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2022 Book Roundup
Books to Read, Books to Avoid
Since 2015, I've set an annual book target and recorded those I finish into an excel spreadsheet. I do this for three reasons. First, I've always read many books and like to count things, so it made sense to combine these two habits. Second, it's a good tool to brag on Facebook every year, resulting in many excellent book recommendations from my friends who publish similar lists. Third, it keeps me on track to learn about different topics. For instance, I've committed to reading several books on China every year because one can only claim to be knowledgeable about history if one knows about a place where about half of recorded human history took place. Below I will detail the books I've read, write short reviews of a handful, and conclude with a list of all the books and authors.
My goal for 2022 was to read 66 books cover-to-cover. I started and set down about 50 books before finishing. Table 1 contains all the books I read and their authors, including 15 fiction and 51 nonfiction. Fiction is a nice relaxing break from the heavy books I typically read. I've noticed over the years that the older I get, the less I read for writing style. In high school, I was obsessed with style and greatly enjoyed Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and Yukio Mishima. Now I read more for substance, but I still appreciate an author who can wield a keyboard to produce beauty independent of content.
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Discovering historian John Man was one of the best reading accidents of 2022. His book Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome is well-written and fascinating. Empire of Horses about the Xiongnu and how they probably became the Huns was even better (recent genetic evidence is compelling). I've always had trouble keeping Chinese names straight, which is a real problem with reading history, but Man's writing style somehow allows pinyin-knowledgeable readers like me to keep track of the names – for at least a chapter or two. Man’s other talent is inserting himself and his research expeditions into the historical narrative without focusing too much on his feelings. From Mongolian archaeologists to modern Hungarian horse archers who are recreating the methods used by the Huns, Man keeps the focus on the people he’s interviewing rather than himself. That’s a skill other authors need to work on, but Man has mastered it. I have several more of Man’s books in the queue for next year.
Streets of Gold: America's Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan is not the final word on immigrant assimilation over American history, but it's close. Their academic papers on immigration are top-notch, but this book combined their research into a coherent explanation of how immigrants assimilate into the United States. For a lay audience, they also weave anecdotes and individual stories that parallel their findings. If my primary research focus were on immigrant assimilation, I'd be depressed because I'm not sure there'd be many more big discoveries after reading their book. If you want to read one book on immigrant assimilation, read Streets of Gold.
How the World Became Rich by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin is the best economic history book of the year. I got my masters in Economic History from the London School of Economics because those two subjects are at the intersection of my main intellectual interests. Koyama and Rubin are wonderful economic historians, but this new book got me up to date on much of the new research over the last decade. They fairly present the major theories of how countries develop (institutions, culture, state capacity, enlightenment, slavery, etc.) and their criticisms, but the astute and knowledgeable reader can also read between the lines to see which they prefer. Every year, I talk to several students who are thinking of applying to LSE's economic history program, and I now recommend their read How the World Became Rich before applying – it really should be the next economic history textbook.
Leap of Faith by Michael Mazaar and Shelter from the Storm by Mark Calabria are the best books on applied public choice that I’ve read in years. At first blush, they seem very different. Leap of Faith is about the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, and Shelter from the Storm (forthcoming) is about my friend Mark Calabria’s experience in government and as the Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency dealing mostly with COVID-19 before he was unceremoniously and unfairly fired. The government is supposed to function according to well-prescribed rules and regulations, but like every human organization, spontaneous order crops up in response to incentives that actually govern government operations. Those operations don’t contradict official rules and regs, but they provide the extra layer that makes the pretty organizational charts and duties function. It's not necessarily nefarious, and it shouldn't push one into conspiracy territory, but these two books give an excellent overview of how government decisions are actually made and enacted.
Barriers to Riches by Stephen L. Parents and Edward C. Prescott is a wonderful economics book for those interested in macroeconomic models and all of the gritty details. One of my main complaints about cultural explanations for economy-wide economic outcomes is that economists haven’t built culture into macroeconomic models. My preferred theory of economic development is that good institutions like property rights align incentives well enough so individuals behave in a more productive manner that boosts growth. Other features like geography and culture probably do matter (they’re all endogenous anyhow), but it’s hard to look at satellite photos of the Korean peninsula and conclude that institutions aren’t the most important variable. Still, I was unaware of any macro models that incorporated institutions until I read Barriers to Riches.
Nonfiction Honorable and Dishonorable Mentions
Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufman is an excellent and largely convincing book on how religious belief is likely heritable and the future will likely be more religious because their fertility is far higher than for secular people. This thesis drives my secular friends crazy, but the logic and evidence are compelling, with one exception: Kaufman doesn't have access to great data on religious attrition. We all know people who grew up in very religious households and then left their faith to become non-believers, agnostics, or only weakly attached to a religion. If the attrition of children born to religious parents is high enough, the future will be less religious than Kaufman hypothesizes. This isn't a problem neglected by Kaufman, of course, but it's due to a lack of available data. Still, that lack of data on this vital point should be included in any potential future editions of this book. When it is, I'll strongly recommend it.
Boomers by Helen Andrews is a wonderfully written and entertaining polemic on boomers in general that focuses on six prominent baby boomers. Funny enough, the book made me more pro-boomer than I already was. At different points, the boomers are fairly blamed for supporting bad progressive policies or cultural trends and then blamed for undermining labor unions and other progressive institutions. I quite liked the latter! The lack of a thesis besides "boomers are bad" did weaken this book, but I saw plenty of conservative and libertarian reasons for giving the boomers more credit than I previously did. That wasn't Andrews's intent, but don't let that distract you from a wonderfully entertaining and well-written book. She's a heckuva writer, and I wouldn't ever want to be the target of her written criticism.
