Aught Lang Syne: The Decade in Nonfiction, Part I

Last week, NPI gave an overview of fiction (in two parts!) of the Aughts. Yesterday, Josh pointed out the popular economics trend in this decade’s nonfiction. Today, Josh and John are going over (in two parts!) what they believe are the biggest nonfiction books of the Aughts.

America: The Book – Jon Stewart and The Daily Show writers

I bought this book for a good friend at a surprise birthday party in high school, as did another friend of mine unbeknownst to me. My copy was not kept since I didn’t write a note inside mine. I considered frowning. But, this situation nonetheless demonstrated the book’s appeal.  America: The Book is funny and representative of the politically satirical form of comedy that Stewart engendered in the Aughts through The Daily Show. The book is filled with little tidbits like: “Were you Aware? Cloture is something all Senators seek when a piece of beloved legislation dies.” There are also asides written by Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms. But, America: The Book is insightful as well as humorous; if a scholar in a future decade wanted to understand the American political climate in the early 2000s, this is one book he should examine, particularly the chapter on The Future of Democracy.


The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It – Paul Collier

In this book, development economist (and a former lecturer of mine) Paul Collier looks at the most impoverished countries in the world (home to about one billion individuals) and asks why they are experiencing so little growth. Explanations seem to occur in fours in the Aughts; there are four development traps that each of these countries typically suffer from: the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, landlocked with bad neighbors, and bad governance, particularly in small countries. While many of Collier’s suggestions are difficult to implement, the most promising is that trade policy needs to lower trade barriers for the Bottom Billion, giving preferential access to their exports. Another important highlight of this book is his attack on the misguided policies of NGOs and other charitable organizations. Ultimately, Collier popularized and integrated his important and informative empirical studies into one of the Aughts’ best development nonfiction books of the decade.


Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s follow-up to 1997’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, his (sadly) final book of essays covers topics like John McCain’s first presidential run, the AVN Awards, John Updike, Franz Kafka, Dostoevsky, 9/11, and, of course, American Usage (in an essay NPI has linked to way too many times; we’ve reached our quota). Oh, and lobsters. Wallace approaches some of these topics with humor and some with reverence. But all the essays, however, have Wallace’s trademark inquisitiveness and cerebral quality.

–John S

Everything Bad is Good for You — Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson takes a generally accepted myth—that popular culture makes us dumber—and completely annihilates it. Pointing to data that shows that the average IQ has actually increased steadily over at least the last half-century, Johnson credits this increase to the growing complexity of television, films, and video games. He highlights how these things have, on average, become much more intellectually engaging than their predecessors, and that they are actually making us smarter. In a decade that saw both television and video games become much more culturally accepted, this kind of validation showed that the rise of these parts of culture was not necessarily a bad thing.

–John S

Freakonomics – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics single-handedly caused the rise of popular economics. It even prominently featured the word “rogue” in the subtitle before it was hijacked by Sarah Palin. Levitt and Dubner explain Levitt’s research, which applies economic reasoning to understand a variety of different phenomena and topics. Some of these topics got a ton of publicity (e.g. Chapter 4 on legalized abortion causing crime reduction), and all were interesting, particularly Chapter 1 on cheating and Chapter 5 on naming children. Check out the Freakonomics blog for an array of intriguing posts and analysis.


The Game –Neil Strauss

Neil Strauss’ oft-misunderstood look at the “seduction community” was one of the more revealing books of the decade. Ostensibly a look at how men (or at least a certain sect of men) endeavor to pick up women, the book actually offers complex insights into group psychology. The way men and women interact is, of course, explored, but the book’s look at how women interact with women, and men with men, are just as important. Of course, the book will probably always be remembered most as a guide to “manipulating” women, and for the great reality show it spawned.

–John S

Generation Kill — Evan Wright

Evan Wright’s account of the invasion of Iraq is written with virtually no political agenda, which makes it all the more powerful. Wright, who was embedded with the First Reconnaissance Battalion of the U.S. Marine Corps during the opening weeks of the American invasion of Iraq, gives an almost frighteningly blunt account of the soldiers at war. He gives equal time to their lust for violence and their thirst for honor and glory; they seem both like brave (and often insane) heroes, and immature kids—which, of course, they are. At the same time, Wright’s portrait touches on the bureaucratic nightmares of the invasion, and the many institutional fuck-ups committed by the Battalion’s commanders and the war’s engineers.

–John S

The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins

We don’t like God too much, or at least the misguided concept of God’s existence. Neither does Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, partially because of his prominence and biological background, brought more attention to atheism than it had received in the past several decades. In The God Delusion, despite what its critics say, Dawkins lays out compelling arguments justifying that belief in God is a delusion: a persistent false belief held despite strong contradictory evidence. Dawkins does a great job offering direct responses to the criticisms of atheism: that atheists can’t be happy and moral, that really smart people (like Einstein!) were theists, and that atheists ought to be moderate rather than proud. People who complain that The God Delusion is simply an extremist, angry attack on religion could not have read and considered Dawkins’ logic with any seriousness. To alter Barry Goldwater’s formulation a little bit, extremism in the (logical) defense of truth is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of half-truths is no virtue.


Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles – Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey

If you’re a Beatles fan (John S and I are), this book is awesome. Even if you’re not, it’s still interesting. Emerick was the sound engineer for The Beatles from Revolver to the White Album. Because of his position as not-quite-an-insider-but-kind-of-on-the-inside, Emerick offers a knowledgeable, but unprejudiced perspective. Perhaps the most fascinating parts of this book are when Emerick discusses how some of The Beatles’ most memorable sounds (e.g. the chaotic end of “A Day in the Life,” Lennon’s vocals on “Tomorrow Never Knows”) were created. Nearly as fascinating are his in-depth descriptions of the Beatles’ recording sessions and the dynamic between Paul, John, Ringo, George, and George Martin. But, what really makes this book great is that it’s about the music.


Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them — Al Franken

There was a time at the beginning of this decade when media bias was not taken for granted by everyone, when half the country still respected George W. Bush, when the partisanship and rancor that characterized most of the Bush Administration had not yet boiled over. This was before Al Franken published his book. It’s not that Franken was a pioneer or a trailblazer—his book actually coincided with books by Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, and Jim Conason—in the crusade against the right; he was merely the most iconic, thanks largely to Fox’s lawsuit against him. In response, of course, the right only got more closed-minded and intolerant, and the left, in turn, more hostile and critical. And while the book may seem dated and obvious now, at the time of its publication it was actually a funny and revealing look at the political climate.

–John S

Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris

David Sedaris may be the funniest writer working today. The first of three books of essays published this decade, Me Talk Pretty One Day details his childhood in Raleigh, his time as a bachelor in New York City, and his move to Paris—and subsequent trouble learning French—with his boyfriend Hugh. This book may be the best example of Sedaris’ absurdist outlook and darkly comic perspective.

–John S

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Aught Lang Syne « Aught Lang Syne: The Decade in Nonfiction, Part I […]


  2. […] of the Aughts, we posted on the decade’s best nonfiction, but here is a more particular account on the best food books […]


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