The best books I read in 2012


Jason Collins


December 28, 2012

As is normally the case, my annual list comprises the best books I have read in the past year, irrespective of their date of release. I read fewer books this year than usual, so I’m drawing from a smaller pool than for the last couple of years (2010 and 2011). Here are my favourite six for 2012 - links are to reviews:

Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions by Robert Frank: A book I should have read a long time ago. I particularly appreciated Frank’s use of path-dependent evolution to develop his model of human behaviour.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt: At the top of many lists for good reason.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford: Apart from being interesting and full of reasonable advice, Harford demonstrates a deep understanding of evolutionary processes, which is not often the case in books of this nature.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: Magnificent. The clear and accessible way that each chapter illustrates a bias or heuristic makes it the best book on rationality and decision-making that I have read.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville: The best classic I read this year. Although I could have skipped some of the detours, many are fascinating.

Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom by Paul Rubin: A strong argument for political institutions that maximise freedom.

There are a few books that I read this year that have me in two minds, so I haven’t included them in the above list. I enjoyed Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, but despite his claims to the contrary, Ridley stretched the evolutionary metaphor too far in drawing a Panglossian case. Robert Trivers’s The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life would have required a much more thorough editing to make this list. I also enjoyed Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, despite not buying the central argument.

Of the books I have in my reading pile, I still haven’t got to Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and I intend to read Flynn’s Are We Getting Smarter?: Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century over the Christmas break. Hopefully they will crack next year’s list.