2012: The Year in Books

Reason writers pick the best books of the year

When we asked Reason's staffers and columnists to pick the most enjoyable and/or significant books of 2012, we got all kinds of responses—fiction and nonfiction, physical tomes and ebooks, bestsellers and obscurities, brand-new releases and reissues of classics. Here's what we picked:

Ronald Bailey, science correspondent
"Human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle," note the economic psychologists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter. "Unlike other creatures, people frequently cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers, often in large groups, with people they will never meet again, and when reproductive gains are small or absent." In The Social Conquest of Earth, the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson offers a theory of group selection as the solution to that evolutionary conundrum.

The controversial idea that underpins this lucidly written book is that natural selection works not just at the level of individuals but also on groups. This view echoes the version of social evolution outlined by the economist Friedrich Hayek several decades ago, in which he argued that groups with better cultural rules outcompete (outbreed and outfight) groups with worse rules. "Only group selection, with groups containing more cooperators pitted against groups with fewer cooperators, will result in a shift at the level of the species toward greater and wider instinctive cooperation," Wilson argues. (He fails to note that of all cultural innovations, markets best harness and amplify the human instinct to cooperate peaceably with strangers.) To explain the evolutionary roots of eusociality, Wilson traces how social insects and now social primates came, for good and ill, to dominate the biosphere. 

Greg Beato, columnist
In a justice system that in recent decades has emphasized three strikes more than second chances, what are the possibilities of rehabilitation and redemption? These are the questions that Nancy Mullane, primarily a radio reporter who has contributed to NPR and This American Life, amongst others, aims to examine, if not definitively answer, in Life After Murder. Focusing on five San Quentin State Prison inmates who were convicted of murder, served lengthy stretches, and were eventually paroled, Mullane delivers an intimate but wide-ranging portrait of how justice plays out in the state of California for men who've committed serious crimes. While Mullane raises concerns about how infrequently lifers are granted parole, Life After Murder is ultimately more descriptive than proscriptive. Here are these men, Mullane suggests. These are their stories.

Steve Chapman, columnist
An indigestible ethnic group invades America practicing a strange religion, harboring violent and radical elements, and rejecting our political values? I could be talking about Muslims in the 21st century. But I could also be talking about Irish immigrants in the 19th, or Jews in the 20th.

Islamaphobes treat Muslims as though they presented a unique and unprecedented problem. But Doug Saunders notes in The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? that the old fears about other groups proved unfounded, and he makes a powerful case that the same is true this time. It's one of those books that acts like Drano: clearing out all the half-truths and falsehoods clogging discussion of an issue. Its thesis is essentially that everything Pamela Gellar and Bruce Bawer have told you is wrong. And Saunders commands a wealth of data to prove his case.

Muslims in American and the West, he documents, are no more sympathetic to violence than other people. They have no prospect of becoming anything remotely close to a majority in any country. They have no desire to separate themselves from society. They "appear to be among the least disenchanted and most satisfied people in the West."

In short, they resemble many immigrant groups of the past. "I hope we can begin to see this human tide not as a seismic and ruinous tsunami but as a regular, rhythmic movement on our shores," Saunders writes. Scared of Muslims? Prepare to banish your fears.

Brian Doherty, senior editor
Essays in Biography is a huge collection of pieces—not always "biographical" in the sense of telling full life stories—from the essayist, short story writer, and scholar of American manners Joseph Epstein. His easy erudition, love of gossip properly conceived, and understanding of the human condition (mostly as expressed through literature and belles lettres, sometimes through acutely remembered experience) make him one of the few living writers whose every book I try to read promptly.

He is never—really never—less than a pure thoughtful joy, even when I disagree with his point, or more precisely with him and the type of writer he is, his attitude. Though Epstein is man of the center-right with little patience for much of the Bohemian nonsense with which I fill my life, he's the kind of literary friend for whom ideological differences don't muck things up at all. It doesn't even matter if you haven't read the writers he essays, or even think you'd care to; he's still telling you things you'll delight in hearing. (If you are me.)

These essays—many if not most written as book reviews, though this collection strangely doesn't say so or inform us where and when they first appeared—is almost all about other men of letters. Amongst his own favorites are Henry James and Max Beerbohm, and for my sensibilities he gets across acute observation and an ultimately serious yet still light and airy twinkle with as much or more sustained pleasure than his own objects of veneration.

Matthew Feeney, assistant editor
It is perhaps a stereotype for a young journalist to pick a book by Christopher Hitchens, a man who despite being far from a libertarian was nonetheless influential in my political development. Mortality collects Hitchens' writings on his battle with cancer, which claimed his life last year. Although it focuses on death, Mortality has much to say about life.

Here at Reason I have written about Ray Kurzweil, who foresees a time in the not too distant future when the disease that claimed Hitchens' life will be a thing of the past. Hitchens did his part for the cause: Throughout his treatment he volunteered for experimental treatment, and after his death he dedicated his body to medical research. Although Hitchens did not see all of his goals realized (the Pope and Henry Kissinger have yet to face judges) he achieved more than most, all while living life having "lit the candle at both ends."

