One of the things I still enjoy from social media is the book recommendations, either directly from friends or from reviews I see shared. Every now and again I get exposed to books or authors whom I otherwise would never have encountered, and this exposure has helped me expand my knowledge and perspective about many topics.
Since I enjoy book recommendations, a few years ago I started compiling my favorite books from the previous year, initially as a Facebook post, then a Twitter thread, and now that the blog is back up and running, I decided to start posting them here.
The following isn’t a comprehensive list of books I’ve read or even a ranking of the “best” books. Rather, these are the books I enjoyed reading the most. This does not even mean I agree with everything in these books, only that for various reasons I found myself more engaged and generally appreciated the experience of having read these.
Enjoy at your leisure!
In compiling this list, I’ve noticed just how much of my reading this year has reflected my current interest in the intersection of politics and ethical philosophy. In plain English, where people get off telling other people what to do and how to live, especially since the supposedly universal rules to which we’re all expected to adhere are rarely applied consistently. (Not every book falls under this category, but it’s a recurring theme). Aside from that, I pretty much only read non-fiction these days.
I’d like to begin with some honorable mentions for books I found to have important content, but because they were not easy to read (usually because they were more technical), I personally didn’t find them as enjoyable. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality by Michael Walzer is a spirited defense of liberalism, but honest enough to recognize its imperfections (more on that later). Islamic Imperialism: A History by Ephraim Karsh is a dense but important read for a time when people appear to be oblivious Islam’s long history of conquest (or simply pretend it never happened).
And without further adi, here is my list of favorite books from 2018, presented order of date read.
Why Liberalism Failed – Patrick Deneen
I’m not as convinced that liberalism “failed” but Deneen articulates the essential contradictions inherent in liberalism which have been bothering me for some time now.
Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations – Amy Chua
We hear a lot about “tribalism” these days, but here Chua brilliantly catalogs how ignoring tribalism caused some of the biggest foreign policy screw-ups in US history.
The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State – Yascha Mounk
I’m fascinated by the subject of personal responsibility, particularly to what extent are we responsible (or should assume responsibility) for our own outcomes vs. attributing to outside factors such as luck. Mounk details how political thought shifted in the US, particularly during the Reagan administration to emphasize the personal over the social.
The Quest for Cosmic Justice – Thomas Sowell
In my opinion, Quest for Cosmic Justice is one of Sowell’s two best books alongside Vision of the Anointed.
Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies – Dick Gregory
I forget how I came across this book. I had no idea who Dick Gregory was, but his Wikipedia entry even lists him as a “conspiracy theorist.” Some of that is evident in this book. That said, I think it’s a cliche` at this point to note that black people and white people have different views of history. I wouldn’t call this book authoritative by any means, but I think it would be eye-opening to many people to see how some black people view US history.
Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India – Sashi Tharoor
“Colonialism” is another topic which I think gets thrown around conversations too easily. It’s also one which is often dismissed by those who contend that there were benefits to colonialism too. At least regarding India, Tharoor patiently and systematically debunks the apologetics that India was in fact better off due to British colonial rule.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William Irvine
I’m not sure if this falls neatly under philosophy or self-help, but I think it’s one of the more useful books I’ve found in either genre.
You Have the Right to Remain Innocent – James Duane
This book came out of Duane’s viral video “Don’t Talk to the Police.” The video is worth watching, but the book is even more valuable. Aside from being practical (though hopefully you’ll never have to use it), it’s probably one of the best books out there to convince people of the need for drastic criminal justice reform.
The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies – Ryszard Legutko
Demon in Democracy gets my nod for Favorite Book of the Year. Legutko was raised under Communist Poland and finds similar authoritarian impulses in US liberalism. He is very clear that there is no moral equivalence between the two systems, but creeping authoritarianism should be a cause of concern.
Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law – Chaim Saiman
You may notice that there aren’t too many Jewish books on this list. It’s not that I don’t read books on Jewish topics, but because I know more about Judaism than many of the other subjects covered here, I find I have more with which to argue. That said, even with the quibbles here and here, Saiman’s book on Halakhah is the best introduction to Jewish law as a conceptual system I’ve seen, to the point where if I were still in the rabbinate, I’d add it to a required reading list for prospective converts. It’s that good. And in some ways, it’s a book I wish I could have written.
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment – Francis Fukuyama
It’s rare when academics admit their mistakes, and I give much credit to Fukuyama for walking back his “End of History” claim in light of populist resurgences throughout the world. I didn’t read Identity as a single-issue explanation for the current political climate, but it’s one of the better surveys I’ve found on the politics of identity.