2012: The Year in Books

Reason writers pick the best books of the year

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Steigerwald's slowly growing exasperation with Steinbeck's dissembling is a joy to read, as is his incredulous reaction to Steinbeck scholars who wave away the esteemed author's flagrant bullshitting. But best of all is the contemporary America that Steigerwald discovers. Where Steinbeck inveighed against comic books and processed food and crabbed that the nation had grown spiritually “flabby” and “immoral,” Steigerwald is positively Whitmanesque in his celebration of the country. Self-published as an ebook, Dogging Steinbeck also embodies a do-it-yourself culture that was just gearing up in a big way in the early 1960s.

"There's something...obvious about America that's never pointed out by the media," writes Steigerwald. "The states and counties and cities and villages and crossroads are filled with smart, good Americans who can take pretty good care of themselves. They prove it every day. People in Baraboo and Stonington and Amarillo know what's best for them. They'll adjust to whatever changes that come."

Ed Krayewski, associate editor
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. One of Dick's most celebrated works, The Man in the High Castle established the alternate-history genre as serious fiction.

The novel imagines the year 1962 as it might have looked if the Axis powers won World War II. In Dick's own world, of course, the Cold War was in full swing, with America's tense relations with the U.S.S.R. shaping the political atmosphere both at home and abroad. In the novel, the same situation is mirrored, with a victorious Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan engaged in a global Cold War and the United States cut up by and wedged between the two. As usual, Dick's characters are rich and full of life, realer than characters in works of nonfiction sometimes appear.

Though the United States is no longer engaged in a Cold War with a mortal enemy, some of the themes in the novel resonate with contemporary affairs. The Man in the High Castle's America is without purpose, uncertain about its future, imprisoned by its past, and crushed by its present. The macropolitics of the novel might be quite different from 2012 America, but the characters' lives and struggles and doubts are presciently relevant.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, managing editor of Reason magazine
Don't be put off by the soft-focus Oprah-ish cover on the paperback. Octavia Butler was not just any lady. She was—I think it's safe to say—the most famous dyslexic black lesbian science-fiction writer of the 20th century. And her books are badass.

Butler's anti-authoritarian streak is as wide as the abandoned California highways on which her characters walk, searching for safety from police, crusaders, and other state-sanctioned thugs, rapists, and robbers. Her near-future governments, cozy with corporations and churches, are believably awful. 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.

The 2012 ebook release of Wild Seed has a new, even more terrible cover. Buy it as a digital edition, ignore the cover, and enjoy.

Andrew Napolitano, columnist
In 2012 I reread two masterpieces, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn and Crisis and Leviathan by Robert Higgs. I love those books even more today than the first time I read them in my youth. They are perfectly honest, deeply profound intellectual bookends for the long American march from freedom to statism.

The most memorable new book that I couldn't put down this past year is a short paperback by Laurence Vance, a brilliant writer and college professor, called The War on Drugs is a War on Freedom. I am in the business of defending personal liberty, and hence I read freedom-defending works almost every day. Laurence Vance has written one of the most compelling arguments for personal bodily autonomy I have read in many years.

This is not a book that preaches the joys of personal drug use. Rather, it calculates the cost of the drug war in lives, resources, and constitutional freedoms. It demonstrates how every person in America has lost freedom as we march toward a police state, triggered by a nanny-state mentality in Congress and statehouses, a Victorian blindness in the White House, and a supine judicial response to the government's misguided zeal. It damns the feds and the police for their ineffective defense of the Constitution, and it is the most effective indictment of the unintended consequences of the government's war on drugs, and one of the most articulate defenses of personal freedom, to come along in a generation. It will warm every libertarian's heart, and maybe wake up some politicians in Washington and in some state capitals. It should be given to every public office holder and cop in America.

Damon Root, managing editor of reason.com
My favorite book published in 2012 is a superb new anthology of indispensable old writing. American Antislavery Writings draws from pamphlets, sermons, speeches, letters, newspaper reports, poetry, and fiction to provide something of a documentary history of the long struggle to abolish human slavery in America. With contributors ranging from the former slave Olaudah Equiano to the novelist Herman Melville, it's also a showcase for some of the best political prose of its time.

My only modest criticism is that editor James G. Basker failed to include anything from the Massachusetts antislavery polemicist Lysander Spooner, whose masterful 1845 work The Unconstitutionality of Slavery was at the center of a fierce debate within the abolitionist movement over whether the Constitution was, as William Lloyd Garrison famously put it, a pro-slavery "covenant with death and an agreement with Hell." Among those who sided with Spooner's antislavery interpretation was the great Frederick Douglass, who declared the Constitution to be "a glorious liberty document" in a powerful 1852 speech, which is included here. If you're interested in 18th and 19th century American history, you'll want to spend some quality time with this fine collection.

Ira Stoll, columnist
John Allison is known as the new president of the Cato Institute, a funder of capitalism programs on college campuses, and the longtime CEO of the banking firm BB&T. He's also the author of the book The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure.

Allison's combination of free-market perspective and firsthand experience as a bank executive make him a valuable guide to understanding what happened in 2008. "The panic atmosphere during the recent financial crisis was totally the result of massive mishandling of the financial system by government policy makers in the Bush administration," he writes. "When the head of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the president announced that Western civilization would end unless Congress approved a $700 billion bailout, people panicked."

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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.

  • شات عراقنا||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world


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