Inspired by a few others I have created my list of books read for 2018, selecting a few out for special recognition (either good or bad). In case you are wondering how I select what I read it is a combination of word of mouth from various sources, often through podcasts, and availability. I track what I would like to read, currently am reading, and have read on Goodreads, there I also review the occasional book.
Best of the Year
Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era Thomas C. Leonard- Setting the bar for economic history, Thomas Leonard examines the illiberal turn of economics in the Progressive era. His examination of his field provides a useful and needed insight into how economics can be wielded to illiberal ends, including programs designed to discriminate and disadvantage select groups. Serving as a warning of hubris and an explanation of the genesis of some progressive favorites, such as the minimum wage, this book is an indispensable and fair look into
The Permission Society: How the Ruling Class Turns Our Freedoms into Privileges and What We Can Do about It, Timothy Sandefur- Sandefur writes out a stand-out book describing how we have, in many ways, turned into a society where position must be sought. Highly recommend.
Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, John Pfaff- An in depth look at what drives the incarceration rate, the highest in the world, in the United States. Pfaff disposes of the the Standard Story, as he calls it, that it is merely the War on Drugs or non-violent offenders that crowd the prisons. He argues that the incentives for prosecutors push them to over prosecute with nothing to balance it out. In short it is politically popular to be tough on crime and generally unpopular to take the opposing stance.
The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, David Epstein- A fascinating look into what drives and creates extraordinary athletic accomplishment. Epstein does a fantastic job dealing with this complex topic. I was engaged from beginning to end.
Worst of the Year
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean- MacLean received a lot of attention for her book, including being a finalist for the National Book Award. However it has come under scrutiny and been revealed as biased and fraudulent. I reviewed it on Medium, and it received attention at the economic blog CafeHayek. An excerpt: This is the reality of her book. It ignores facts, it lacks nuance, it vilifies where disagreement was sufficient, it mischaracterizes or does not understand the work of economics, and it fails to distinguish- both in her own views and those of others- between the positive and normative. Her analysis of events reflects that failure and depends on fallacies to make her case instead of building it through rigor and care. One is inclined to believe that she failed to grasp public choice economics as a method of analysis and instead thought ad hominin would suffice as a critique of the discipline.
The Worst: Runner-Up
The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, Jeffrey D. Sachs- Here is an excerpt of my goodreads review, in short, I expected more from an economist of Sach’s reputation: The book reads more like a moral diatribe, decrying our loss of public virtue, and pointing the finger at familiar opponents- individualism, hyper-consumerism, the Koch brothers, Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher, low taxes, and television. It’s as if someone had compiled all the thoughtless political complaints from Facebook and turned them into a well written book with opinion polls and economic data. Sadly, it also looks like picking and choosing, and he spends very little time describing any normative justifications for why any of his litany of evils is so. As an economist he fails to first look at these ‘issues’ as individual preferences and then justify why that result is undesired, which is why it is not a book on economics. Heavy on the normative brow-beating, low on the economic analysis and moral justifying necessary to turn this into a serious book.
Everything else: Informative, Argumentative and Similar
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, Tom Nichols-An honest look into prevailing attitudes regarding expert knowledge. Great insights into why we fight against established knowledge. Part academic, part grumpy old man, Nichols writes well, filling his book with amusing anecdotes and examples to illustrate his point. I laughed out loud when he discussed Gwenyth Paltrow’s snake oil blog for rich people Goop. Overall, I suspect he overstates his case, we’ve always fought against experts for various reasons and sometimes for good and bad reasons. Regardless, I found a lot of value in this enjoyable read.
Liberalism von Mises, Ludwig- A quick discussion of what constitutes the liberal (in the classical sense) mindset. Essential reading for all politically minded.
Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger Is So Hard
Timmer, C. Peter- A wonky look at the difficulties in creating food security. Worth the read, though it at times relies heavily on data without much explanation, it was likely not written for general consumption as much as for a niche group of developmental economists and analysts.
The Law, Frédéric Bastiat- I love Bastiat, his ability to break down complicated topics for general consumption is timeless. The Law is no exception. Another must read for the politically minded, Bastiat describes the purpose and nature of the law in simple and logical terms.
