Results for “best non-fiction”
124 found

*Never Enough: the neuroscience and experience of addiction*

That is the new and fascinating book by Judith Grisel, unlike most neuroscientists on these topics she has been addicted to many of the drugs she writes about, or at least has tried them “for real,” furthermore her book integrates her personal and scientific knowledge in a consistently interesting manner.

Here is one bit from early on:

The very definition of an addictive drug is one that stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, but there are three general axioms in psychopharmacology that also apply to all drugs:

1. All drugs act by changing the rate of what is already going on.

2. All drugs have side effects.

3. The brain adapts to all drugs that affect it by counteracting the drug’s effects.

And a tiny bit from the middle:

Excessive use of alcohol now results in about 3.3 million deaths around the world each year.  In Russia and its former satellite states, one in five male deaths is caused by drinking.  And in the United States during the period 2006 and 2010, excessive alcohol use was responsible for close to 90,000 deaths a year…

And finally:

…primates given ecstasy twice a day for four days (eight total doses) show reduction in the number of serotonergic neurons seven years later.

Definitely recommended, this will make my list for the year’s best non-fiction.

*Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities*

That is the new and excellent book by Alain Bertaud, so many pages have excellent food for thought.  Here is one simple bit:

Cities are primarily labor markets.

Or this:

…large cities are growing at about the same rate as medium and small cities in the same countries or regions.  It seems that cities’ growth rates follow Gibrat’s law of proportionate effect, which states that the size of a city is not an indicator of its future growth rate — that is, cities’ growth rates are random, with the same average expected growth rate and same variance…The population of larger cities keeps growing, but on average, so do smaller cities.  This seems paradoxical, given that larger cities are more productive than smaller ones.  However, larger cities do not play the same economic role as smaller ones do.  They complement each other’s activities.  The increase productivity of larger cities is therefore linked to the existence and growth of smaller cities.  In turn, smaller cities’ economic growth is dependent on larger cities’ innovations and inventions.

How about this:

In 1830…London’s population density had reached a very high density of 325 people per hectare.  By 2005, however, the density of London had decreased to only 44 people per hectare.  The larger decrease in London’s density has not caused a corresponding decrease in mobility.  On the contrary…

I learned a great deal from the discussion (starts p.287) of Indonesia’s “kampungs,” and how the Indonesian has managed their integration with local infrastructure relatively well.  In contrast, this is the common alternative procedure:

The predictable first reaction of governments has usually been to set minimum urbanization standards to prevent the legal construction of these unsanitary urban villages.  The regulations made the situation worse, as they prevented these informal settlements from obtaining normal urban services from the municipality.  They also created a risk of future demolition, which discourages housing improvement that the households would have naturally done themselves.  Eventually, many governments slowly regularized the older informal settlements in a piecemeal fashion, as is the practice in India, for instance.  But the regularization of informal settlements usually had been conducted with a provision that after a set date, no more informal settlements would be regularized.

The outcomes of these successive policies — first ostracism, then benign neglect followed by reluctant integration — has been disastrous.  A significant share of the urban labor force, otherwise gainfully employed, live in large “informal” settlements often with unsafe water supplies, deficient sanitation, and sporadic solid waste collection.


What made a difference [in Indonesia] was a decision taken in 1969 by the government of Indonesia to concentrate its resources on the improvement of the kampungs’ infrastructure without trying to remove or restructure the existing housing, however small or inadequate it was…And, even more exceptional, since 1969 to this day, the Indonesian government’s support for KIP has been unwavering…The government housing policy objective consists of allowing the poor to settle in and around existing villages at the standards of their choice, while the government concentrates its efforts not on housing construction but on gradually improving residential infrastructure and services to all residential settlements.  The policy has proved largely successful.

Later in the book, pp.351-352 have a fascinating discussion of how relatively good urban/suburban policy, and also the fragmentation of municipalities, contributed to the early success of the tech community in Silicon Valley.

Definitely recommended, this is now one of my favorite books on cities, and it will be joining my “best non-fiction of 2018″ list.  Again, you can buy it here.

*The Second World Wars*

The subtitle is How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, and the author is Victor Davis Hanson.  I loved this book, even though before I started I felt I didn’t want to read yet another tract on WWII.  Most of the focus is on the logistics and management side:

By 1944, the U.S. Navy was larger than the combined fleets of all the other major powers.

At the start of the War, the United States accounted for about 55-60 percent of world oil output.

The U.S. soldier was treated for psychiatric disorders at a rate ten times that of German troops.  The average hospital stay for an American soldier was 117 days and 36 percent were not returned to the front.  Supplies for a typical American soldier exceeded 80 pounds per day.

The German army killed about 1.5 GIs for every German soldier lost.