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of reason.com
No book gave me more of a kick this year than Bill Steigerwald's investigative travelogue Dogging Steinbeck. After getting a buyout from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2009, veteran journalist and Reason contributor Steigerwald decided to retrace the road trip that Nobel laureate John Steinbeck immortalized in his 1962 classic Travels with Charley. Steigerwald figured that at journey's end, he'd have material for a book exploring how far we've come as a country since the Kennedy years.

Instead, Steigerwald uncovered a massive literary fraud that speaks directly to contemporary controversies over ostensibly nonfiction narratives such as Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, Jonah Lehrer's Imagine, and Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The newsman found out that the Grapes of Wrath author either hugely exaggerated or just made up many of the encounters described in Charley. Steinbeck also misrepresented the actual conditions of the trip in ways that shouldn't be tolerated in tomes whose authority derive from their facticity. Far from spending mostly solitary days with Charley the dog, Steinbeck was accompanied by his wife for almost half his time on the road. And far from roughing it, they spent a good chunk of time at high-end hotels or at places such as Adlai Stevenson's Illinois mansion.

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  • Ken Shultz||

    "It is perhaps a stereotype for a young journalist to pick a book by Christopher Hitchens, a man who despite being far from a libertarian was nonetheless influential in my political development."

    Hey, Feeney!

    I think it's great that we get to hear from other voices here at Hit & Run.

    Here's a book you might be interested in that was influential in Christopher Hitchens' political development:


  • Caleb Turberville||

    Hitchens' political philosophy, while flawed, was pure and at least grounded in a sane moral framework. In fact, he found joy in attacking his fellow leftists whenever he saw them favoring political expediency over morality.

  • robc||

    Now explain his neoconism.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    He thought we should have a policy of actively instituting regime change by military force whenever and wherever people's are threatened by their government.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Calling Hitchens a "neocon" seems to imply that he favored using military force to advance US interests globally, which is actually something Hitchens railed against his entire life.

    I think it's more appropriate to say that Hitchens allied himself with the neocons, post-9/11.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Hitchens was a Trotskyist.

    How he reconciled his hatred of imperialism with his enthusiasm for the Iraq War remains a mystery to everybody--including Hitchens.

    But it seems to have had something to do with consistency being the last refuge of a scoundrel and his religious intolerance.

    At heart, he was a Marxist, and anti-imperialist Marxist, who ended up an enthusiast for American imperialism. If Hitchens had contributed to this piece when he was Feeney's age, he might have written, "It is perhaps a stereotype for a young journalist to pick a book by [Trotsky], a man who despite being far from a libertarian was nonetheless influential in my political development."

    Hitchens was a Marxist, Marxist, Marxist.

  • iggy||

    Who cares? He was also a great writer and I appreciated his point of view, even when I disagreed with him.

    Besides, if you haven't read Mortality, you really should. It may be the best book I read this year.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I enjoyed reading his writing and watching him debate.

    Can't say I agreed with him much. If he was influential in my development, it was in helping to foster my criticism of his kind of thinking.

    Hitchens was a Marxist. He wasn't even a Kevin Carson type mutualist/anarchist. Anybody that finds Hitchens interesting and provocative just enjoys good debate and great writing. No problem there.

    But if you find his thinking influential? Then why not claim Orwell* and Trotsky as influences, too? Why not pursue socialism instead of libertarianism?

    *The man who wrote "Shooting an Elephant" would have disowned Hitchens for his support of the occupation of Iraq.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    "I would never have guessed at the time that conscription would be abolished by Richard Nixon, and still less that he would appoint Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan to the Presidential Commission on the subject. The two right-wing libertarians condemned the draft as 'involuntary servitude.' Today, almost the only people who call for the return of the system are collectivists and liberals."

    Hitchens continued to call himself a Marxist for his entire life. But it seems that his definition of "Marxist" did not necessarily overlap with the groups "collectivists" or "liberals."

  • Ken Shultz||

    Oh yeah, he saw the hypocrisy on the left. No doubt about it.

    This isn't surprising. Hitchens was essentially part of the New Left in Britain, which didn't get the press of the New Left in the U.S. or Continental Europe, but Hitchens was essentially part of that movement and held several of its chief tenants. Among them, he was a Marxist--and he hated liberals:

    Isserman (2001) reports that the New Left" "came to use the word 'liberal' as a political epithet."[37] Historian Richard Ellis (1998) says that the SDS's search for their own identity "increasingly meant rejecting, even demonizing, liberalism."[38] As Wolfe (2010) notes, "no one hated liberals more than leftists.".[39]


    Not surprising that so many Marxists--like Hitchens--hated liberals. It's very much like libertarians who hate the sell-outs in the Republican Party, who masquerade as libertarians when convenient--only more so.

  • Pillage||

    Hey I can't tell but do you think that Hitchens was a Marxist?

