Books that deserve a list of their own

December 1, 2011

Gift-buying season is upon us. And so are books-of-the-year lists. Here are some new books that have not necessarily made it on to any book list, but which are nonetheless good reads and good gifts:

WINNING THE WAR ON WAR by Joshua Goldstein

This is the most important political book of the year. It deserves substantial attention and is worthy of awards. Goldstein, a professor emeritus at American University, shows in meticulous detail that Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are terrible exceptions to what is otherwise a trend of steady decline in incidence, intensity and severity of human combat. Cable news creates an impression of general carnage: yet with each passing year, nations and tribal groups harm each other less, both directly through war and indirectly through conflict. “Book trailers” are a mixed blessing; the trailer for “Winning the War on War” is worth watching.

Steven Pinker, a better-known writer, also published a book this autumn about the decline of violence. Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is also worth reading or giving. Pinker concentrates on the evolution of morality (how violence has gradually come to be seen as wrong), whereas Goldstein’s focus is politics (the policy choices that reduce conflict and prevent harm).

Either way, you should read both books. The decline of war and violence is the no. 1 overlooked story in the international media.

JOIN THE CLUB by Tina Rosenberg

Everyone complains about the malevolence of peer pressure – what about its positive uses? Drawing on examples and interviews from around the world, Rosenberg, whose “The Haunted Land” won the 1995 National Book Award, shows how positive peer pressure has been employed by educational reformers, public health officials, entrepreneurs and nonviolent “velvet” rebellions against dictatorship. A wise, noteworthy book with clear applications both for protest movements and business administration.

FUTURE BABBLE by Dan Gardner

Does it seem to you that “expert” predictions fare little better than coin flips? Gardner, who specializes in science and risk-perception, shows they fare no better. “Future Babble” is delightfully entertaining, and might be considered dark humor if it did not contain so many examples of widely-listened-to “experts” turning out to have no idea what they were talking about.

THE END OF ANGER by Ellis Cose

America may or may not be becoming post-racial. But black rage and white guilt are both on their way to being antiquated concepts, contends Cose, who used to write for Newsweek. It’s hard to ideologically characterize his African-American voice – which is a reason to read this book.


The Department of State and Department of Defense have overlapping duties and jurisdiction, plus conflicting institutional incentives. There is too much recitation of well-known incidents from this globetrotting international writer, but it’s a smart guide to a major behind-the-scenes Washington story. As the Department of Defense hands over Iraq to the Department of State, this subject will rise in magnitude.

CHURCHILL’S SECRET WAR by Madhusree Mukerjee

Count me as a card-carrying member of the Winston Fan Club. But as Mukerjee shows, Churchill’s World War II-era abuse of what are now India and Pakistan was shameful, and was in part racially motivated. Shipping food out of starving India so England could have more in reserve may have been the kind of terrible choice leaders make during war. Churchill’s legacy should also include his mistreatment of a region that his nation conquered by force. Mukerjee is an India-born physicist who lives in Germany.

GETTING BETTER by Charles Kenny

Just as war is assumed to be ever-worse while it actually is in decline, the developing world is assumed to be falling to pieces while it’s actually improving on most measures – health, per-capita income, freedom of expression, education for women. Kenny, an economist who has become an important scholar on the reality of the developing world, shows that conditions in most nations are trending upward, and that this is happening almost entirely because of the efforts of developing world citizens – not U.S. or European Union initiatives. The latest United Nations Human Development Report backs up this book’s claims. That the developing world mostly is improving, not imploding as predicted, is another story rarely reported.

TERROR SECURITY AND MONEY by John Mueller and Mark Stewart

This timely and provocative book, by professors at Ohio State and University of Newcastle in Australia, contends that in the wake of 9/11, all investments in domestic security were assumed justified: yet much of the spending has been wasteful or even counterproductive. Some $600 billion (in current dollars) has been spent combating domestic terrorism since 2001. In calling for rational decisions about security, Mueller and Stewart sound like they are arguing that a few terror deaths per year don’t matter. But what they are actually saying is that security appropriations should be subject to the same benefit-cost analysis as any other kind of government spending.

Mueller holds the best academic title in all of higher education, as the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State. Presumably, in matters of national security, the Woody Hayes chair advises the Pentagon to go straight up the middle.

THE WAR LOVERS by Evan Thomas

Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Hearst – all were eager for the United States to go to war against Spain. A century later, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were eager for war with Iraq. Will we ever learn? This book weaves the psycho-history of its protagonists into tales of Ivy League politics of the era, and sidetracks onto Thomas Reed and William James. Thomas, a former Newsweek writer, who is currently a professor of journalism at Princeton University, is the author of the bestseller, “Sea of Thunder”, and is supplanting David McCullough as America’s most accomplished writer of serious popular history.

RACE AGAINST THE MACHINE by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

These two faculty members at MIT warn that digital advances and automation may backfire against humanity by wiping out jobs. One hardly even needs to point out that a jeremiad against electronic commerce was published digitally as an e-book via Amazon. So far, the Luddites have been wrong: electronic advances have improved living standards for average people. But the night is young.