The highest American fatality rate was in the Pacific, at 4 percent, still a remarkably low rate for the war as a whole.  America did so well because of high gdp and remarkably efficient supply lines and equipment and air and naval support.

Poland alone lost more citizens than all of the Western European nations, Britain, and the U.S. combined.

WWII took place in a strange technological window when weapons had advanced much more rapidly than protective body armor.  That is one reason why casualties from the fighting were so high.  The war is also unusual for having had so many battles and fronts where the victor gave up more lives than the loser, including of course the war as a whole.

Hanson considers the American submarine offensive against Japan as perhaps the most “cost-efficient” offensive from the war.

“No navy in military history had started a war so all-powerful as the Japanese and ended it so utterly ruined and in such a brief period of time…”

Strongly recommended, a shoo-in for the top tier of the year’s best non-fiction list, the writing is gripping too.

Here is a HistoryNet review: “utterly original.”  Here is Matthew Continetti at NR: “Masterful.”

*Island People: The Caribbean and the World*

That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean?  Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad.  The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all.  Yet so few seem to care.  The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.

Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?

This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me.  Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.

*Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts*

That is the new book by Christopher de Hamel, and it is one of the very best non-fiction books this year, in fact so far it might rank #1.  It is twelve chapters, each one about an individual medieval manuscript, the best-known of those being the Book of Kells.   The integration of text and the visuals is of the highest order of quality.  Most of all, the book brings each manuscript to life, relating its creators and creation, the surrounding historical context, its subsequent preservation and fame, and how that history has embodied varying attitudes toward copying and preservation.  No less illuminating is the anthropological treatment of how each manuscript is currently guarded and displayed, the author’s travel history in getting there, and a more general “philosophical without the philosophy” introspection on what these objects are really supposed to mean to us.

This book is not in every way light reading, and it does assume some (very broad) background in medieval history, but it brings a whole topic to light, and instructs, in a way that few other works do.

Here is just one short excerpt:

My initial inquiry as to whether I might see the manuscript of the Aratea in the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leiden was met with the reply that this would hardly be necessary, since there is a high-class published facsimile from 1989 and the complete book is in any case digitized and freely available on-line.  It was a response entirely within the theme of copying.  If you had applied to the palace librarians of Aachen in the early ninth century to see the late-antique Terence, they would almost certainly have assured you that you would be better off with their nice new copy by their scribe Hrodgarius.

Hamel worked for a long time in the book department at Sotheby’s and then in a library at Cambridge University.  He is a bit of a fuddy-duddy (he thinks the bustle of NYC is extreme, for instance), but nonetheless has produced a lovely and complete work that virtually every author should envy.  I am ordering his other books too, mostly on the history of books.

Here is a Guardian review, John Banville in the FT raves about it, and here is The Paris Review.  I believe I ordered it on, all five-star reviews by the way.  Here is the U.S. Amazon listing, with access to used copies, I am not sure when the American edition comes out.


*Hitler’s Soldiers*

The author is Ben H. Shepherd and the subtitle is The German Army in the Third Reich.  That may seem like a timeworn topic, but I found this book consistently fresh and interesting, also well-written, analytic throughout, one of the year’s best non-fiction studies.  Here is one bit:

Two occupied populations whom the German army particularly tried to cultivate were the Muslim peoples of the Crimea and the Caucasus.  The Sunni Tatars comprised a quarter of the Crimea’s population, and German army administrators saw them, as they would also come to see their Muslim brethren in the Caucasus, as presenting an opportunity to woo Islam in the Soviet Union for political and military gain.  The Germans granted the Tatars religious rights and concessions and reintroduced major religious holidays, and Manstein’s otherwise infamous November 1941 order required his troops to treat the Tatars with respect…the Germans appointed a Muslim committee to re-establish the religious infrastructure.

…Yet the failings of German occupation were soon apparent to these Muslim peoples.

Overall the message is that the German army was less effective and less moral [sic] than many other historians had suggested.  Recommended.

*The Fall of Heaven*

I loved this book, the author is Andrew Scott Cooper, and the subtitle is The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.  It is the best book I know for understanding the Iranian revolution, and it is compulsively readable throughout.  Did you know for instance that the Ayatollahs were deeply disturbed by the presence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and also Rhoda on Iranian TV?

Here is one excerpt:

Iran’s political and economic malaise gave a renewed sense of urgency to the Shah’s top priority, which was to settle the question of the Imperial succession once and for all.  His initial preference was for a European princess who could provide the House of Pahlavi with the luster of dynastic legitimacy.  He soon ran into trouble.  The Windsors rebuffed his interest in Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin Princess Alexandra of Kent, while his favorite, Princess Maria Gabriella, the Catholic daughter of the deposed King Umberto of Italy, was ruled out owing to opposition from the Vatican and Iran’s ulama.

