Notable Books We Read in 2009
Here a baker's dozen of notable books we read in
2009 - whether they were published in 2009 or not!
Presented below not in order of preference or
These first few books are not light, but they aren't
Wrestling with Moses by Anthony Flint. The feel
good, David versus Goliath story of writer Jane Jacobs
fending off the all-too-powerful Robert Moses and
saving New York's Soho and Washington Square
Park in the early 1960s. I the process, she redefined
our ideas of city planning with her landmark book The
Death and Life of Great American Cities. Gotta love it -
and for our money, Jacobs was one of the smartest
people of the last century.
1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred
Kaplan. Who knew that 1959 was such an important
year? The microchip, the pill, Miles Davis, William
Burroughs, Frank Lloyd Wright, and much more ...
Kaplan makes it come alive with a fascinating and
eclectic assortment of the social, business, political,
and scientific developments that happened during the
Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill
Bryson. It's short, you'll learn a lot about Elizabethan
England, and it makes Shakespeare fun. And you'll be
able to one-up any Shakespeare snob that you have
the misfortune of encountering.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story
of English by John McWhorter. If you're the type
that loves to know the arcana of etymology and syntax,
or simply someone who secretly worries about ending
a sentence with a preposition, this is another fun
addition to the literature. Very much in the spirit of
David Crystal's The Fight for English: How language
pundits ate, shot, and left. A very pleasant
These next few books are a little heavier but still very
Dreams from the Monster Factory by Sunny
Schwartz. Most of us would rather avoid the subject of
prisons - but with the U.S. prison population the
highest in the world, and prisons (a.k.a. "monster
factories") simply making those inside their walls
more virulent, it's a critically important subject.
Schwartz's book is a deeply personal account of her
work inside some of these prisons, and it is gripping
and heartbreaking. You'll be distressed as much as
you'll be encouraged, but you'll be better informed,
and our bet is you'll know much more about human
nature as a result.
Make'em Laugh: The Funny Business of America
by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon. A superb
and briskly written overview of comedians from
Chaplin to Saturday Night Live and George Carlin -
with many stops inbetween. Unlike the other books on
this list, it has lots of photos and is coffee table size -
so be prepared.
Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to
Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have
Failed - and What to Do About It by Josh Lerner.
You need to have a healthy interest in business to get
into this, but if you do, it is an eye-opening, critical and
original look at the world of venture capital and its
importance to society.
The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden
Political Genius of an American Icon by John
Ferling. We've read dozens of books about the
American Revolution and good old George, but we
don't think we ever really understood either until we
read this book. It takes both George and the
Revolution out of the realm of the selfless and the
virtuous and into the realm of real people with real
motives and feelings. It rings true without muckraking.
We think we understand now.
Columbine by Dave Cullen. Ouch. A terrible
tragedy laid bare in front of you. You'll be amazed at
the number of unfounded myths that sprang out of the
Columbine media coverage - and you'll probably lose
whatever remaining trust you had in the media. You'll
learn a lot about psychopaths, teenagers, and tragedy.
One of the best recent books we've read.
These last few books are a touch more challenging -
but for those who are willing and genuinely interested
in the given subject matter, they are richly
The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. We've
read the Old Testament many times, and heard
hundreds of sermons, but it always seemed a little too
murky until we read this book. The book focuses on
Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and fundamentalists
in each of those religions aren't in agreement with
much in this book - but to us, it all now makes sense
in a way it never previously did. For an interesting
companion piece (forgive me, Bob), read first David
Plotz's Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious,
Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned
When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. It's an
easy and ultimately respectful read that will get you in
the proper mood. Plotz is a journalist who reads and
reports on the Old Testament in this short work. Bet
you don't know a fraction of the stuff that's really in the
Old Testament - even if you are a faithful
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Forget everything
you knew about North and South America before the
arrival of Columbus. The two continents were likely
densely populated and filled with civilizations more
advanced than we've previously been led to believe.
The complexity and variety are astonishing.
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Our view is
that there are few skills in life more important than
making decisions. However, the brain's reasoning
processes are easily fooled, and often make not very
rational judgments. This book captures the most
advanced science and research into the subject, and
as always seems to happen when studying the
human mind, you will be surprised.
A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the
World by Gregory Clark. In our opinion, if you want
to know how the world works, you have to make
economic history central to your investigation. The
unforgivable crime of most historical works is that they
give almost no financial their economic context. (For
example, you can read most books about the Hundred
Year's War between England and France, and you still
won't know the relative GDPs of those two countries or
their relative populations, much less some of the
economic prizes they were seeking - such as the
bountiful profits from the rich vineyards of Burgundy.
Unforgivable. This type of omission makes most
history exceedingly difficult to make sense of - and
thus most history books become more of a social
pageantry. How can you know the motivations of a
person if you don't know their economic wherewithal?
How can you gauge the outcome of a war unless you
know the relative wealth of the combatants?) Clark
provides a sweeping overview of economic history
here - and you'll be better for the experience - even if
you don't agree with some of what he says. His book
is a little weaker towards the end as he brings us into
the present - but then again, what history isn't?