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.

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."

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.