For purposes of both gift-buying and taking stock, the end of the year is often a time for book recommendations. On the whole, it seems to me this was a great year for books, and below are five of my particular favorites published in the past year (the best books I read this year naturally included older books too). That these are all non-fiction books reflects my own shortcomings as a reader, not any particular weakness of 2015 fiction, as well as the fact that almost none of the fiction I read this year was published this year.
So five favorites, offered in no particular order:
Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, by Alistair Horne. The great British historian offers a look at six 20th-century military battles and shows how their outcomes were a function of the reckless arrogance of the losing sides (or in some cases of both sides). It’s a great conceit for thinking about leadership, statesmanship, and life in general but especially for thinking through the uniquely atrocious 20th-century battlefield and its implications for would-be hawks and doves in the coming years.
Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own, by Garett Jones. This book is just a model of how an economist can write for a general audience. Jones, who teaches at George Mason University, guides his readers through evidence from an extraordinary range of fields and works through arguments with an impressive mix of confidence and caution. He mounts a fascinating, important, and persuasive case about a hidden (or ignored) driver of economic trends.
The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew Crawford. Drawing on a brilliant mix of philosophy, journalism, and social commentary, Crawford (who, I should note, is an old friend) argues that the contemporary crisis of distraction is not fundamentally a function of technology but of a way of understanding our place in the world that is deeply rooted, is inexorably linked to modern politics and culture, and is terribly misguided about human nature and human life. This is one of those books that changes the way you look at seemingly familiar things.
Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. This is the latest in Zornberg’s series of Biblical interpretations—which have included dazzling books on Genesis and Exodus. The Book of Numbers is a much more challenging subject, as it’s just not as rich (really what could be as rich as Genesis and Exodus?) and often reads like a litany of grouchy complaints by what amounts on several levels to a lost generation. Zornberg considers how this difficult text contrasts with what the long Jewish tradition of interpretation has made of it, and the result is an extraordinarily insightful reflection on language, culture, nationhood, and law. This is a very Jewish book—in the sense that it utterly revels in wrestling endlessly with every single word of the text being studied—and needless to say I mean that as a great compliment.
Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke, by Richard Bourke. The last few years have seen several great Burke books, maybe most notably Jesse Norman’s insightful general biography and the profound if idiosyncratic first volume of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke by David Bromwich—perhaps as sensitive a scholarly reader as Burke has ever had. But in this wonderfully rich book, Richard Bourke tells the story of Burke’s political endeavors and ideas in the context of the tumultuous time in which he lived. It’s easy to do this poorly—witness almost everything written about Burke by academic historians in the last half century. But Bourke does it wonderfully. He avoids both psychoanalyzing Burke and losing him in the mass of late-18th-century humanity. Instead, he paints a bold picture of a truly outstanding figure who nonetheless has to be grasped in light of the age in which he lived. You’ll understand both better thanks to this book. (But do be warned: this is a long, academic text.)
There are other books I could have included here. The second volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher is brilliant. You don’t need me to tell you to read Jay Nordlinger’s fascinating Children of Monsters (but I will anyway). I’ve written here before about Charles Cooke’s wonderful Conservatarian Manifesto. Edward Watts’s The Final Pagan Generation is among the best works of academic history I’ve ever read. For all the complaining about shortening attention spans and impossible business models, this is a great time for serious books.