tyler. There were a number of excellent political science books published this year. But two stand out.

First, Deep Roots by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen. It shows how enduring racism and conservatism of the South are directly the result of the region's slave past. Specifically, the book shows that racial attitudes among white southerners varies considerably, and that those who live today in areas that were highly reliant on slavery 150 years ago register much higher levels of racial resentment than those who live in nearby areas where, 150 years earlier, slavery was less prevalent. The book then shows how and why the legacy of slavery persists today and apparently shapes the views of white southerners. It's quite remarkable.

The other standout books is Uncivil Agreement by Lilliana Mason. Drawing upon social psychology research, it shows how Americans have developed mega partisan identities, where social, religious, cultural, and political attitudes are now bundled and organized under either the Democratic or Republican category. The book's contribution is to show that American divisions today are not a result of ideological polarization--they are a consequence of social polarization. When so much gets packaged under a social-partisan identity, there's no incentive, desire, or mechanism for cooperation. Compromise, in this circumstance, does not mean finding a policy middle ground; rather, it means sacrificing loyalties to tribe and commitments to one's core social identity. This book, better than any other, explains why the US is so deeply divided.

I ‘ve read 4 on the list and would concur with those choices. To the GMU faculty list I would add The Republican Workers Party by Frank H Buckley. The best new nonfiction of the year for me was Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia by Jurgen Osterhammel, translated by Robert Savage.

You put your own book on the list?

Honesty required it!

Like a judge who cites his own prior opinion as authority.

Can there be any question that we live in the Age of Trump.

Of the books listed that I've read, Reich and Mann were good. I didn't love the Hanson, sorry. I'd add Pollan's "How to Change Your Mind" and am surprised it's not on this list. Pinker's new one was good and Haidt's new one was OK, but neither omission here shocks me. As for me, and for n-f books from before 2018, I thought Brand's "Whole Earth Discipline" was great. I finally read Bryson's "Short History of Nearly Everything," and it was fantastic. The best biography I read was Bird's "American Prometheus." The new Sedaris, "Calypso," is excellent, but it's for the already converted. A great reading year.

Pollan should be here but I don’t think TC agrees with the principal ideas in that book. He also didn’t have much to say about “why Buddhism is true”, another great study of the mind.

Think that this blog has a slight bias towards doers and not contemplaters, which is fine. Meditation and psychedelics don’t fit that philosophy (building and trains being built in China do, for example). Also why I think so many engineers like this blog.

I plan to work on Non-Fiction Book Titles: Colons Run Wild

- Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty
Viano, Francesca Lidia

- The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, Bogard, Paul

So is the elephant in the brain flat?

In between two jobs and child-rearing, I am currently, slowly reading Victor Sebestyen's book and it confirms all my suspicions about Lenin's gifts and how seemingly good intentions went awry. Even though my reading is slow, the book is written simply enough for the tired mom. In the spirit of Lenin, I'm also brushing up on my Hegel (with all my free-time ;), so thanks to MR for the recommendation.

"Them" by Sen. Ben Sasse. An unusually thought provoking book with practical applications for daily living for people of all political persuasions.

Although I haven't most if not all the books on the list, I know that it's a very good one not only because Tyler has recommended them, but because there's Skin in the Game. This book was suggested to me by one of my friends ( a avid consumer of Taleb's content) and lives up to Nassim's notoriety of how one should perceive things. I don't want to give away any hints as to the subject matter, so just do yourself a favor and read it.

I'm surprised by the absence of Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules For Life, which I continue to run into young men AND women who've talk about how profoundly influenced they've been by this book.

Also, I'd add Bad Blood by John Carreyou about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. I await someone who can do a deep psychological dive on Holmes to show what drove her to commit this massive fraud.

I am really enjoying Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, by Michael Massing.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling & Ola Rosling - More about the good news of the conditions of humans. And how to think about the issues: ten instincts to avoid. A top recommendation of Bill Gates.

Bad Blood by John Carreyou is my top 2018 non-fiction. A must read, especially if you're in tech.

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