Aught Lang Syne: The Decade in Nonfiction, Part II

In case you missed Part I of our analysis of the decade’s best nonfiction, you can check it out here.

9/11, Pirates and Emperors, Hegemony or Survival, Failed States, et. al. – Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky has always been prolific in his political writings, but the aftermath of 9/11 saw an increase in the relevance of his criticisms of American foreign policy. As an unabashed radical and critic of American interventionism, Chomsky’s writings express points of view that are virtually unrepresented in the mainstream discourse. For those who agree and those who disagree, Chomsky represents important challenges to American foreign policy that need to be addressed, given the country’s ongoing role in violent global affairs.

–John S

Moneyball – Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is arguably the best nonfiction writer of the Aughts, and Moneyball is one of the best nonfiction books of the Aughts. Lewis made Billy Beane and sabermetrics (i.e. baseball statistical analysis) into a superstar and super-method. No other book has had as much effect on the general management of a sport than Moneyball has had on baseball. OPS shifted from undervalued to properly or even overvalued (and, you know what’s next) and teams continued to hire Art Howe (well, that wasn’t a good thing). More than simply chronicling Beane’s (general) managerial philosophy, Lewis extracted meaningful themes from it such as capitalism’s push for efficiency as reflected in baseball and overcoming the deleterious effects of dogmatic insiders.

–Josh

The Mystery of Capital – Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto (the economist, not the conquistador) asks the question: Why isn’t capitalism working in many developing countries? Applying his economic instincts to his field research, de Soto finds that a poorly-defined system of property rights is a, and arguably the, crucial problem that is preventing capitalism from succeeding in the third world. There is significant “dead” capital that simply can’t become liquid without hundreds of steps, taking years of time. While solving the property rights problem alone isn’t sufficient to solve the third world problems (see The Bottom Billion), de Soto does an admirable job of shifting the focus to a shortcoming that needs to be addressed.

–Josh

The Myth of the Rational Voter – Bryan Caplan

Public choice theory is a crucial methodology for the economic analysis of political science and law. And, George Mason University Economist Bryan Caplan turned a fundamental assumption choice—that voters are rationally ignorant—on its head. Four biases—make-work, anti-foreign, pessimistic, and anti-market—are shown to dominate individuals’ voting decisions through statistical analysis. Caplan ultimately concludes that voters are rationally irrational: I like to think I’m among the rationally rational elite though.

–Josh

The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of FoodMichael Pollan

Michael Pollan takes food seriously. His excellent understanding of the nature and history of American food and American food culture make for two books that not only inform, but have created a new dialogue on food. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan addresses what we choose to eat, where it comes from, and how it is produced. And, he indulges in deeper philosophical questions too, such as whether vegetarianism is a moral necessity. Despite its shortcomings, In Defense of Food offers an invaluable critique of nutritionism and defense of unprocessed foods.

–Josh

Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely is by no means one of the early pioneers of behavioral economics (see Vernon Smith, Richard Thaler, and Daniel Kahneman), but he is a pioneer in its popularization, a quite important trend of the Aughts. He shows, among other things, that behavioral economics need not simply be an exercise of pointing out people’s irrationalities (“You’re irrational: Sucks for you!”) but, rather, people display systematically irrational behaviors, which should be incorporated into economic models so that they offer more accurate and wise predictions and prescriptions. While I think we need to be wary of some of the applications of behavioral economics, there is little doubt that Predictably Irrational made these applications salient.

–Josh

Restoring the Lost Constitution – Randy Barnett

Everyone loves a good theory of constitutional interpretation. What’s better about Restoring the Lost Constitution than your conventional theoretical treatises is that it starts from first premises and is as much a theory of constitutional (and governmental legitimacy) as it’s a theory of interpretation. It asks (and uniquely answers) fundamental questions such as: Why are we bound to follow the Constitution? And Barnett provides the best discussion and critique I’ve ever encountered of consent-theories of legitimacy. Reading his theory of interpretation is intellectual masturbation for libertarians and interesting for all others who have any interest in law, philosophy, or politics.

–Josh

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs – Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman’s low culture manifesto was probably the first book to look seriously at Saved by the Bell, Star Wars, children’s cereal commercials, Pamela Anderson, The Sims, and The Real World (among other things). Klosterman’s ability and willingness to explore these subjects to the full depth of their meaning made him one of the best and most original writers of the Aughts. He maintains a comical and light-hearted perspective while nevertheless providing some of the most thought-provoking prose of the decade. Perhaps just as important, Klosterman’s writing demonstrated that “low culture” could be analyzed intellectually, something he would continue in Killing Yourself to Live and Eating the Dinosaur.

–John S

The Tipping Point – Malcom Gladwell

This was the first of Malcolm Gladwell’s four bestsellers of the decade, and the primary reason for him becoming the biggest nonfiction celebrity of the Aughts. The Tipping Point was a groundbreaking work and revealing look at social trends and the spread of information. Gladwell uses examples from children’s television, social psychology, and crime prevention, along with his lucid, adept prose, to illustrate—as the subtitle says—how little things can make a big difference. At his best, Gladwell manages to integrate disparate concepts that seem simple or intuitive enough on their own but are actually cutting-edge when viewed together. In this book, still his best to date, Gladwell manages to alter the way we look at  common phenomena.

–John S

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell followed The Tipping Point with this look at our unconscious decision-making. Like The Tipping Point, Blink showcases Gladwell’s skill at bringing anecdotes to life and finding the larger principles at work within mundane scenarios. Unlike The Tipping Point, however, Blink doesn’t really synthesize these anecdotes into any overall philosophy. The basic message of the book—people sometimes make snap decisions; this is sometimes good and sometimes bad—isn’t all that startling. But Blink did cement Gladwell’s reputation as a great, if sometimes troublingly vague, essayist.

–John S

The Wisdom of Crowds – James Surowiecki

Josh looked yesterday at this decade’s trend of popular economics, but James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds is an oft-overlooked example of this. Coming even before Freakonomics, Surowiecki’s book adeptly dispels the myth that large groups inevitably veer into mob mentality and irrationality. In contrast, aggregating information and opinions generally leads to a better outcome than trusting experts. Given the current reputation of economic “experts,” I’d say Surowiecki’s wisdom is validated.

–John S

Year of Living Biblically – A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs, an enthusiast of what he likes to call “immersion journalism,” spent a year living according to every rule and guideline he could find in the Bible. A self-proclaimed agnostic/Jew, Jacobs’ interest lies more in the practice of religion than in the question of faith itself. Some elements are explored for their positive effects on Jacobs’ outlook (wearing white, respecting elders, etc.), others are explored for the sake of oddity (the prohibitions on shaving and mixed fabrics), and others are showed to be downright irrational and mean-spirited (stoning adulterers, not touching women during their periods, snake handling). In general, Jacobs’ treatment of religion as an artifact to be experimented with shows just how outdated and archaic most of its practices are.

–John S

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2 responses to this post.

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

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  2. […] going to bring along Paul DePodesta to the front office, who was prominent in Moneyball (a book we’ve invoked a few times so far), and has his own […]

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