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Allison's prescriptions for policy cures include eliminating the Federal Reserve, cutting defense spending by at least 25 percent, and eliminating the minimum wage, or at least reducing it back to its prerecession level of $5.15 per hour. He also suggests replacing government deposit insurance with a private system. As for the big picture, Allison writes that the "fundamental cause" of the financial crisis is the philosophy taught in American liberal arts colleges. "The long term key to success is to recapture the elite universities from the Left," he writes.
I'm not endorsing all of Allison's analysis or conclusions. But he's succeeded at something that isn't easy: writing a new must-read book on the financial convulsions and their aftermath.
Peter Suderman, senior editor
For 25 years, the Scottish science-fiction writer Iain M. Banks has written novels set in the far-future universe of the Culture, a lawless, post-Singularity civilization in which enlightened humans pursue hedonistic pleasures while super-powerful artificial intelligences known as Minds deal with trivial details like war and diplomacy. The series deals with various conundrums of a world with unlimited resources, but mostly it revolves around a single Big Question: What does a free-thinking liberal civilization with unlimited options actually do with itself—especially when confronted with a rival that operates on different, usually authoritarian, rules?
That question rears its head again in The Hydrogen Sonata, Banks' newest Culture novel, when one of the Culture's historical allies prepares to leave this realm behind and ascend to another plane of reality. Banks gives readers a sense of the complicated inter-civilizational politics involved, as well as the thornier questions about the reality of a society's founding myths. The characters struggle with the morality of godlike power in A.I. computer simulations, the ethics of backing up one's soul, the complications of being able to store and duplicate your mind, and the economics of post-Singularity technological progress. But mostly they struggle to keep things interesting—a problem Banks never has.
Jacob Sullum, senior editor
In Smoke Signals, an engaging and illuminating social history of marijuana, Martin Lee shows that the plant's contraband status is a result of historical accident, racial prejudice, xenophobia, loads of cultural baggage, and an astonishing amount of ignorance. While there is no shortage of books about marijuana, Lee, co-author of the fine LSD history Acid Dreams, brings new breadth and depth to the subject. His rich, wide-ranging account is a little skimpy in its coverage of recent developments but full of fascinating details from further back, including ancient medical uses of cannabis, the West's belated discovery of the plant's benefits, and its popularity within pre-hippie bohemian circles such as the 19th-century Club des Haschischins, jazz musicians of the 1920s and '30s, and Beat writers in the '40s and '50s.
Lee explains how marijuana's beyond-the-pale status, initially established by its association with blacks and Mexicans, was cemented when self-conscious dissidents (the Beats and then the hippies) embraced it, attracted largely by its illegality. Marijuana prohibition became self-perpetuating: The sort of people who were eager to use it as a signal of rebellion disgusted the sort of people who were determined to keep it illegal, and the plant's countercultural connotations have helped keep it illegal ever since. With marijuana as with opium, Lee observes, "the target of the prohibition was not the drug so much as those associated with its use."
Jesse Walker, books editor
Sally Wood's Julia and the Illuminated Baron is not a good novel. But it is interesting for reasons that transcend mere quality, and it deserves a place on this list as a fascinating specimen if nothing else. Today the Illuminati are the stuff of hip hop lyrics, Alex Jones rants, online in-jokes, and airport-bookstore thrillers: a conspiracy imagined alternately as the secret rulers of the world or as a revolutionary force on the brink of bringing the social structure down. Wood's novel, originally published in 1800 and brought back into print this year, gives you a chance to see a writer invoking the same legend two centuries ago.
Of course this is a somewhat different version of the legend. Coming in the wake of the Illuminati panic of 1798, in which Federalists fretted that the secret society was aiming "to subvert and overturn our holy religion and our free and excellent government," Wood weds those anxieties to a Gothic melodrama set in pre-revolutionary France, featuring an Illuminatus who holds a young woman captive and plots against her virtue. Wood's Illuminati are a depraved band of nature-worshippers, seizing personal pleasures as they prepare for the Jacobin apocalypse. At one point Wood has a woman describe the order's initiation ceremony: "disrobed of all coverings except a vest of silver gauze, I am to be exposed to the homage of all the society present upon a marble pedestal placed behind which sacrifices are to be offered." The character adds, "This sect increases daily. They will in a few years overturn Europe and lay France in ruins."
Before this edition appeared, the only version of Julia that I could find was a barely legible scan of the original edition, made still less legible by the quirks of 18th-century spelling and by a host of typesetting errors. The Library of Early Maine Literature released this much more readable volume because of its local significance—it appears to be the first novel written in Maine—but the book is just as notable as one of the first appearances the infamous super-cabal ever made in American pop culture. Every artist who has alluded to the Illuminati since then, from Tupac Shakur to Robert Anton Wilson, has Wood's creaky tale in his family tree.
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