It's the perfect time of year to curl up with a book and ruminate on the state of the world. The year 2011 brought a series of remarkable changes, and no shortage of books examining them. Here's a list of some of the titles that may best help to interpret the events of the last year, and chart a smart and hopeful course into 2012.
Two moving retrospectives from great minds recently lost. With incisive clarity, both Hitchens and Judt have informed and inspired progressives and intellectuals for decades. In Arguably Hitchens, provocateur par exellence, guides readers from Isaac Newton to Beirut, pairing his biting wit with an absolute disdain for totalitarian systems and the ideas that underpin them. The Memory Chalet, Judt's elegiac pseudo-memoir, written while he was left bedridden by a degenerative muscular disease, details the progressive lion's journey back to youth, a trip punctuated by lucid calls to action.
The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom by Evgeny Morozov
The New York Times called this book "brilliant and courageous". It's hard to disagree. Morozov wants us to know that our new information technologies are not inherently instruments of "Good". They can be used by dictatorial governments and bad actors to target dissidents and distribute propaganda. It's a sobering and unsentimental wake-up call for a world sold on the internet's capacity to liberate.
The Global Warming Reader, edited by Bill McKibben
In 2010, McKibben published the spectacular Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. This year he struck again with this wide-ranging anthology. Through the voices of the world's foremost environmental champions, from Al Gore to Vandana Shiva, the book paints a clear and alarming portrait of the peril facing our planet. The Global Warming Reader is a valuable resource for concerned citizens and a clarion call for informed, united action.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
This is a vast, troubling, inspiring, and ultimately satisfying work. Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in 2002, examines the irrationality implicit in the choices we make. Why, for example, do French mothers spend less time with their children than their American counterparts but enjoy that time more? Thinking, Fast and Slow covers the spectrum from policy to self-help, exploring the human elements behind happiness and the pursuit of social good. It should be required reading for policymakers, and the rest of us too.
The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive by Dean Baker
For generations, conservatives have portrayed themselves as champions of the free market while progressives have adopted the mantle of those saving the weakest from its privations. Legendary economist Dean Baker (who forthrightly and repeatedly predicted the housing crisis years in advance) exposes this for the conservative myth-making it is. In clear and punchy prose (available as a free download!), he elegantly lays out how conservatives, who have thoroughly distorted the free market, funnel money to the wealthy and highlights the often-overlooked levers of power that can redress the imbalance. There's no better book for anyone who cares about the economy.
Looking ahead to 2012: Next year is the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. With genetically modified, pesticide-resistant crops in our fields and a climate warming by the minute, we should all revisit this seminal work by the matriarch of the modern environmental movement.