Results for “best non-fiction”
124 found

Assorted links

1. James Wood’s favorite books of the year list.  And Irish Times best non-fiction books of the year list.  Ted Gioia discusses his music picks.

2. There are family fights at the top in Uzbekistan.

3. Some Zeitgeist-capturing words from 2013.

4. “By then the male participant found the female participant to be increasingly critical of everything he did.  The situation had become intolerable by day 12.”

5. Nabokov on butterflies.

6. “This was a Woodstock for robots.”

7. Arnold Kling lets loose on macro.

The economics of Robert Caro

The two Bobs, Gottlieb and Caro, have an odd editorial relationship, almost as contentious as it is mutually admiring. They still debate, for example, or pretend to, how many words Gott­lieb cut from “The Power Broker.” It was 350,000 — or the equivalent of two or three full-size books — and Caro still regrets nearly every one. “There were things cut out of ‘The Power Broker’ that should not have been cut out,” he said to me sadly one day, showing me his personal copy of the book, dog-eared and broken-backed, filled with underlining and corrections written in between the lines. Caro is a little like Balzac, who kept fussing over his books even after they were published.

Can they not publish a “Director’s Cut” eBook?  The Power Broker, by the way, is in my view one of the best non-fiction books ever, so read it if you don’t already know it.

The article, from the NYT Sunday Magazine, is interesting throughout.  Note I have provided the “Single Page” link, I believe this helps you get through your quota of ten clicks at less expense.

*Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet*

That is the new book by Jennifer Homans and it is one of the very best non-fiction works of the year, impeccably written and researched.  Here is the excerpt of greatest interest to most economists:

None of the Russian ballet's many admirers, however, would be more central to the future of British ballet than John Maynard Keynes.  Keynes is usually remembered as the preeminent economist of the twentieth century, but he was also deeply involved with classical dance and a key player in creating a thriving British ballet…

For Keynes…classical ballet became an increasingly important symbol of the lost civilization of his youth…With Lydia at his side, Keynes plowed his talent and considerable material resources into theater, painting, and dance, even as he was also playing an ever more prominent role in political and economic affairs on the world stage.

The couple's Bloomsbury home became a meeting place for ballet luminaries (Lydia's friends) and a growing coterie of artists and intellectuals who saw ballet as a vital art…When Diaghilev died in 1929, many of them joined Keynes in establishing the Camargo Society, an influential if short-lived organization devoted to carrying Diaghilev's legacy forward — and to developing a native English ballet.  Lydia was a founding member and performed in many of the society's productions…Keynes was its honorary treasurer.

In the mid-1930s, Keynes also built the Arts Theatre in Cambridge, funding it largely from his own pocket…As Britain sank into the Depression, Keynes's interest in the arts also took on an increasingly political edge: "With what we have spent on the dole in England since the war," he wrote in 1933, "we could have made our cities the greatest works of man in the world."

I did, by the way, very much enjoy Black Swan (the movie), despite its highly synthetic nature, a few disgusting scenes, and its occasional over-the-top mistakes.  So far it's my movie of the year along with Winter's Bone, the Israeli movie Lebanon, and the gory but excellent Danish film, Valhalla Rising.

My favorite recording of Swan Lake (and my favorite classical CD of 2010) is conducted by Mikhail Pletnev (controversial but there is a good review here), who was recently cleared of child abuse charges in Thailand.

What I’ve been reading

1. Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan, by D.R. Thorpe.  I'm not one of these people who enjoys reading a lot of long tracts about British politicians, but this is one of the best non-fiction books of the year.  It's full of good information, offers useful context for British economic and political debates, has plenty of original research, and is as suspenseful as a very good novel.  Most of all, it brings its world and character to life.  Highly recommended.

2. J.P. Singh, Globalized Arts: The Entertainment Economy and Cultural Identity.  The definitive book for updating coverage on its topic, including the best and most comprehensive history of the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity.

3. James K. Glassman, Safety Net: The Strategy for De-Risking Your Investments in a Time of Turbulence.  p.11: "Reduce the proportion of stocks in your portfolio."  

4. Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Loyalists, and Indian Allies.  "The civil war had four overlapping dimensions.  In the first, Loyalists and Americans battled for control of Upper Canada.  Second, the bitter partisanship within the United States threatened to become a civil war, as many Federalists served the British as spies and smugglers, while their leaders in New England flirted with secession.  Third, Irish republicans waged a civil war within the British empire, renewing in Canada their rebellion, which the British had suppressed in Ireland in 1798.  Invading Canada, Irish-American soldiers faced British regiments primarily recruited in Ireland, for thousands of Irishmen had fled from poverty by enlisting in the royal forces.  Fourth, the war embroiled and divided native peoples…In the North American civil war of 1812, Americans fought Americans, Irish battled Irish, and Indians attacked one another.  They struggled to extend, or to contain, the republicanism spawned by the American Revolution."  Some of this book has too much detail for my interests, but overall it is good.

5. Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History.  I liked the cover so much that I also enjoyed the book more.  I also liked the weight of this book a great deal; it was just right.  In any case a fine one-volume introduction.

*The Emperor of all Maladies*

The author is Siddhartha Mukherjee and the subtitle is A Biography of Cancer.  This is not a typical excerpt, but it works as an excerpt for this blog:

In 1942, when Merck had shipped out its first batch of penicillin — a mere five and a half grams of the drug — that amount had represented half of the entire stock of the antibiotic in America.  A decade later, penicillin was being mass-produced so effectively that its price had sunk to four cents for a dose, one-eighth the cost of a half gallon of milk.

This book deserves its rave reviews; it is one of the best non-fiction works of the year.

Related to this topic, here is an update on Christopher Hitchens.

*State of Emergency*

Could it be the best non-fiction book so far this year?  The author is Dominic Sandbrook and the subtitle is The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974, here is an excerpt:

As a spender, Joseph had only one Cabinet rival: the Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher.  Derided as the "Milk Snatcher" in 1971 because she had to carry out Macleod's plan to scrap free school milk for children aged between 8 and 11.  Mrs Thatcher was actually a big-spending education chief who secured the funds to raise the leaving age to 16 and to invest £48 million in new buildings.  In December 1972, she even published a White Paper envisaging a massive £1 billion a year for education by 1981, with teaching staff almost doubling and vast amounts of extra cash for polytechnics and nursery schools.  She wanted "expansion, not contraction", she said.  It never happened; if it had, her reputation in the education sector might be very different.

Every page of this book has excellent analysis and information, attractively presented.  It masterfully covers a wide range of topics, ranging from how the British started drinking wine, to how the power cuts affected public morale, to the strategies of British labor unions, to the insightfulness of Fawlty Towers.  It's a key book for understanding how the Thatcher Revolution ever came to pass.

It is simply a first-rate book.  It is out only in the UK, but I was happy to pay the extra shipping charge from UK Amazon, which you too can pay here.  Or maybe try these used sellers.  Some reviews are here.

*Replenishing the Earth*, by James Belich

How is this for a real estate bubble?

At peak in 1888, over 80 per cent of Victorian private investment went into Melbourne buildings.  Expenditure on housing was even greater than that on rail, and many houses were built without people to live in them, or without jobs for those who did.

In the 1890s Melbourne was an impressive place.  With 500,000 people, it was eighty percent bigger than San Francisco and nine hundred percent bigger than Los Angeles.  Three hundred trains a day serviced the suburbs.  The city had three hundred buildings with elevators and Melbourne was reputed to have more large public buildings than any British city outside of London.  There were plans to build a replica of the Eiffel Tower.

That is all from James Belich's Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939.  I'll discuss this book more soon, but I'll tip my hand and say it is one of the very best non-fiction books of the year.  Imagine Jared Diamond or Greg Clark (albeit more measured, in each case) but applied to the settlement of the colonies rather than to Europe itself.  This book also has perhaps the best explanation as to why the Argentina growth miracle fell apart.

The new Gabriel García Márquez biography

One day [Alvaro] Mutis climbed the seven flights of stairs, carried two books into the apartment without saying hello, slapped them down on the table, and roared: "Stop fucking about and read that vaina, so you'll learn how to write!"  Whether all García Márquez's friends really swore all the time during these years we will never know — but in his anecdotes they do.  The two slim books were a novel entitled Pedro Páramo, which had been published in 1955, and a collection of stories entitled The Burning Plain (El llano en llamas), published in 1953.  The writer was the Mexican Juan Rulfo.  García Márquez read Pedro Páramo twice the first day, and The Burning Plain the next day.  He claims that he had never been so impressed by anything since he had first read Kafka; that he learned Pedro Páramo, literally, by heart; and that he read nothing else for the rest of the year because everything else seemed so inferior.

