This was a fine year for books. I am embarrassed to admit that I read little in the way of fiction this year and what I read was quite dated (e.g., Oakley Hall, Warlock). But I have some recommendations under biography and memoirs, economics, and religion. I am most interested in hearing what you would recommend to me and fellow Pileus readers.
Biography and Memoirs: I read a lot of biographies this year (on Nash, Keynes, McCarthy, Hamilton, Arthur, Eisenhower, Truman, Hoover, Bush, and Roosevelt). All were fine in their own ways, but the best single work was Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market. I am not much of an Ayn Rand fan (in fact, I’m not a fan at all). Burns’ biography succeeded in painting a complex portrait of Rand that made me appreciate her (even if I remain unconvinced about the novelty and virtues of her thought). In the memoir department, I strongly recommend Keith Richards, Life. Having spent most of my life playing guitar (telecaster thinline, in case you are interested) and marveling at the amazing rhythm licks of Keith Richards, this book was one of my favorites. Richards presents a refreshing uncensored window into the Stones, while offering a course in musicology (focusing on the blues) and some extraordinary discussions of the intellectual process that led him to embrace open tunings. I just finished a second memoir, George W. Bush, Decision Points. While the book carries the heavy hand of a ghostwriter, it succeeds in bringing out the complexities of many of the issues faced during the Bush presidency. Bush is, at times, painfully honest about some of the results of his eight years in office. At other times, he seems oblivious to the damage done by core decisions (e.g., Medicare Modernization, the war in Iraq).
The Financial Crisis and Beyond: Many of the best books came out in 2009 but I only got to them in this calendar year. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different, provides an impressive tutorial in the history of financial crises and the underlying dynamics. It is a fantastic, if heavy, read. Gary Gorton, Slapped by the Invisible Hand, is well worth the investment. Gorton has written some fascinating papers on the shadow banking system (focusing on the repo market) and they are brought together in this fine volume.Robert Reich’s Aftershock is an interesting read even if you disagree with 80 percent of what Reich writes. Reich seeks to place the collapse within a history of stagnant wages (a product of deindustrialization and the decline of unions) and growing inequality. Whether you agree or disagree with Reich’s larger argument, it is a lively book that is pitched to a generalist audience.
Two other books that require little in the way of specialized knowledge include Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, Crisis Economics and Ian Bremmer’s The End of the Free Market. Bremmer’s book is particularly interesting. It explores the phenomenon of state capitalism and the difficulties the US faces in competing with these regimes. If anyone is interested in sovereign wealth funds and the industrial policies embraced by state capitalists, this book is made to order.
If all of these books leave you pessimistic, you can find relief in Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist. While this book was not as compelling as The Origins of Virtue, it was nonetheless a great read. And if you really want relief, turn to P.J.O’Rourke’s new book, Don’t Vote. While not in the same category as Parliament of Whores or Eat the Rich, this is a fantastically enjoyable read.
Religion: I made my first trip to Israel this year and in preparation I explored a number of books from the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. The authors—Christians and Jews—seek to place the gospels in the context of 1st century A.D. Judaism and understand where Jesus fit in the larger rabbinical tradition. If this kind of thing interests you, I can recommend David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, David Biven, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, and Ron Mosely, Yeshua. I have also been intrigued by the debates inspired by the so-called new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc) and the response of Christians. Most of the work of the new atheists is polemical. However, some rather sophisticated essays on apologetics can be found in Robert Lane Craig and Chad Meister, God is Great, God is Good. If one is troubled by the problem of evil or wishes to explore the Islamic contributions to the cosmological argument, this is a great place to start.
All is all, it was a decent year for books. With the exception of Keith Richard’s memoir and the recent piece by O’Rourke, you could provide any of these books to those you love without embarrassment (your mother may not be interested in some of the more seedy adventures of the Rolling Stones).
I await suggestions for great books I missed (and, of course, correctives on the poor books I praised).
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