  • SIV||

    Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, originally published in 1962, was reissued by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

    In Wild Seed (1980) and the other books in her Patternist series, a large, linked cast struggles to fly below the radar while building self-sufficient communities with new kinds of rules about dispute resolution, religion, and sex.

    So Ed Krayewski and KM-W find the best books of 2012 to be titles from 1962 and 1980.New books must really suck.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Christopher Hitchens died on December 15, 2011. It's amazing how long ago it seems. I still have a copy of Steve Job's autobiography on my bookshelf that I need to start reading. Cancer sucks.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    ...Don't get me started on Frank Zappa.

  • ||

    Read the autobiography. Put it on the top of your reading list. It is fascinating reading about a probable sociopath who managed to create good things despite his lack of a conscience.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    *Excuse me. I meant "biography."

  • Bee Tagger||

    So reason is in bed with Amazon, now? I recognize this as the clever ploy it is: to get people to sign up for Amazon prime so they can get free 2-day shipping so that they can get books for people that they otherwise would have a difficult time shopping for just in time for Christmas.

  • Brett L||

    If you don't have Prime, you're doing it wrong. I even grocery shop for non-perishables on Amazon now. My goal of never again doing retail face-to-face is nigh on a reality.

  • Bee Tagger||

    Yeah, I agree about Prime. I only signed up because I wanted to watch something on Amazon video but now I love it.

  • ubik||

    Ditto re Amazon Prime...and you can stream old episodes of MST3K!

    It's great to see the PKD recommendation. Got interested in his books during my student days when he was a relative obscurity even within the world of science fiction. At any one time then only a handful of his works were in print, new editions of older novels/short story collections would go in and out of print. Must have taken me around ten years to read his entire corpus, now over thirty years after his death he is almost completely in print. The Man in the High Castle is definitely one of his best but there are others of his that are equally as good. Check out Flow my Tears the Policeman Said and Ubik.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    It's been a while since I've read E.O. Wilson. (As a biology major at Bama, it's a expected of you.) I couldn't enjoy his writing style, which I would characterize as fuddy-duddy. Then again, I read The Future of Life, which is about biodiversity. I'm sure I would enjoy his works about sociobiology a LOT more.

  • ||

    Wilson's "The Ants" is fascinating stuff.

  • ||

    No High Desert Barbeque? Fuckin-a.

  • ||

    Bill Steigerwald....any relation to our dear, mysteriously-departed Lucy?

  • Caleb Turberville||

    "Bill, hey, sorry about firing your daughter. But, it it's any consolation, I'll be pimping your book in our end-of-the-year best books list...Bill. Bill, Bill! Are you there, Bill? BILL?!"

  • phandaal||

    If we're plugging for fiction books that weren't published in 2012, let's give a nod to the entire work of Jack Vance. The man's a wonderful writer and a clear believer in liberty.

  • PapayaSF||

    My two favorites of this year, one 2012 and one not.

    Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins by Robert Spencer. A fascinating look at the early history of Islam. It looks like the "official" story is largely b.s. (Big surprise, I know.) Spencer is an anti-jihadist, but the book is convincing and based on academic sources. To quote:

    - How the earliest biographical material about Muhammad dates from at least 125 years after his reported death

    - How six decades passed before the Arabian conquerors—or the people they conquered—even mentioned Muhammad, the Qur’an, or Islam

    - The startling evidence that the Qur’an was constructed from existing materials—including pre-Islamic Christian texts

    - How even Muslim scholars acknowledge that countless reports of Muhammad’s deeds were fabricated

    - Why a famous mosque inscription may refer not to Muhammad but, astonishingly, to Jesus

    - How the oldest records referring to a man named Muhammad bear little resemblance to the now-standard Islamic account of the life of the prophet

    - The many indications that Arabian leaders fashioned Islam for political reasons

  • PapayaSF||

    For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization by Charles Adams. Fascinating. How taxes caused the rise and fall of countries and empires. One example: the high taxes at the end of the Roman Empire made it easy for Islam to spread so quickly, because cities were offered a choice of fighting the Arabs, accepting lower than Roman taxes under them, or converting to Islam and not paying taxes at all. "Hail our new conquerors!"

  • LC||

    Thanks for the recommendation. I've been searching for a decent non-fiction read for the Xmas vacation.


  • ||

    the most famous dyslexic black lesbian science-fiction writer of the 20th century.

    That's like saying, "The most famous Episiarch living in Seattle named Episiarch." I mean, really, there's more than one person like this?

  • Jesse Walker||

    Is there a word for "You have gotten the joke without recognizing that you've gotten a joke"? Because we really need one.

  • Bruce Majors||

    For years I subscribed to the American Scholar mainly to read Joseph Epstein's essays when he edited it, and I totally concur with Doherty.

    Gillespie certainly makes the Steigerwald book seem interesting. I have always wanted to know more about Octavia Butler and never see her books in stores and never get around to googling her, so I thank Mangu-Ward for this info.

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