And this, from the Shah himself:

“When everybody in Iran is like everybody in Sweden, then I will rule like the King of Sweden,” he declared.

I would describe this book as relatively sympathetic to the Shah, and also arguing that the oppressions and tortures of Savak are sometimes overstated.

This one makes my best non-fiction of the year list, and it will be in the top tier of that list.

What I’ve been reading

1. Samuel Fleischacker, The Good and the Good Book: Revelation as a Guide to Life.  A nice, articulate, and well-reasoned account of how a reasonable person might turn to faith and believe that faith and reason are compatible.  The author is a well-known Adam Smith scholar.

2. Abraham Hoffman, Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression.  The best and most readable book I have found on the deportation of Mexicans during the Great Depression, most of all during the 1931-1935 period.  Reading up on this era puts today’s America in useful perspective.

3. The Curse of Cash, by Kenneth Rogoff.  The quality of argumentation and presentation is high, as one would expect from a Ken Rogoff book.  Still, I don’t think it has so much to convince those who might be worried about a currency-less surveillance Panopticon, or those who think negative interest rates are mostly a contractionary and not-so-useful tax on financial intermediation.

4. Mats Lundahl, The Political Economy of Disaster: Destitution, plunder and earthquake in Haiti.  More of a potpourri of Haitian economic history than what the titles indicates, the best 20 percent of this book has insights you won’t find in other places.  For me that is a high hit rate, I liked it.

5. John Hardman, The Life of Louis XVI.  I’m only about fifty pages into this one, but so far it is a first-rate biography, both detailed and conceptual in nature, likely to make the list of the year’s best non-fiction books.

*Dante: The Story of His Life*

…Dante’s fame as a necromancer is also in a certain sense documented.

Such notoriety shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, he had a reputation as an expert in astrology, and we know that this discipline could easily spill over into magical and necromantic practices.  And then, above all, he was famous after the publication of Inferno for having descended live into the realms of the afterlife and for having encountered devils there, the souls of the damned, and having spoken to them.  It must have been a rumor widely spread and also disturbing.  It seems, according to Boccaccio, that the women who used to pass him in the street would say to each other: Look, “he who goes into Hell, and returns whenever he likes, and brings back news of those who are down there…”

That is from the new Dante biography by Marco Santagata, Belknap Press at Harvard, definitely recommended, it will make my best non-fiction of the year list for sure.

The Top Ten MR Posts of 2015

Here are the top ten MR posts from 2015, mostly as measured by page views. The number one viewed post was:

  1. Apple Should Buy a University. People really like to talk about Apple and this post was picked up all over the web, most notably at Reddit where it received over 2500 comments.

Next most highly viewed were my post(s) on the California water shortage.

2. The Economics of California’s Water Shortage followed closely 4) by The Misallocation of Water.

3. Our guest blogger Ramez Naam earned the number 3 spot with his excellent post on Crispr, Genetically Engineering Humans Isn’t So Scary.

5. My post explaining why Martin Shkreli was able to jack up the price of Daraprim and how this argued in favor of drug reciprocity was timely and got attention: Daraprim Generic Drug Regulation and Pharmaceutical Price-Jacking

6. What was Gary Becker’s Biggest Mistake? generated lots of views and discussion.

7. Tyler’s post Bully for Ben Carson provided plenty of fodder for argument.

8. The Effect of Police Body Cameras–they work and should be mandatory.

9. Do workers benefit when laws require that employers provide them with benefits? I discussed the economics in The Happy Meal Fallacy.

10. Finally, Tyler discussed What Economic Theories are Especially Misunderstood.

Posts on immigration tend to get the most comments. The Case for Getting Rid of Borders generated over 700 comments here and over 1700 comments and 57 thousand likes at The Atlantic where the longer article appeared.

Other highly viewed posts included two questions, Is it Worse if foreigners kill us? from Tyler and Should we Care if the Human Race Goes Extinct? from myself.

The Ferguson Kleptocracy and Tyler’s posts, Greece and Syriza lost the public relations battle and a Simple Primer for Understanding China’s downturn (see also Tyler’s excellent video on this topic) were also highly viewed.

I would also point to Tyler’s best of lists as worthy of review including Best Fiction of 2015, Best Non-Fiction of 2015 and Best Movies of 2015. You can also see Tyler’s book recommendations from previous years here.

