The Year in Books

Reason staffers pick the best books of 2009.


Radley Balko, senior editor

American Homicide by Randolph Roth is a wonky, meticulously researched, fascinating survey of murder in America and why we've become the bloodiest wealthy nation on earth. Roth begins in the colonial period, then walks us through American history as he documents, analyzes, and hypothesizes about the evolving reasons why, how, and how often we kill one another. He looks at regional and chronological variances in the homicide rate, as well the differences between murders where killer and victim know one another versus when the two are strangers. Roth concludes from his research that four factors contribute to fluctuations in the murder rate in America: political instability; loss of government legitimacy; loss of a feeling of belonging among outcast or historically oppressed groups; and loss of faith in the social hierarchy. Crudely summarized, when Americans believe we're being governed wisely, fairly, equally, and legitimately, we're peaceful and productive. But when government misbehaves, the citizenry does too.

Nick Gillespie, editor in chief, Reason.tv and Reason.com

I've got a soft spot for anything by Jerome Tucille, whose It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand remains one of my absolute favorite political memoirs. Gallo Be Thy Name, which traces the rise of Ernest & Julio Gallo, is a mesmerizing story of true crime, murder, Prohibition, family drama, capitalism, and incredible technological innovation. It is also an engrossing social history of the last 100 years of America and explains how we went from a nation that gulped Thunderbird, Ripple, Boone's Farm, Bartles & Jaymes, and other Gallo-created plonk to a country of refined Chardonnay and Zinfandel sippers.

It's a fun read, a story of triumph, and a cautionary tale, too. And somehow it perfectly captures the mood of a country that is slogging through a really rotten economic period.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, senior editor

Pirates and economics. What's not to love? George Mason economist Peter Lesson brings home the doubloons with his pop treatment of the economic reasoning behind torture, the black flag, and lighting your beard on fire in The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. In the golden age of piracy, pirate ships were little floating polities, complete with due process, guidelines for impeaching the captain, and workers compensation. Women were scarce on board, so they don't feature much in the story. But the book's introduction does contain Leeson's surprise proposal of marriage to his number one wench and first mate, Ania.

Bonus book: If Leeson's book doesn't fill your Adam Smith pun quota for the holidays, how about adding Russ Roberts' romance The Invisible Heart to the mix?

Michael C. Moynihan, senior editor

There were plenty of worthy releases this year, so the difficulty is in choosing one that justifies the designation "best book." Terrific efforts that should be immediately added to your Amazon wish list, but were edged out: Brian Nelson's largely overlooked account of the 2002 coup in Venezuela, The Silence and the Scorpion; the third book in Tom Ricks's Iraq War trilogy, The Gamble; Kevin Myers's wildly entertaining memoir of "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, Watching the Door; Jennifer Burns' intellectual biography of Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Market; and Gary Kulik's brilliantly researched and briskly written investigation into Vietnam War atrocity tales (both true and false), War Stories.

But the standout book of 2009 is Princeton University professor John V. Fleming's The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped The Cold War, a literary biography of the most influential anti-Soviet propaganda of twentieth century. Included are brilliant expositions of the well-known literary apostasies of Whittaker Chambers (Witness) and Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon), and the fevered campaigns of character assassination they provokedBut it's Fleming's rescue of Victor Kravchenko's hugely influential and largely forgotten book I Chose Freedom and Jan Valtin's hugely influential and entirely forgotten tale Out of the Night that provide the most fascinating look into the intellectual battles of the Cold War.

Anthony Randazzo, director of economic research, Reason Foundation

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street opens with a near minute-by-minute description of the last days of Bear Stearns. William D. Cohan, of The Last Tycoons fame, transports readers to the boardrooms of 383 Madison Avenue and the New York Fed to listen in on the negotiations, anger, despair, fleeting joy, and ultimate anguish of Alan Schwartz, Jimmy Cayne, and the rest of the motley crew helming the last days of one of the oldest financial firms in Manhattan.

Cohan's tale was not only one of the first such styled books—it was followed by A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers and Andrew Ross Sorkin's epic Too Big To Fail, among others—but it was the best this year. Cohan, after giving readers a play-by-play of the demise of Bear, Tarantinos the story and walks through the history of the firm, telling the stories of its founders and leading up to the climactic and tragic downfall.

