The politics of 2016 has seemed sometimes like the plot of a novel rejected as much too implausible. That kind of year can be a tough time for non-fiction books, which can never quite compete with the drama of the moment. But this year has actually been a great one for non-fiction, I would say.
In no particular order, here are five of my favorites published this year:
Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance: This one is an obvious choice, and I mean that in a good way. It has gotten lots of attention because it so well describes a cultural crisis that has had a lot to do with this year’s election and its outcome. But I think it’s even more valuable as a book about human beings in their fullness, and about why culture and family and community and economics are inexorably intertwined and can’t be pulled apart. Pulling them apart would make the job of public policy much simpler, but that just means the way we tend to think about public policy isn’t very well suited to human beings.
Shall We Wake the President?, by Tevi Troy: This is a book about the president’s role in disaster management, but because its author is both a historian of American politics and a former senior White House staffer (full disclosure: I used to work for him), it is a story told from the inside out in a fascinating and engaging way. Among other things, it is a tale about how our expectations of presidents have changed over time, and so, again one particularly relevant to the times we’re living in.
Specialization and Trade, by Arnold Kling: I’ve already troubled you about this book around here, but it’s more than worth a second plug. Kling describes the book as “a re-introduction to economics” which is exactly right. It helps you unlearn what is untrue and then try to learn what is true. And it treats economics as a discipline—that is, not just a set of tools and facts but an ongoing project engaged in by real human beings with a purpose and a history and all manner of virtues and vices. It seems to me that we are living through something of a crisis in economic theory at the moment (not for the first time), and Kling can help us through it.
American Ulysses, by Ronald C. White: Like White’s biography of Lincoln from a few years ago, one thing that really helps this biography of Ulysses S. Grant stand out is that its author seems to like politics, and to understand why other people like it. Although he spends too much time answering various academic critics of Grant, the book offers a deep and detailed picture of Grant as both a military and political figure, and explores the importance of character and temperament in some fascinating ways. It’s hard to beat a serious biography of a complicated and important figure that is also well written.
SPQR, by Mary Beard: This is a history of ancient Rome that gives you a sense of what the term “magisterial” is meant to describe. That’s good and bad. The book covers a huge amount of ground, but Beard is a firm, reliable guide and the reader always has the sense that she knows a lot more than she has chosen to burden us with and comes to trust her judgment about what to delve into and what to cover lightly. It’s beautifully done. It would be well paired with another 2016 book, Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana, which has a very different attitude about its subject.
These are just a few great books among many this year. Among others worth your while I’d quickly mention Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love, Philipp Ther’s Europe Since 1989 (a very sobering read), and George Borjas’s We Wanted Workers.
So there has been no shortage of engaging non-fiction this year, and it seems there are some promising 2017 books to come. Read old books first, but we certainly are living in a time with many new ones worth our while too.