Wonkblog’s books of the year

December 30, 2012

Ready for some new year's reading? Here are the books that the Wonkblog team most enjoyed in 2012.

Neil Irwin

The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro

The fourth of what will be a five-part biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro brings his seemingly inexhaustible research and reporting to bear on a moment when the American political landscape shifted inexorably. This volume covers Johnson’s campaign for vice-president in 1960 and his unhappy time on the sidelines as VP, then the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson’s ascent to the presidency, and the flurry of civil rights and other legislation enacted in the first months of the Johnson administration. The knuckle-gripping account of the events in Dallas in November 1963 is alone worth the price of admission, but the volume as a whole captures one of the great inflection points for America. It is to politics what “Mad Men” is to culture.

The Economic Consequences of the Peace, by John Maynard Keynes

I spent much of the year immersed in economic history, researching a book project of my own. The best thing I read in that research was this slim volume written in 1919. Keynes had been a young aide to the British Treasury during the negotiations at Versailles that ended World War I, and was disgusted by what he saw. In crisp and accessible prose, he outlines where leaders had gone wrong. He is startlingly prescient in describing the economic and political forces that would set the stage for everything that was to come: The Weimar hyperinflation, the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazis, and World War II.

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt

If Keynes gave a prescient report on the forces behind the darkest stage of European history, Judt covers what came next. The uncomfortable balance of power, the interrelationship of cultures, the rise of the Iron Curtain that divided the continent, the halting progress toward economic integration, and, ultimately, victory over the demons of nationalism and extremism that had made the history of Europe before 1945 so ugly.

The New New Deal, by Michael Grunwald

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumped $800 billion into the U.S. economy starting in 2009, at a time it was in the steepest contraction in modern history. It is hard to imagine a more widely maligned piece of legislation: Republicans assailed it as wasteful in their successful 2010 congressional campaign, and even Democrats seemed to prefer not to talk about it; “stimulus” had become a dirty word. Grunwald’s book does some much needed revisionism. The legislation, he shows, helped avert an even worse economic catastrophe, and along the way seeded some much needed longer-term investments in the nation’s power grid, health-care modernization, and other areas that are important but invisible.

Suzy Khimm

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Yes, it's on all the year-end lists; yes, you must read it; and, yes, it is that good. Boo's portrait of poverty in Mumbai is more gripping than most novels and more attuned to the world as it is than most non-fiction. 

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff 

Groff's novel begins in a utopian 1970s commune and ends in a dystopic future just a few years away from the present, following a boy through the way stations of his life. But at its heart, it is about the idealism necessary to live life, rather than merely withstand it, in any place at all.  

The Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Marjorie Williams

The late, great Marjorie Williams — a longtime Post writer — was an expert essayist and columnist: Her 2004 piece about helping her daughter get dressed for Halloween will simply slay you. But through this collection of her work, I became immersed in the political profiles she wrote earlier in her career, spanning Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton. Williams' subjects unwittingly reveal themselves, and she guides her readers through a landscape of dueling psyches that's far messier than the Beltway would ever like to admit.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

Earlier this year, I reported on the effort to expand the Violence Against Women Act's protections to LGBT and Native-American women. (No, Congress hasn't acted yet.) Erdrich's latest novel does more than any press release or news conference to reveal the impetus for such legislation. It's told from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy on a North Dakota reservation whose mother is raped and who becomes entangled in the tumult of his family's search for justice. But Erdrich is hardly a polemicist: She lays the bones of the story down in characters richly drawn enough to turn the reader in a quiet, welcome bystander of the world they inhabit.

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

You could say Lerner's first novel is about a young poet on an overseas fellowship in Madrid. But it's really about a fabulist named Adam whose social and literary pretensions are alternately infuriating, endearing, sad and hilarious. A largely plotless, postmodern search for identity and authenticity may not sound like the recipe for a tautly written comic novel. But Lerner makes it so.

Ezra Klein

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

The best book of the year. I don’t think anything else was even particularly close. That shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of the other wonderful books released this year. Boo’s book is just an extraordinary achievement.

