Just Buy These 10 Books Now

Zócalo Presents the Best Nonfiction of 2011


Three hundred thousand new books get published in the U.S. each year, and Zócalo showcases the authors of many of the best of them in person and on the Web. As the year winds down, we want to give a shout-out to the books that incited our passions, changed our minds, or made proselytizers out of us. Their subjects range from politics to baseball, Mexico to video games. Our top ten books of 2011 bring forth ideas people should be talking about in 2012 and beyond.

John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea redefines the term “civilization” and urges us-through philosophy, history, and personal stories-to imbue our culture with more spiritual richness and meaning. This, he argues, is at the heart of what makes us civilized.



Ben Berger’s Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement offers an unconventional and compelling argument about solving America’s political dysfunction and nasty partisanship. The answer isn’t in putting our energies into getting higher voter turnout but in working toward greater social and moral engagement.


Jorge Castañeda’s Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans is a nuanced psychoanalysis of Mexico that captures the existentialist angst of a proud people caught between their past and modernity, between despair and middle class consumerism-and between Latin and North America.


Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement globe-trots exuberantly from Han Dynasty China to Victorian England to mid-20th-century Africa to explain why we measure things the way we do, answering fundamental questions about time, space, and science in the process.


Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution is a magisterial investigation into state-building that draws on evolutionary biology, history, and political science to make a case for why humans build different kinds of government-and the best way forward for democracy.


Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin mines one year in the life of a family-that of William Dobbs, U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany-to paint a rare and vivid portrait of everyday life in the Third Reich.


Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World argues that gamers hold the key to getting us all to save the world. By scaling up the games we already play and adapting them to real-world issues, we can solve some of the thorniest problems facing the planet.


Maurice Sherif’s The American Wall: From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico is a gorgeous, oversized two-volume book that explores the U.S.-Mexico border from the American side through stark and evocative photographs and essays. (A second installment, from the Mexico side, is forthcoming).


John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game reveals how the real story of baseball’s early days was hushed up. In the process, he offers a timely account of how Americans developed a special talent for inventing creation myths, swallowing them whole, and selling them to future generations.


Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America exposes the sordid past of the American railroad system. Far from a narrative of technological and economic glory, the story of our trains, White argues, is mainly one of wealthy crooks and Gilded Age misdeeds.


*Photo by Daniel Marks.