Grit, Angela Duckworth-I enjoyed Duckworth’s look into what qualities create success. Duckworth argues that intelligence matters but is not sufficient. Pulling from various sources, including her own research, she gets down to the nitty-gritty characteristics of successful individuals.
Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter
Ilya Somin,- I would put this on my list of must-reads for the politically minded. Somin describes the difficulties in distributing political knowledge, arguing that the incentives for attaining political knowledge are very low. This is driven, in part, by the fact that each vote has little determinate value. He is very thorough in addressing all the possible counter arguments to his general critique as well as discussing the problem thoughtfully.
Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, Ali H. Soufan- I enjoyed this in depth look into the rise of ISIS, Soufan is clearly a subject matter expert who has been involved in this since the beginning of the War on Terror. He also does not reach too many strong conclusion on solving the issue, but is more focused on how the organization began, grew, divided and developed to what we see today.
Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, Thomas Sowell- A great quick description of Marxism by someone who once considered himself a Marxist.
The Housing Boom and Bust, Thomas Sowell- Sowell writes well about the underlying causes of the housing crises that hit in 2008.
Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure, Randy T. Simmons- This is a moderately in-depth survey of public choice literature. Understanding why various programs do not achieve their purported politic ends begins is an important step for those concerned with the political process. Essential to it all, is to describe politicians and bureaucrats as people who face certain incentives related to their position.
Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom- An excerpt from my review: Sorting through psychological research in empathy, Bloom distinguishes between cognitive empathy-the ability to contemplate the feelings of another- and emotional empathy- the tendency to mirror the same feelings of another. He asserts, the former is a useful tool while the later is like a spotlight, biased and overly focused. Our empathy is then easily manipulated by where we shine the light and prevents us from peering into the darkened portions of the room. Anyone who has peered into a spotlight quickly understand the difficulty in discerning characteristics of the environment outside of the lit area. Intense light is blinding, as is empathy.
Terms of Engagement: How Our Courts Should Enforce the Constitution’s Promise of Limited Government, Clark M. Neily III- A look at how the judiciary has abdicated it’s duty by constantly deferring to the other branches instead of examining the law, facts, and engaging in neutral arbitration. Aimed partially at the rational-basis test, a standard of judicial review, this book illustrates how such a test has turned into a blank check for government action and the judiciary helped.
Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,
John Paul Stevens- Mostly well though out, this book suggest six small changes that would alter the Constitution toward a more progressive view. I disagreed with nearly all of the book but thought the tone reasonable until the discussion on gun violence and the Second Amendment.
Originalism: A Quarter-Century of Debate, Steven Calabresi- A great introduction to Originalism. This is a compilation of debates, speeches and essays that have occurred over the years. Since it is a compilation it lacks any sustained narrative, however, it contains many thoughtful discussions including those from opponents of Originalism.
Lawless: The Obama Administration’s Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law, David Bernstein- Bernstein departs from his typical legal focus, which deals largely with civil rights, to highlight the illegal nature of many Obama era actions. Regardless of your political leanings it is worth wrestling with this book, especially if you wonder how we are where we are politically.
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed Scott, James C.- A wonderful examination on the incentives of statehood to make everything “legible” and how government “legibility” often imposes on those on the ground. Scott is a standout political scientist who specializes in anarchy. This book is a fascinating read. I also enjoyed this essay on it by Mark Koyoma.
The Myth of the Rational Market: Wall Street’s Impossible Quest for Predictable Markets, Justin Fox- This book was better than I expected, the history of economic thought was decently traced, though it sadly missed a bit of the heterodox critiques of rational markets that could have provided, with little effort, a more in depth look at the rational market hypothesis.
The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, Yuval Levin- I really enjoyed the first bit of this book, where Levin describes the problem we face of a romanticized nostalgia to a bygone era. However, the back half lagged a bit and could have been shorter, despite many good, interesting, and important suggestions for our current politics.
The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life
Givens, Terryl L.- A thoughtful discussion of Mormon theology.
The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Jonah Goldberg-This was full of interesting historical anecdotes and legitimate complaints but aimed too much (as indicated in the title) at one side of the aisle, when in reality it is in many ways a bipartisan problem. (There is some acknowledgement of the by Goldberg). Overall, this could have been a bit better had it been more universal.
