Ronald Bailey, science correspondent
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, by Matt Ridley,
Harper Collins, 448 pages, $26.99
Ideas have sex. In biology, through the evolution of sex some creatures became better able stay ahead of the competition. Ridley persuasively analogizes trade to sex as the engine driving the evolution of human culture. People are the only creatures known to trade one object for a different object—say, a fishing net for a spear. Thus was born the division of labor and markets. Progress is an evolutionary process, not a planned one. Deploying these basic insights, Ridley traces the arc of human prosperity from the caves to the gleaming towers of modernity. Although he acknowledges problems, Ridley cogently argues that human creativity is an inexhaustible resource, fully justifying both his title and his conviction that the best is yet to come. As the saying goes, if you read just one book next year....
Brian Doherty, senior editor
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century Volume One
(1907-1948): Learning Curve, by William H. Patterson, Tor
Books, 624 pages, $29.99
Science fiction guru and grand libertarian inspiration Heinlein finally gets the full doorstop literary biography treatment, and it's a treat. Digging deep into a documentary record that isn't as rich as a biographer might hope for—lots of Heinlein's early effects were destroyed—Patterson skillfully guides the reader (without telling him what to think) through Heinlein's childhood, Navy years (he left because of illness, though would have been happy to serve for life), 1930s activism in the socialist-leaning Upton Sinclair wing of California's Democratic Party, and his idyllic-then-hellish second marriage. Heinlein always scorned the restrictive social mores of his time, but his political and economic libertarianism hadn't yet developed by the time this volume ends. Only in a footnote do we learn a volume of Pearl Harbor revisionism was key to disabusing Heinlein of his earlier liberal FDR worship.
Nick Gillespie, editor in chief, Reason.tv and Reason.com
A Renegade History of the United States, by Thaddeus Russell, Free Press, 400 pages, $27
I picked up this fully mesmerizing account of why America is so totally awesome fearing that it would be a third-rate knock-off of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Russell's Renegade History recovers how the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, and even the blacks all became white (and stopped being gangsters), what a total jerk John Adams was (the hagiographical musical 1776 be damned!), why Dizzy Gillespie (no relation, alas) was rejected for the draft in World War II, and so much more. He skewers lefties, righties, and even libertarians (for whom he has the most sympathy). Long after the Air Force has enough money to bomb all the schools holding bake sales and kids are free to attend slacker magnet schools, this should be the first book that gets crammed down their throats.
Katherine Mangu-Ward, senior editor
America and The Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, by Elaine Tyler May, Basic Books, 199 pages, $25.95
The contraceptive pill celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010. American studies professor Elaine Tyler May's America and The Pill makes well-trodden territory fresh again in her chapters on the men involved in the invention, sale, and vilification of the baby-prevention tablets. They hoped convenient hormonal contraception would stave off nuclear war, stem the rise of communism in the third world, and defuse the population bomb. They feared that unleashed female desire would turn women into ravenous man-eaters. Five decades later, the jury is still out on all counts.
Michael C. Moynihan, senior editor
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder, Basic Books, 544 pages, $29.95
The strict rules set forth by the Reason Book of the Year Committee require that I select only one entry, though 2010 was a bountiful year for both fiction and non-fiction—so allow me to clumsily skirt the rules and add a stack of books very much worth reading: Paul Berman, Frank Dikötter, Martin Amis, Michael Burleigh, Pascal Bruckner, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow’s letters. But if your time is limited, go straight to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, so named for the pitiable chunk of land between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, the Baltic states—where millions were liquidated between 1930-1945. Snyder’s brilliant and bone-chilling exposition of the Stalinist and Hitlerian killing fields, which utilizes much new archival material, makes one wonder how contemporaneous deniers of Soviet crimes (to deny fascist crimes was, thankfully, always considered the exclusive domain of cranks and anti-Semites) would react to, for instance, his accounting of the 100,000 Poles murdered during the 1937-38 purges or the six million who died because of planned famines. When the historian Robert Conquest was asked to provide a subtitle for a new, post-Cold War edition of his book on Stalin’s purges, he suggested, "I told you so, you fucking fools.” The fools are now looking even more foolish, thanks to the efforts of indefatigable historians like Snyder.
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