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The 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2011
December 20, 2011 - 8:00pm

Looking forward to reading about your favorite nonfiction books of 2011. 

Without exception, every book in my list was purchased from Amazon as an audiobook (through Audible) or a Kindle e-book.  

Buying digital books from Amazon has many advantages (velocity, selection and hardware/purchasing integration coming to mind), but Amazon digital offerings come with the significant disadvantage of non-sharability. In the past I would have lent out my paper books, as a book shared is worth immeasurably more than a book stored. Today, we need to share our recommendations (and links), as opposed to sharing the actual books. 

So I hope you will join me in sharing your recommendations.

The 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2011 - In Order:

1.   The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin

The Quest is the best nonfiction book of 2011.  Everything we do depends on energy. The history and future of worldwide energy discovery, production, distribution and consumption is a big story - and Yergin manages to pull this off in a tight (yes tight) and fast-paced 816 pages. Essential reading in many disciplines.

2.  Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay

Why are airports and airplanes more, rather than less, important in the age of Skype? What does the airport + city (the aerotropolis) teach us about the competitiveness in the 21st economy? How will globalization change how we work? Aerotropolis offers a set of surprising and convincing answers to all of these questions.   

3.  Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World by Doug Saunders

The combinations of urbanization, migration, and the transformation from rural to industrial economies in the emerging world constitute the most important trends shaping humanity this century. Saunders brings the skills of a journalist, the nuance of an essayist, and the rigor of an academic in his examination of the world's arrival cities.

4.  Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser

The story of the 20th century is one of the movement of people from the farm to the city. The 21st century will see the completion of this journey. Urbanization will be the engine of innovation and wealth in the emerging world as it was for the currently wealthy world in the past century.

5.  Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation by Ted C. Fishman

The aging of the population in today's wealthy countries (and China thanks to the 1 Child policy) will constitute of the master stories (along with globalization, technology change and the rise of the emerging world) of the 21st century. We have not begun to wrap out heads around what it will mean in a couple of decades when our whole country has an age distribution modern day Florida. Low birth rates combined with significantly longer (healthy) lifespans will drive everything from taxing and spending (did you really think we were "saving" for your Medicare and Social Security - think "pay as you go") to housing to work to entertainment.

6.  1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

Mann's modern day updating of the "Columbian Exchange" helps us understand why the world we live in today is as much a product of 500 years of of world trade as the technological advances of the the last 50 years.

7.  The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

How often have we read, or said, that we live in an "information economy"? But what does this really mean, and how did we get to this place?  

8.  The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories by Frank Rose

After reading this book you will wonder why "higher education" is not in the subtitle. Or perhaps you will not wonder, but become convinced that we need to better learn from our fellow communicators who work in "Hollywood" and "Madison Avenue".

9.  Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis

What happens when whole societies (Greece, Ireland and the much of the U. S. of A.) decide to live like the wealthy, on credit? The results, at least in the hands of Michael Lewis, are hilarious.

10.  The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do by Eduardo Porter

Prices convey information. Porter conveys why this is so. Priceless.

11.  Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Perhaps the most timely biography in recent memory.

12.  Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts

Sociologists should write more popular academic books. Economists and psychologists have dominated the academic translation genre for too long.   Watts is a particularly interesting sociologist, as he is based (of all places) at Yahoo Research. What happens when a social hypothesis meets big data?  The answers, as you may have guessed, are not always obvious.

13.  Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford

The importance of learning how to "fail fast" is oftentimes celebrated, but rarely practices (particularly in higher ed, as we are by temperament I suspect somewhat risk adverse). Harford details the costs of our fear of failure.

14.  The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman

We worry about the wrong things (terrorism as opposed to house fires, or Mad Cow disease as opposed food poisoning). We worry about energy, but we really should be thinking about water.  The two will eventually need to come together (in the form of desalinization plants), but the rate limiting step for our continued movement out of worldwide material deprivation will come down to the availability of clean water.  

15.  Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn by Cathy N. Davidson

Davidson's optimistic assessment of a coming renaissance of authentic learning on our campuses, fueled by technology advances coupled with a better understanding of learning, is inspiring.

What nonfiction books make it on to your 2011 list?

 

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