Biographical, Auto, and History
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance-Despite the hype, and some interesting portions, I found this book to miss the mark. I generally agree with William Easterly on the matter, it tends to contribute to unhelpful stereotypes.
Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly- Of course the book is better than the movie. Excellent read about real people working in unexpected places. The book is substantially less dramatic than the movie and more meaningful. The lesson I took is that change can be effected through simple means, such as acting like you should be treated as an equal based on your merits.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
Jeffrey Toobin- I don’t care for Toobin’s columns but thought I’d give his book a chance. It was alright.
The Forgotten Man: A New History, Amity Shlaes- A fantastic look at great depression and the various erratic efforts to solve the economic crisis that most likely contributed to the very crises.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick- Demick gives a thorough and devastating look into the oppressive North Korea regime. Fascinating and heartbreaking.
The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians
Riley, Naomi Schaefer Riley- If anyone wonders about the economic malaise faced by American Indians, this book contains many of the keys. A people subject to an oppressive regulatory regime, Riley shows how the ability to own property, reinvest, and grow their communities is severely hampered on reservations.
Joe Gould’s Teeth, Jill Lepore- A weird tale of an insane man.
Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team
George Jonas- Insider, though controversial, look into the counter-terrorist response to the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games, later dubbed the Munich Massacre. The movie “Munich” was based off these events.
Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, a WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure, Christopher S. Stewart- Autobiographical tale of searching for a lost city, it was alright. I wouldn’t put it high on the to-read list.
Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, Peg Kehret- Suggested by niece, this book gives a real look in what it was like to have Polio. Good book for grades 5 and up.
The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, John Oller- Turns out Francis Marion was even better in real life than in the Disney series. However, but for the Disney take and a 5th grade teacher I wouldn’t have read this interesting biography of an under discussed revolutionary hero.
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald-The discussion of falconry was the highlight of this overly dramatic book.
The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman- Worth the read tale of a couple which hid Jews in their zoo not too far from the Warsaw Ghetto, which witnessed a brutal massacre from the Nazi army.
Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History Méndez, Antonio J.- Interesting, worth the read, especially to compare with the film.
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steven Johnson- An interesting look at how two different people came together to pinpoint the source of a fast-moving cholera outbreak.
Napoleon, J. Christopher Herold- Quick look at Napoleon. Great read for a cursory knowledge of a prominent historical figure, short on the detail.
A Brief History of the Cold War, Lee Edwards- Brief description that gives an good overview of the Cold War but ends with some opining which feels unsupported by the previous sections.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
Hillenbrand, Laura- Enjoyed this tale of a Olympic runner Louis Zamperini immensely.
The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity, Russell Roberts- Though fiction, the story is designed to teach economics. Roberts is the host of my favorite podcast and I enjoyed his book. I look forward to handing it my someday teenage children.
Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee- As a fan of To Kill A Mockingbird I was skeptical of a late second novel from Harper Lee. With lowered expectations, I felt surprised by the book. It wasn’t as tight as the first novel, nor as poignant, but I feel it taught a useful lesson nonetheless.
Thrawn, Timothy Zahn- Rogue One was fantastic, and as a result I returned to the familiar Star Wars books of my youth, but this time the new canon. This was the best of the lot, as it contained the excitement of the previous books of my youth.
Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, James Luceno- Good set-up for the Rogue One movie.
Twilight Company (Star Wars: Battlefront, #1) Alexander Freed- A good look at the trenches of the Star Wars universe. This company is contemporaneous with the original trilogy, which makes it a fun read for the long-time fan, especially those into the battles over the Jedi saga.
Tarkin, James Luceno- Interesting background on an iconic Star Wars character.
Bloodline, Claudia Gray- Hampered severely (and unnecessarily) by the upcoming film, That Last Jedi (which was severely flawed itself). On top of that the ending turned out to be nearly nonsensical.
Going Postal (Discworld, #33; Moist von Lipwig, #1), Terry Pratchett- I am late to the party for this funny take on the fantasy genre. I may read more in the series.
An Echo of Things to Come (The Licanius Trilogy, #2), James Islington- A good fantasy series which basically is a fill-in while I await Brandon Sanderson novels. The second book does a good job of developing the characters and plot and has an interesting magic system. Additionally, the author has a time traveling(ish) aspect that has an added layer of mystery and intrigue. Above average fantasy no-doubt.