That is from the new and noteworthy Gerald Martin biography of García Márquez.  This very impressive (and enjoyable) book was seventeen years in the making.  It's also not a bad way to learn about the political and economic history of northern Colombia.  This should make any short list of either the best non-fiction books this year or the best literary biographies.  The reader also learns the probable origins of the famed spat with Mario Vargas Llosa (p.375); it had to do with a woman, namely Vargas Llosa's wife.

The Superorganism

The subtitle is The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies and that is the new book by Bert Hölldobler and Edmund O. Wilson. 

This is another plausible candidate for best non-fiction book of the year.  I liked this paragraph:

Ants and other social insects are good at what they do, and they get better by means of cooperative labor.  Their behavior fulfills principles of ergonomic efficiency embodied in the Barlow-Proschan theorems.  When individual competence is low, the first theorem says, the reliability of a system of individuals acting together is lower than the summed competence of the individuals acting singly; but when individual competence is high, above a certain threshold level, the reliability of the system based on cooperation is greater.  According to the second theorem, one redundant system, whose parts that can be switched back and forth (as in colony members), is more reliable than two identical systems with no such backup parts.

Here is another good bit:

Whenever two kinds or organisms live in close mutualistic symbiosis, as is the case in leaf-cutting ants and their fungus, we should expect communication between the two mutualists.  The fungus may signal to its host ants its preference for particular vegetable substrates or the need for a change in diet to maintain nutritional diversity or even the presence of a harmful substrate.

Here is a New York Times review of the book.  The photos are wonderful too.  Here is a short paper on the work of Barlow and Proschan and the general topic of "reliability"; it has implications for the financial crisis as well.

Europe Between the Oceans

Can you say longue durée?  If so (or if not), here’s the new book by Barry Cunliffe, with the subtitle 9000 B.C.-AD 1000 indicating a coverage of murky yet critical millennia.

It’s a history of Europe which blends economic geography and economic archaeology.  The underlying question is how Europe became so innovative and the answer has much to do with trade and migration.  Imagine a more balanced and grounded Braudel.  The explanation of the "Neolithic package" and its spread across Europe is stunning.  I loved it when the author broke away from a passage about Phoenician trade routes to explain some odd lines in Homer.  If you are wondering, Cunliffe is a moderate neo-migrationist.  The photography and the color plates of the art are lovely.  You can learn how to view the Roman Empire as an "interlude" and as a break from the major story and how to understand 800-1000 A.D. as a period of rebalancing.  And you get passages like this:

…the actual return in calorific value for the effort expended in collecting [shellfish] is comparatively small.  A single red deer would be worth fifty thousand oysters!  That said, the value of shellfish is that they are always available and can be substituted when other food sources run short.

If you enjoy early economic history, this is a must, noting that it does not have the titillating feel of a popular science book.  It is my pick for best non-fiction book of the year so far.

Here is the book’s home page.  Here is one short review.  Here is a Times review.  You can buy an excellent long review (LRB) here.

Buy the book here (at $26 the per page price is low) to learn why economic archaeology should win a Nobel Prize someday.


The author is Taras Grescoe and the subtitle is "How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood," buy it here.  Yes this is one of the best non-fiction books this year so far and yes I say that after having read (and mostly liked) the last five books on the exact same topic.  I hope it does well because this book is an object lesson in how to best your competitors and we’ll see whether or not that matters.

Did you know that the average cell membrane of an American is now only 20 percent omega-3-based fats?  In Japan it is 40 percent.

Or did you know that American sushi restaurants promising you "red snapper" are usually serving tilapia or perhaps sea bream.

The book has a superb explanation of how "frozen at sea" fish are now better, safer and tastier than "fresh fish," including for sushi.

English fish and chips was originated by Jewish merchants in Soho, drawing upon the same Portuguese traditions that led to tempura in Japan.

The Japanese are experimenting with acupuncture to keep fish alive and "relaxed" on their way from the ocean to being eaten.

Two of the practical takeaways from the book are a) if only for selfish reasons, do not eat most Asian-farmed shrimp, and b) eat more sardines.  They are, by the way, very good with butter on sourdough bread.

This is one of the best single topic food books of the last five years.  It is historical, practical, ethical, and philosophical, all at once.

I hate perfume

I really, really do.  All perfume, and yes that means yours too.  But I loved the book Perfumes: The Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.  If you are rating this book along the single dimension of how skillfully it informs the reader, it is one of the best non-fiction books I have read, ever.

Plus it has good sentences like:

Nobody ever died from wearing Mitsouko, but lots of babies were born as a result of it.


Fragrances for men are mostly identical crap, designed to trap you and give you away as a lout.