The books on this list aren't necessarily books that came out this year, but they are ones that I read for the first time. Previous book recommendations here.
Lords of the Sea By far my favorite book I read this year. I took it on our honeymoon, and found that I could barely put it down to go for a swim. It's the story of Athenian democracy, told through the story of the institution that helped create and support it: the city's mighty navy. For someone like me, whose knowledge of the era comes from a couple of classes in a long survey course, the evolution of Athens over the centuries is fascinating--and of course, if you care about democracy in our own era, you should have a better grasp of how it arose in the first place. The naval lore was gripping in a different way--a combination of Popular Mechanics and a war novel.
The Big Short I could quibble with some aspects of MIchael Lewis' latest offering--complain about oversimplifications, point up where he could have fleshed out the story. But I'm not sure that wouldn't just be professional jealousy. Lewis delivers another iteration of what he does best: combining absorbing narrative with an accessible technical explanation of what was happening in the markets. It's a great read--the only real problem is that you wish he'd explain even more.
The Great Depression: A Diary Okay, I know that I technically linked this last year. But it's out in paperback now, and it's still a great read. This is a first-hand account of the Great Depression written by a Youngstown lawyer, and anyone who thinks they have firm views on what happened during that era should read it. For me, it punctures a lot of claims made by both conservatives (the Youngstown banks all failed despite the fact that none of its rich depositors and shareholders expected a bailout) and liberals (the narrative does make it seem that people were worried about the New Deal regulatory climate). It should also give pause to anyone who has advocated the "work the rot out" school of monetary policy--this is what it looks like when the Fed doesn't supply liquidity in the face of a massive contraction.
The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century This is basically the history of the Molineux Rule--the rule that says you can't bring in evidence of crimes that have not been charged, in order to prove the one that has. I didn't realize this until halfway through, so I read through most of the first trial thinking "how can they do that!!!" It's a fascinating read, one in the growing genre of "Victorian true crime". A great read, especially since it makes you feel smarter without actually demanding much of your brain cells.
Robert Heinlein, In Dialogue With His Century: Volume One The author of the new, enormous Heinlein biography is not exactly a glittering prose stylist. But he is admirably thorough, and the workmanlike writing is enough to carry the reader through the exhaustive material. It fleshes a lot of the personality traits that made Heinlein both appealing, and occasionally insufferable. It also lays bare things Heinlein only hinted at, like his fairly spartan childhood (he slept on a pallet on the living room floor, and was supporting himself by his early teens), his second wife's descent into alcoholism and madness, and the poverty he and Ginny lived through again early in their relationship. If you are a fan of Heinlein--or a critic--it's definitely a must-read.
Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir Christopher Buckley's account of losing both of his parents within a year of each other is all the things it ought to be: funny, moving, and wry. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to have two famous society parents, well--wonder no more. It seems, frankly, more than a little rough. Especially interesting because it provides the first portrait I've seen in writing of Buckley's mother, a fiercely provocative woman who seems to have been, well, . . . erm, an interesting character.
Fly Fishing With Darth Vader Matt Labash, one of journalism's great profile writers, collects many of his best pieces in this book of essays. One of the finest is, of course, the title essay about, well, fly fishing with
Darth Vader Dick Cheney. Highly recommend that you pair this with a bottle of Jim Beam and a copy of A River Runs Through It.
Driving Like Crazy P.J. O'Rourke's more recent books have disappointed me--I don't think he's every again hit the pitch perfect heights he reached in Parliament of Whores, which, despite the fact that most of it was written in the late 1980s, is still depressingly relevant today. From Sudden Acceleration Incidents to fixing Social Security, all you need to do is change the names and you've got a modern policy brief.
But I digress. This collection of O'Rourke's auto essays was hearteningly enjoyable, even though I know nothing about cars. Give this instead of his new book, which was good in spots . . . but very spotty. Or hell, give Parliament of Whores.
Best American Magazine Writing, 2010 This is, without a doubt, the finest book I have ever owned. Its editor showed a rare skill in selecting the pieces that went into it--nay, "skill" may be too weak. "Wisdom" . . . "Sagacity" . . . "Genius" . . . all seem closer to the mark. This is a man who knows how to spot some of the best magazine pieces ever written, and lay them all out for you in one convenient place. You will want more than one copy, just in case a friend should stop by, as you will feel compelled to lend it to them so that they, too, can enjoy the fantastic writing contained within. I recommend starting with a case, and replenishing as necessary. They are of course, lovely gifts for important people on your list such as the church choir, the administrative staff of corporate headquarters, or the citizens of Chillicothe, Ohio.