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
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.