*Genghis Khan*, by Frank McLynn

The subtitle is The Man Who Conquered the World, and this is one of the very best non-fiction books of the year, quite possibly the best.  Virtually every page is fascinating and should be read carefully.  It makes intelligible a period of history which is so often a blur to the unfamiliar Western reader,and rather than just throwing a bunch of dates and facts at you it tries to make them intelligible in terms of underlying mechanisms.  Here is one summary bit:

The harshness of the Mongolian habitat and the complexities of nomadic pastoralism help to explain the many potentialities of Mongol society eventually actualised by Genghis Khan.  Care of massive and variegated herds and flocks produced a number of consequences: adaptability and ingenuity of response and initiative; mobility and the capacity for rapid mobilisation; low levels of wealth and of economic inequality; almost total absence of a division of labour; political instability.  Migration meant constant alertness and readiness to fight, since wealth in livestock is almost by definition highly vulnerable to raiding, reiving and rustling. Managing large animals was inherently more strenuous and dangerous than tending crops, so the very nature of pastoral life produced a hardier breed than would be generated by the peasantry.  Migration in peacetime also produced martial qualities via the surplus energy available for fighting, since in a pacific context warriors could leave the minutae of herding and droving to women and children.  when the fighting came, it was less destructive than for sedentary societies that had to defend fields of crops, cities, temples and other fixed points.

There were other military ‘spin-offs’ from pastoralism.  Moving huge herds of animals generated logistical skills and the capacity to navigate through uncertain terrain, coordinating with far-flung comrades while doing so.

Strongly recommended, you can buy the book here.

What I’ve been reading

1. David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.  Don’t judge Graeber by his mistakes or by how he responds (doesn’t respond) to criticism.  This one is still more interesting to read than most books.  In fact, most of us quite like bureaucracy.

2. John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom.  The usual dose of pessimism, with a choppier argument and a slightly larger typeface than usual.  It induced me to order Mr. Weston’s Good Wine.  In any case, I’ll still buy the next one, engaging with John Gray if nothing else has become a ritual.  I once predicted to Jim Buchanan that John would end up converting to Catholicism, but I still am waiting.

3. Juan Goytisolo.  I’ve tried to read a bunch of his books, so far they all bore me, in both Spanish and English, the fault is probably mine.  Various sophisticates suggest he is great, should I keep on trying?

4. Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.  He is one of the best non-fiction essay writers, and he remains oddly underrated in the United States.  It is no mistake to simply buy his books sight unseen.  I think of this book as “happiness for grumps.”

5. Harry G. Gelber, The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World, 1100 B.C. to the Present.  No, this isn’t the best Chinese history book.  But it is the one most written in a way that you will remember its contents, and in this context that is worth a lot.

Other essential books of 2014

A few weeks ago I listed the best non-fiction books of 2014, here are a few which I either forgot or were late coming to my attention or were published or shipped after the first list.  These are all very, very good:

1. Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of World Order, 1916-1931.  This one also starts slow but after about 13% becomes fascinating, especially about the internal politics in Germany and Russia, circa 1917-1918.

2. Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.  Excellent and informationally dense literary essays, I especially like the ones on the German-language poets and writers, such as Benn and Walser and Bernhard and Grass.

3. Henry Marsh, Do No Harm, a neurosurgeon does behavioral economics as applied to his craft.

4. Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford, Rendez-Vous, a discursive chat while looking at some classics of art

5. Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.  A superb book, one of the very best appreciations of poetry and introductions to poetry of the 20th century.  This book has received raves in the UK, it is not yet out in the U.S.

In fiction, to supplement my earlier list, I recommend:

6. Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq.  Short stories about the conflict in Iraq, by an Iraqi.  I expected to find these widely heralded stories to be disappointing, as the premise is a little too easy for the Western critic to embrace.  But they are excellent and this book is one of the year’s best fiction releases.

7. Andy Weir, The Martian.  Ostensibly science fiction, but more a 21st century Robinson Crusoe story — set on Mars of course — with huge amounts of (ingenious) engineering driving the story.  Lots of fun, many other people have liked it too.

8. Geoffrey Hill, Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012.

By the way, Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower [Der Turm] is now out in English.

*Massacre in Malaya*

The author is Christopher Hale and the subtitle is the rather misleading Exposing Britain’s My Lai.

The first fifth of this book is in fact the best short early economic history of Malaysia and Singapore I know, even though the focus of the book as a whole is on one colonial event, namely the 1948 Batang Kali massacre during the post-war Malayan Emergency.  The next section is a superb treatment of the Japanese occupation and the political issues leading up to that occupation.  This book reflects a common principle, namely that often, to learn a topic, you should read a book on an adjacent but related topic, rather than pursue your preferred topic directly.  The book on the adjacent topic often will take less background knowledge for granted and explain the context more clearly for what you actually wish to learn, while getting you interested in other topics along the way.

Just about every page of this book has useful and interesting information, here is one new word I learned:

The history of the ‘Malay World’ in the centuries before the momentous fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 is predominantly a convoluted narrative of maritime statelets, technically thalassocracies.

This one will make my best non-fiction of the year list.