Cohan's exposé vividly reveals the intimate conversations between executives and regulators determined to ensure Bear was bailed out at almost any cost. The story is engrossing and accessible even to those without knowledge of Wall Street. The masterful piece of financial journalism is a must-read for any who are interested in just how the financial market started coming apart at the seams.

Damon W. Root, associate editor

It's tempting to pick Robert J. Norrell's superb Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, which rescues the controversial civil rights leader from the many smears that have long demeaned him. As Norrell documents, the image of Washington as an "Uncle Tom" who sold out black political rights and bowed down before Jim Crow bears no resemblance to Washington's actual career. In addition to secretly funding various legal challenges to the South's segregation regime, this former slave built one of the country's most successful educational institutions, inspired countless African Americans, and bravely championed black educational and economic opportunity in the face of numerous violent threats, including some made by his own congressman, Alabama Democrat Tom Heflin, who threatened to lynch him.

But my vote for the year's best book goes to David and Linda Beito's landmark biography Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power. Howard was a wealthy doctor, entrepreneur, and mutual aid leader who championed civil rights, capitalism, and armed self-defense amidst the lawlessness and state-sanctioned violence of Jim Crow Mississippi. As Black Maverick convincingly shows, no history of the civil rights movement is complete until it acknowledges Howard's indispensable contributions.

Peter Suderman, associate editor

Sci-fi novelist Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids is a tale of technology and politics, but it is also about survival and humanity's amazing capacity for adaptation. Set on a radically altered near-future Earth in which all human governments except China's have been wiped out by environmental changes, it's post-catastrophic but not post-apocalyptic. In the absence of nation-states, order is tough to come by, but where it exists, it's because humans have grouped themselves into one of two civil-society tribes. On the one hand are the Dispensation—science-savvy green capitalists bent on deploying the latest and greatest in innovation to save (or revive) the planet. On the other hand are the Aquis—technology-obsessed liberal anarchists whose societies revolve around machine-mediated communities. The story, which follows a clan of sisters cloned from a Balkan warlord, is frequently messy, but the book is notable for the way it avoids both easy cynicism and utopian naiveté. As Cory Doctorow (whose recommendation was the reason I bought the book) wrote in his review, what the book offers is honest hope—not undeserved comfort or thoughtless reassurance, but "hard-nosed, utterly plausible hope, for a future in which the human race outthinks its worse impulses and survives despite all the odds."

Jesse Walker, managing editor

If nothing else, James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia should cure the reader of putting too much faith in the smooth lines drawn on political maps. A multidisciplinary mixture of history, anthropology, geography, and political science, the book describes a vast section of Asia that Scott calls Zomia, an area whose natural barriers allowed ordinary people to escape the slavery, conscription, and taxes imposed by the regimes in the valleys. The picture that emerges depicts a world where everything is fluid: States grow and shrink with the seasons and often disappear altogether; ethnic identities shift with ease. Far from being untouched by civilization, the "barbarians" in the mountains often turn out to be refugees from the "civilized" zones, maintaining contact with the more authoritarian areas but refusing to submit to the governments' rules. Scott's nuanced account doesn't romanticize the hill people, but he writes with sympathy about why they would want to have "all the advantages of trade without the drudgery, subordination, and immobility of state subjects." 

Matt Welch, editor in chief

While this won't make any literary Top 10s, we didn't have the luxury of living in a frivolous year, so I'm going to go with Steven Greenhut's Plunder: How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation. I was proud to put an excerpt from this on the cover of our February 2010 issue.

Greenhut was an editorial writer for the Orange County Register for more than a decade, and the best of this blood-pressure-generating jeremiad comes from the reporting and commenting he started while at one of the country's last explicitly libertarian editorial pages, whether it's on backroom city council deals to jack up public pensions by 25 percent in 2009, or an unnecessary "shield" program that allows California government workers to run red light cameras and automatic toll roads with impunity, or thuggish public safety unions extracting promises of corruption from putative state attorneys general. What Plunder demonstrates, in ways that should sicken the conscience of citizens from all political tribes, is how the guaranteed revenue stream of tax dollars has been hijacked and perpetually increased by those who have the gall to cloak their larceny in terms of patriotism and concern for the poor. There is a class war emerging in this country and when the looted eventually revolt—and revolt they will—historians will reach back and pluck texts like Plunder as foundational (if long overdue) slaps in the face.