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The 11 Best Nonfiction Books of 2012
December 20, 2012 - 9:00pm

#1. Concise Nonfiction E-Books:  

2012 was a great year for concise nonfiction books due to the growth of platforms such as Kindle Singles, TED Books, and Atavist books. I suspect that we will be seeing many more concise nonfiction e-books come out in 2013. We are starting to see news organizations like Politco bring out topical e-books, expanding their coverage to the long form journalism that works so well in e-books. Other news organizations, companies, think tanks, and academic presses will follow. Short e-books are cheap, fast to read, and fun to talk about. We are just getting started in the decade of the concise nonfiction e-book.

#2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

This is the one book this year that I gave to various leaders on my campus (it helped that the publisher sent me a box full of copies of Quiet after I reviewed the book on 5/8/12). Quiet is a book that every educator and every manager should read. Susan Cain shows how we have set up our classrooms and workplaces to favor extroverts. Introspective people, people for which social interaction is draining rather than energizing, are often placed in environments where their full talents and abilities are hindered and hidden. A beautifully written book that permanently changed how I relate to colleagues, students, and family members.

#3. Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freeland

In Plutocrats, Freeland investigates the causes and consequences of today's second Gilded Age. The incredible growth in wealth of the top 0.1% of the population (ultra -high-net-worth-individuals), a wealth expansion that is the result of globalization, technological change, economic development in the emerging economies, revolutions, lax regulation, low taxation, rent-seeking, and the triumph of the market.   Freeland is no populist.  Rather than condemn the very wealthy, she seeks to understand them, explain how they were created, and then draw some conclusions about the rewards and risks of extreme income polarization.  In Plutocrats, we spend time with Russian oligarchs, right wing energy billionaires, Chinese princelings, and hedge fund masters of the universe.   Freeland enjoys terrific access to the very wealthy, hanging out with them at Davos, TED, and the Aspen Institute.   She combines astute observation with a firm grasp of history and economics.   A book you will love no matter the size of your bank account.

#4. The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don't by Nate Silver

Nate Silver is overexposed. That fact should not stop you from reading The Signal and the Noise. Learning how to think probabilistically is one of the most important skills that we all need in our analytical era. If you are someone who depends on evidence to make arguments, or if your are interested in how political forecasting, poker playing, weather forecasting, and sports betting works, then The Signal and the Noise should be at the top of your list.

#5. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum

Most of us don't actually make anything. We deal in information. In bits and bytes. Our workplace is the laptop. Our geography is the Internet. How refreshing therefore to reminded that the Internet is a physical thing. That all this data that we manipulate and interact with would not be possible without physical wires and boxes and switches and cables and data centers.  Someone needed to build all the infrastructure that makes the Internet possible.  Someone needs to keep everything going.  Blum sets out to tour the Internet.  To visit the places and the people that make possible what you and I are doing right now.   To make visible and understandable what too often feels like magic (until the website or the connection goes down).   I wish you safe travels on your journey to the Internet.

#6. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

Roy Baumeister, through years of experimentation and observation, has convincingly demonstrated that an individuals level of self-control (or willpower) is the most powerful predictor of life chances.   Hold country of birth and parents education / income steady, and willpower swamps all other variables as determinants of individual success.   The good news is that self-control is less an innate tendency than a habit that can be learned, a muscle that can be re-enforced.   Willpower made me re-think how I parent and how I behave.  

#7.  Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

It is hard to get our heads around the idea that the future will be better than the present.  Our jobs are increasingly insecure.  Our public finances a mess.   Our educational institutions strapped for resources.   Unemployment is too high.  Wages are stagnant.  Costs for things like health care and education high, and growing quickly.   So how can Diamandis argument about a bright material future be true?  Two reasons: technology and history.  Even a cursory familiarity with economic history teaches us that we live much better lives today than our grandparents and great-grandparents.   Living standards improved exponentially in the 19th century as the result of industrialization.   In the 20th century these gains were consolidated in the West (and Japan), with the added bonuses delivered by antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.   Today, a combination of globalization and information technology is bringing the advantages of industrialization and a world market for goods and services to the previously poor world.   Billions are being lifted out of poverty.  Diamandis thinks that we are just getting started.  That the next 50 years will witness a rapid growth in incomes and consumption for billions of people in emerging economies, accompanied by a range of new opportunities for people in the developed world who will benefit from the entry of all those consumers into the world market.   Pessimists will love to disagree with Diamandis, optimists will find much to bolster their faith in the future.

#8. Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Nothing is more interesting than understanding how people make their livings. Want to understand how life is changing in the early 21st century then visit the places where people work. Laskas takes us to those workplaces that are essential but invisible, closed off from outsiders. The control tower at LaGuardia. A coal mine. A migrant fruit pickers field. A long-haul truckers cab. A dump.  A beef ranch. And an oil rig. Each of these workplaces has their own status hierarchies, their own languages, and their own cultures. We depend on these people to land our planes, create our energy, get rid of our garbage, carry our packages, and put food on our table. Laskas allows us to see the people behind the economic activity that we too often take for granted.   

#9. Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent by Edward Luce

How is it possible that the most privileged generation in the history of successive generations has managed to squander, waste, and misuse so many of the advantages that have been bestowed on us?  Why have we let our infrastructure decay? The quality of our schools to depend on the wealth of the local taxpayers? The loss of economic opportunity and the promise of upward economic mobility?  Luce believes that the problem lies in self-dealing politicians, lazy intellectuals, and ineffective leaders.  We need to get serious about our solving our problems and be willing to overcome political, ideological and cultural differences to find space for collaborative actions.   A clear-eyed and depressing account of where we are going wrong, and a practical set of ideas for the steps that our elites must take to set things right.

#10. Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles by Ruchir Sharma

What are the conditions necessary for today's low-income countries to become tomorrow's middle-income societies? Why has South Korea grown so quickly, and Russia become so economically polarized? Is the potential of Brazil overrated, but Turkey and Poland under-appreciated? Sharma's approach to answer these questions is to spend time in each of the emerging economies. He likes to look at airports, roads, ports, and power grids. Infrastructure is destiny.  There are no more interesting questions than why some nations are rich and some are poor, and who and why will become rich (or at least middle income) in the next 25 years.   Sharma's practical, feet-on-the ground approach is a terrific complement to the more theoretical and abstract approaches of developmental economists.   

#11. The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Nobody disagrees that levels of economic inequality are increasing. The rich are getting (much) richer.  The middle class is hollowing out. The poor are not getting less poor (at least in wealthy countries).  This trend has been called the hourglass economy. The question is why?  Is growing inequality a result of technological change? The transition to an economy based on skills and brain power. Where any job that can be done more cheaply by somebody else will be sourced to the lowest cost provider, resulting in the fleeing of both manufacturing and repetitive information jobs to low-wage countries. Or is the growth of inequality the result of political decisions, of the rent-seeking and self-dealing amongst those at the top of the income pyramid? Stiglitz has no doubt that inequality is a choice, and that rising levels of stratification will ultimately damage the economic and political system that allowed such wealth to be created in the first place.   

What books are on your list for the best nonfiction of 2012? 

 

 

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