The Sultans by Noel Barber, Conquerors by Roger Crowley, Stalin's War: A New History of World War II by Sean McMeekin, Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest by Fernando Cervantes, and The Rise of Germany: 1939-1941 and The Allies Strike Back: 1941-1943 by James Holland are wonderful history books. Sultans is a supremely entertaining history of the Ottoman sultans written by an old-fashioned history many decades ago. Conquerors is about the Portuguese conquest of many parts of the Indian Ocean. If like me, your formal school history basically stopped mentioning the Portuguese when Vasco De Gama reached India in 1498, then this wonderful book will fill in the blanks. Stalin’s War excellent revisionist history is the way that revisionist history should be written with original research combined with how reasonable people would interpret events at the time. Conquistadores was not the best book I’ve read on the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, but he explains that the myth that the Mexica viewed the Spanish as gods was partly spread by the descendants of Mexica nobility who were desperate to come up with an explanation of how so few Spaniards could conquer such a mighty empire. James Holland’s books on World War II in western Europe were wonderful. My interest in that war is mainly confined to the Eastern Front and the war in the Pacific, but his books made me more interested in the war in western Europe. I look forward to the next book in his series.
Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick is about the fall of the Soviet Union. What will stick with me is how Gorbachev and his generation actually believed the post-Stalin lies that Stalinism was a departure from a supposedly more democratic Leninism. That's obviously false, but Gorbachev believed it, and it inspired his democratic and economic reforms and justified his assurances that it would all work out well for the Communist Party. Of course, it didn't, but that section of Remnick's book is a powerful reminder that blind ideology and the swallowing of intra-ideological propaganda led to mistakes that undermined the USSR. Communism is rife with errors that led to incredible tragedies, but their propaganda and belief in it is a great weakness.
Burning Down the House by Andrew Koppelman is a criticism of libertarianism by somebody who respects it. Koppelman’s book praises Friedrich Hayek but also lays several American economic ills at the feet of libertarians. Oddly, this book was published in 2022 and portrayed libertarianism as a rising force in American politics that has influenced much of American policy over the last 50 years. This book was at least seven years late as the libertarian-inspired wing of American politics started a precipitous decline in 2015. When reading Koppelman’s book, I kept thinking, "this is a peculiar piece of speculative history written many years ago," rather than a book published in 2022 about current events. As a more consequentialist utilitarian-minded libertarian, I appreciated his criticisms of Rothbard and some other libertarians whom I've never been fond of, but his criticisms of Nozick and praise for Rawls were just goofy. I also couldn't get over his portrayal of Social Security as an anti-poverty program. It's good to challenge my ideology, and for that, I appreciated Burning Down the House. There are some good warnings in there and several hard truths, but American policy is not much influenced by libertarianism, and there was nothing gained by exaggerating that.
I don't generally enjoy biographies, but The Man from the Future by Ananyo Bhattacharya is the best biography I’ve read in years. When reading it, I kept thinking, “What a shame that John von Neumann spent so much time working on government weapons projects. Think of everything else of value that he could have accomplished.” Somebody should clone John von Neumann.
Besides Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka (don’t watch the movie), I can’t recommend any fiction this year. The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan was especially disappointing. It was a great dystopian premise of out-of-control child protective services, but the book just sputtered as the main character was weak. Still, it was a useful novel in understanding the unrealistic social expectation of modern mothers, usually created by other mothers engaged in a costly signaling game of who can care more about their children. I’m not much into signaling, but it’s terrible that my wife feels that pressure as it’s costly for her to resist it. Although disappointing, I think of Chan’s book whenever I take my kids to the local park and get dirty looks from mothers because I don’t helicopter them.
Two Books that Taught Me the Most
I read The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia by Rene Grousset and The Northern Crusades by Eric Christiansen based on Razib Khan’s recommendation. Grousset’s book was well-written, dense, and fascinating. Central Asian history was a big black hole to me, but Grousset’s book filled the gap. I now have a reference book on the topic. Christiansen’s book filled another gap. It’s wild that there was a pagan state in Europe into the 1400s and the insight that more recently Christianized lands tended to more quickly embrace Protestantism had fired the social scientist portion of my brain. If only the deep roots literature wasn’t so unconvincing.
Social Security: A Fresh Look at Policy Alternatives by Jagadeesh Gokhale and Social Security: The Unfinished Work by Charles Blahous didn’t just explain how catastrophic Social Security’s solvency crisis is (I already knew that), they also taught me that there’s no way out without serious fundamental reforms. The wage indexing of Social Security benefits means that the economy can’t outgrow the system’s liabilities unless massive economic gains don’t result in higher wages (not gonna happen, nor should it). Now I’m not so sure the future government demand for extra revenue to fund entitlements can prompt pro-market economic reforms as revenue-raising methods. Back to the public choice drawing board.
My goal for 2023 is to read 60 books, fewer than this year, because I have more responsibilities at my job, and I expect to spend more time reading academic papers. Here’s the full list of books I read:
Brian M. Fagan
Tara Watson and Kalee Thompson
Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending
Charles Silver and David A. Hyman
David Weber and Chris Kennedy
Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan
William T. Sturtevant
Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin
Stone Age Herbalist
Stephen L. Parents and Edward C. Prescott
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