A few other new books to bear in mind:

GRAND PURSUIT by Sylvia Nasar

This book has gotten attention but it deserves even more. Its trailer would be an excellent high school or college teaching tool.

FLOURISH by Martin Seligman

A tad touchy-feely, but from a University of Pennsylvania professor who is the guru of the academic “positive psychology” movement.

TOP SECRET AMERICA by Dana Priest and William Arkin

The book version of a must-read Washington Post series about using the patina of anti-terrorism to justify government secrecy and wasteful spending.

INSTANT CITY by Steve Inskeep

A profile of Karachi, a crossroads city of Pakistan, a country the world worries about more every day. As someone who’s spent time in Pakistan, I found this book spot-on.


Had to throw in one novel. Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man” has the best literary grace about 9/11. The Submission is the most original and challenging novel about what happened on September 11, 2001.

Photo: An employee holds copies of the six shortlisted books for the Man Booker Prize as she poses for photographers in a bookshop in London October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville


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Looks like an interesting list. I am not as optimistic about the decline of wars continuing. China for one is going to have problems. Their population control program has resulted in fewer females than males. There are 5 men for every 4 women born since 1980. Historically the way to reduce your male population is war. Not that it has to be that way.

The cost benefit analysis thing on security makes a great deal of sense. Think about what happened on 9/11/2001. Men took control of planes with box cutters. They did so only because as a society we were conditioned to give in because situations like that were resolved most peacefully by doing so. 9/11 changed that perception. Box cutters weren’t going to get you control of a plane from that point on no matter what you did in regards to security.

Posted by AustinG | Report as abusive

History indeed appears to show us a decline in epic incivility in the modern age.

Religion’s role in goverment has for some time been on the decline in favor of secular governments using the Rule of Law and Democracy as the basis for humanity, while upholding these with great advancements in technology and communication.

Any wager there is a direct correlation to the decline of religious influence in government and the decline of violence in the world?

Sadly there remain pariah states and emerging governments with ideological aims completely afield of a sane course for humanity. Especially when religious dogma drives national will…violence is never far and when these states attain the ability to destroy whole cities with a single device, will the world remain less war filled?

If supporters of Islam can ask a single man or woman to strap bombs to their bodies and kill all within a radius of a few meters in the name of their view of God, what will they ask with bombs that can kill everything within several kilometers?

The Islamisation of governments seems poised to emerge as the primary force in new governments across the Middle East. Iran, the leading religious state in the Middle East seems on the verge of attaining nuclear weapons. The mixture seems volatile.

Perhaps Islam’s answers to history’s trend towards civility is not so far away…I guess we will have to wait and see and hold hope that yesterday’s religion drunk governments are not reborn as tomorrows catalysts for WWIII.

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive

The decline of religious influence in government has led to the decline in violence? History teaches a different lesson. Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot, the killing fields of Cambodia, Mao Tse-Tung’s China, etc… . Most of the greatest attrocities ever committed were done under secular governments to their own citizens.

Posted by AustinG | Report as abusive


You provide key modern examples of relatively short lived horrific atrocities led by (seemingly) other than religious motives…although there are several examples of Hitler’s belief in the devine from a Christian perspective and his anti-Jew campaign is believed in part to have come from this perspective. In Stalin’s case, much of his destruction targeted religions within his country and this underscores my point about The Rule of Law (which includes religious tolerance, but excludes any religion from unduly influencing government). Stalin was anti- all religions and killed people for their beliefs…Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot were no different.

The secular laws of most modern nations include tolerance to all faiths and maintains a separation of church and state and they do not in any way equate to strict Communist or Marxist views on eradicating religion. (but if you view atheism as a form of faith as the Communists do, one could argue the Communist motives to destroy other systems of faith to be on par with any of the religious pogroms of the preceding centuries)

Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran do not hold to such tolerance and religious freedoms and their governments and education systems are founded almost exclusively on Islam. As we continue to witness, the daily violence in the Arabian region stems from religious ideologies that justify the use of violence as an approprate means to an end, rather than embracing Rule of Law principles of mutual respect from a secular perspective.

The difference between the Communists and Islamists is the Communists never embraced the concept of wholesale martyrdom and mutual destruction to further their aims.
Islamists seem willing to destroy themselves if it means killing all those who do not march in lockstep with their religious views (because they believe they will go straight to Paradise for it).

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive


Religion can be a tool used by people to justify things like killing. Historically the people who are manipulated as such are young males. It isn’t really religion that is the problem. It is the malleable nature of people, especially males, of that age. I really wasn’t trying to proclaim religion innocent in regards to violence. I was pointing out that violence occurs even under secular regimes. The problem is the people who would use others in that way.

The antidote to that is education. It is knowledge of the world around you. Technology has in many ways limited the ability of those who would manipulate others. From media to the ability to travel and encounter different kinds of people yourself. I would credit that more for the lack of violence than supposedly secular governments.

Posted by AustinG | Report as abusive