Every day, Zócalo brings the best of the year’s ideas to L.A. and beyond, online and in person. We present the speakers we think people ought to hear, publish the stories we think people ought to love, and read the books—a lot of books—we think ought to be considered important. Now, in a further attempt to Zócaloize your mind, we bring you a list of the nonfiction books you ought to get your hands on—any (preferably legal) way you can. These are the stories, ideas, and even images that captured our imagination or made our brains hurt (in a good way) this year. Whether their subjects are Afghanistan or assholes (not our choice of word—see book titles below), struggling students or savvy swindlers, these are the top ten books that got our attention in 2012—and that we think deserve yours, too.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan brings alive two words we’ve heard a lot about but may never have fully understood: “troop surge.” Could President Barack Obama’s intended policy have succeeded in Afghanistan? Chandrasekaran’s account makes us doubt it, but his approach is scrupulously fair, and his depictions of reality on the ground are vivid and often startling.
David Hackett Fischer’s Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States finds astonishing insights about America’s founding—and its impact on U.S. politics and policies today—from an unlikely source: New Zealand. The Kiwis founded their breakaway nation on the principle of fairness, while the Americans founded theirs on the principle of freedom. These, he demonstrates, are decidedly different things.
Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human is that rare beast: a serious academic book that’s free of pretension, rife with insight, and groundbreaking in its synthesis of science, philosophy, and fiction. We thought we didn’t need another book on the power of story. We’re happy we were wrong.
Sam Leith’s Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama is the antidote we needed in a year of dull presidential debates—a celebration of an underappreciated art and a romp that brings together its unlikely practitioners. Heck, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and a Simpsons character get equal billing with Satan and Hitler.
Mary Ellen Mark’s Prom may cause flashbacks of cheesy ballads, bad fashion decisions, and your own awkward moments on the dance floor, but that’s just one reason why Mark’s black-and-white photos of kids around the country staring down or grinning at the camera in their finest, flashiest outfits are riveting.
Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years sounds silly, maybe even a little like bullshit. But the rise of this word tells us a lot about ourselves—and the assholes all around us.
Amy Reading’s The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con is excellent evidence that they don’t make capers and conmen like they used to—or vigilante justice, either. J. Frank Norfleet, the vengeful swindled Texas rancher at the heart of this story, is a remarkable character. If only Bernie Madoff’s victims had gone all Norfleet on him.
Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character confirms our gloomy suspicions that a lot of what we’ve been doing to educate America’s kids and close the achievement gap is wrong. But it also offers a finding that, while probably self-evident to many readers, is nevertheless hopeful: character matters.
Jeremy Waldron’s The Harm in Hate Speech offers a sharp riposte to those who believe that living with hate speech is the price of living in a free society. Waldron believes that hate speech destroys human dignity and endangers our diverse democracy, and he makes an arresting, persuasive case that knee-jerk invocations of the First Amendment amount to an evasion of a fuller understanding of a fraught topic.
Jeff Wheelwright’s The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA melds history, science writing, and unusually compassionate investigative journalism in the service of a seemingly bizarre story—a Hispano family in the Southwest carrying a breast cancer gene mutation that afflicts Ashkenazi Jews—that unlocks secrets of genetics, race, and cultural history.