Best books of 2012

by Institute of Public Affairs on December 18, 2012

There’s a lovely observation in this Claremont Review of Books review from last month of the thought of the recently deceased political scientist James Q Wilson, a man George W Bush described as the most influential political scientist since Woodrow Wilson:

“[H]e held an old-fashioned idea about the importance of books, namely, that almost no academic article, popular essay, op-ed, or (heaven forbid) blog posting, however trenchant or timely, can do the sustained intellectual heavy-lifting, refine the writer’s understanding, and illuminate the reader’s mind, the way a good book can.”

In that spirit, here are some of our favourite good books this year.

Anne Applebaum – Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag was an enormously important book when it was published in 2004 on the crimes of communism. Her follow-up, Iron Curtain, is likely to be as influential. Here’s a New York Times review, and a review in the Telegraph.

Peter Brown - Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

A fascinating book by the great historian of late antiquity, Peter Brown, on the development of Christianity in Rome. Don’t let the desperation of this New Republic review and this Guardian review to relate Brown’s study to contemporary fads like Occupy Wall Street fool you. Through the Eye of a Needle is a serious work of scholarship and an important study about how Rome became Christian.

Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt’s groundbreaking book on the moral foundations of political disagreement will make you rethink how you think. Here’s a Wall Street Journal interview with Haidt spelling out his arguments, and here’s what the IPA’s Chris Berg had to say about The Righteous Mind in the Sunday Age earlier this year.

Robert A Caro – The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

The latest instalment of Robert A Caro’s magnificent biography of the 36th President brings readers up to his installation in the White House after the death of John F Kennedy. Here’s the video of my Liberty Session on the earlier books, and Senator Scott Ryan’s review in the latest IPA Review.

William Manchester & Paul Reid – The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965

The conclusion to William Manchester’s great three part biography of Churchill, ‘The Last Lion’. Manchester himself died in 2004 and had asked the journalist Paul Reid to turn his notes into the final chapter. This New York Times piece tells the story. Here’s a Wall Street Journal review by someone who knew Manchester well.

Reading, listening, watching

Another sad loss this year is the political scientist Albert O Hirschman. At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has an overview of his life and work, and in this lecture Tyler Cowen looks at his thought on economic development.

Here’s an interesting book review in the Weekly Standard of a book that tells the history of Germany without making the Third Reich seem like the inevitable outcome of that history.

And in the Literary Review, a review of a weighty new edition of Thomas Hobbes Leviathan. If you are looking for some hefty intellectual reading this holidays, don’t miss Michael Oakeshott’s great introduction to Leviathan, available for free here.

The opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are now so familiar we can no longer properly hear them, as a new book The First Four Notes, points out. Here’s a review in BookForum.

And here is New Books in History podcast with the translator of a new edition of the fourteenth century book The Book of Marvels and Travels

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