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

I’ll admit, the title on this initially left me skeptical. But Freeland’s book is much more than a jeremiad against rising inequality and stagnating median wages. It’s a deeply reported, and often fun, tour of the lives of the very, very rich. Freeland’s access is impressive, and she’s sympathetic to titans she covers without being captured by the self-aggrandizing narratives they spin. But her evidence that the super-rich “are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home” makes the book important.

Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

Just good, clean, gangster-loving fun. Not much wonkery here, though you could argue it’s an interesting look at the economics of Prohibition.

In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

Larson’s book follows William Dodd, America’s ambassador to Germany during Hitler’s rise, and Martha Dodd, his carefree, fast-living daughter. At the heart of the book is a simple question: What must German society have been like to permit the rise of the Nazis? The answer, which is both convincing and chilling, is that German society felt stressed but relatively normal. Even as Hitler amassed power, no one quite believed he would actually take charge, and if he did take charge, they assumed he would be moderated by the responsibilities of his office. As Larson goes about proving his case, you realize that this is the only answer that would’ve made sense, and the one answer you didn’t want to believe.

Alien Vs. Predator, by Michael Robbins

As a rule, I don’t understand poetry. And, to be sure, I don’t understand this poetry, either. But ever since I read the line “I translated the Bible into velociraptor” in the weird and hyperactive poem Robbins published in the New Yorker years ago, I’ve been waiting for him to release a collection. Now he has, and the fact that I don’t get it hasn’t stopped me from loving it.

Sarah Kliff

CCH's Law, Explanation and Analysis of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Confession: I didn’t read the entire Affordable Care Act this year. But I did spend a lot of time leafing through various provisions, ranging from how the law defines “affordable” health insurance to whether premium subsidies could flow through the federally-facilitated exchanges. To answer those questions, there’s no better copy of the text than CCH's two-volume copy, which includes the law’s full text, explanations of each provision and a key to navigate between the two. It was by far the most-used book on my desk this year (I might have even posted a picture of it on Instagram).

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

What struck me reading Boo’s book was how fluidly the prose and narrative moved; it was hard to remember that the story of a family living in Mumbai slums was nonfiction. The story was so gripping, and the imagery so vivid, this book was nearly impossible to put down.

Prevention vs. Treatment: What’s the Right Balance? By Halley Faust and Paul Menzel

I spent a good part of this year writing a three-part series on the health-care law’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, the Affordable Care Act’s $15 billion investment in preventing costly diseases before they occur. I found Faust and Menzel’s book a hugely helpful frame for thinking about how public dollars are spent in health care and better understanding how the two interact.

Victory Lab, by Sasha Issenberg

Issenberg’s second book provides a great insight into how campaigns actually work, digging behind the access that most of us journalists usually get. He has great anecdotes that range from how campaigns first started toying with targeting, the rise of big data and what that meant for the 2012 election.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perlman

This has absolutely nothing to do with policy, but it's hard for me to think of my top 2012 books without including this one that grew out of my go-to cooking blog. Perlman’s recipes have consistently fulfilled my two basic desires in cooking: Easy to make and delicious. Seriously, make the apple cake right now.

Dylan Matthews

Reasons and the Good, by Roger Crisp

I only started working for Wonkblog full-time in July, and spent the earlier half of the year wrapping up my senior thesis, which was on questions of goodness and rightness in moral philosophy. That entailed dry reading at times, which makes one appreciate philosophers like Crisp, who managed to write up his entire ethical theory in under 200 pages, and do so with a sardonic wit that befits a British academic.

The Evolution of Morality, by Richard Joyce

It’s becoming clear that many of our most deeply held moral beliefs are not culturally instilled but instead imprinted in our genome as a result of ancient evolutionary pressures. Joyce argues that this should undermine not just our particular ethical beliefs about everything from littering to murder, but our faith that there is such a thing as right and wrong at all. It’s a terrifyingly well-argued brief for moral nihilism, and one of the most bracing reads I’ve encountered in a long while.

