Books that deserve a list of their own
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.
STATE VERSUS DEFENSE by Stephen Glain
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.
THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman
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