Self-Constitution, by Christine Korsgaard

People disagree a lot about what is the right thing to do, but they tend to agree about how to evaluate other things. Most people agree on what makes a good or bad chair, or a working or defective washing machine, and we think it has to do with what chairs and washing machines are meant to do. Korsgaard argues that human actions are good or bad in the same way. Actions, she argues, are meant to give people their identities, and the best actions make people into who they are. It’s a dense and detailed argument, but Korsgaard is rigorous and perceptive enough to make it worth the ride.

Automatic Fiscal Policies to Combat Recessions, by Laurence Seidman

The past four years have seen the United States pursue fiscal stimulus policies in fits and starts, with the end result having more to do with the whims of Congress than the severity of the problem at hand. It doesn’t have to be that way. Seidman delves into a number of policies, such as automatic income tax rebates whose size is pegged to the unemployment rate, that we could adopt to make our stimulus policies more automatic, and thus more effective. If I could have John Boehner and Barack Obama read one book as they try to pinpoint when the United States should pivot from stimulus to austerity, it’d be this one.

Progressive Consumption Taxation: The X-Tax Revisited, by Alan Viard and Robert Carroll

I love the X tax — a variant on the value-added tax that’s both highly progressive and good for growth — like Tristan loved Isolde, like Abelard loved Heloise, like McAdams loved Gosling. My adoration of the idea has become something of a Wonkpod in-joke. But it really is special, as tax super-wonks Viard and Carroll explain here. It promotes investment more than anything Congressional Republicans are proposing at the moment, and can be as progressive as Barack Obama and congressional Democrats want. In a saner world, it’d be the compromise everyone converges upon when tax reform gets hashed out next year.

Brad Plumer

Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner

Now that the West is fretting about water scarcity again, I thought I’d re-read this old (1986) classic about how the federal government transformed that lifeless desert out West into a place where cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix could thrive. Best part: How FDR basically tricked Congress into funding the Grand Coulee Dam, which would later help the United States win World War II (though no one could have predicted this at the time). Worst part: Watching the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers race to build dozens of useless or outright harmful dams across the West merely to win arcane bureaucratic turf battles.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Everyone loves this book and knows what it’s about (life in the Mumbai slums), so I’ll just quote one vivid bit: “A few weeks ago, Abdul had seen a boy’s hand cut clean off when he was putting plastic into one of the shredders. The boy’s eyes had filled with tears but he hadn’t screamed. Instead he’d stood there with his blood-spurting stump, his ability to earn a living ended, and started apologizing to the owner of the plant. ‘Saab, I’m sorry,’ he’d said to the man in white. ‘I won’t cause you and problems by reporting this. You will have no trouble from me.’ ”

The Green Paradox, by Hans-Werner Sinn

If you want to feel hopeless about tackling climate change, pick this up. Sinn argues that most attempts to put a price on carbon will be counterproductive, since they’ll just spur fossil-fuel interests to speed up their rate of extraction in the present. He thinks we’ll either need a global cap on emissions or figure out how to pay countries like Saudi Arabia to leave oil in the ground. Sinn’s book is based on this old paper, and he basically predicted one big energy trend in the United States right now: We’re burning less coal, and as a result, it’s getting shipped overseas instead.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Sort of a sci-fi novel: A black woman living in 1970s Los Angeles gets mysteriously transported back to a Maryland plantation in the 1830s. But that’s about all the sci-fi there is. Mostly it’s an exploration of what it was like to live as a black woman during the age of slavery. According to the intro, Butler did an immense amount of research before writing -- it shows. The handful of violent scenes in this book are far more disturbing than anything in “Django Unchained.”

So Lovely A Country Will Never Perish, by Donald Keene

I grew up in Japan and still love reading about it. This book is an anthology of diaries kept by various Japanese writers and intellectuals during World War II, and it’s unsettling to see so many people who should, in theory, know better get swept up in the country’s militaristic frenzy. One big exception was director Akira Kurosawa. In his autobiography -- another favorite read from this year -- he spends most of the early 1940s ignoring the war altogether, save for fuming about the “sniffing Dobermans” in the Ministry of Interior who are always forcing him to cut random scenes from his films (shots of daytime drinking are a no-no).

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