The Wall Street Journal asked people of some prominence to name the best books they read in 2020. So I asked my colleagues. Honestly, I like this list better. Of course, we all recommend the books Cato published this year. But we read more widely, and here are some of our favorites:
The Little House By Virginia Lee Burton - This children's story tracks our heroine—a well-built, 19th-century country home enjoying the stars at night and the changing seasons—as modern urban life creeps closer, surrounds her, and takes her land, her enjoyment of nature, and everything else. After skyscrapers have expropriated every inch of her once-peaceful hillside, a family finds the little pink house “sad and lonely” and, in contempt of modern permitting and historical preservation laws, manages to quickly load her onto a truck and return with her to the countryside. Perfect for ages 1-9.
--David Bier, immigration policy analyst
Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis MD PhD (a recent McLaughlin Lecturer at Cato). A very timely overview of the pandemic, touching on a whole host of aspects of the crisis (though not much economics).
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, by Joseph Henrich. A very provocative thesis that suggests that church-pressured social changes in who it was acceptable to marry (not cousins) and then Protestant churches emphasizing individual interpretation and reading provided the foundations for the psychology that allowed individual rights, democracy, markets, and innovation to flourish.
--Ryan Bourne, R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety; by Eric Schlosser (Penguin, 2013). Investigative reporter Eric Schlosser explores the harrowing history of fatal mishaps and near-catastrophes in America's nuclear arsenal, culminating in the explosion of a fully armed Titan ICBM in its silo in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. Widely heralded upon its publication in 2013, Command and Control was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was the source material for an Oscar-shortlisted PBS documentary of the same name. With a mix of dark humor and painstaking attention to detail, Schlosser explains how the appearance of safety and security surrounding nuclear weapons was always more illusion than fact. The book follows nuclear weapons designers and engineers as they sought to raise the alarm and adopt more stringent safety features from the Manhattan Project to the modern era. It explains how on several occasions America came perilously close to suffering an accidental nuclear detonation, often avoided only by dumb luck. The risk is still real today, and Command and Control offers a compelling libertarian lesson on the fallibility of human institutions and the dangers of assuming government competence.
--Andy Craig, staff writer
I read Animal Farm to the kids. It surprised me how relevant it remains. Now every time someone defends ObamaCare, I hear Squealer: “Surely, comrades, you don’t want discrimination against preexisting conditions back?”
--Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies
I thoroughly enjoyed Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. As someone raised in a fundamentalist Protestant household and who still identifies as an evangelical, I found it to be an illuminating study of how early to mid-20th century cultural norms shaped Christian views of masculinity and ultimately energized a particular set of gendered politics.
--Paul Matzko, assistant editor for tech and innovation, Libertarianism.org
Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie is a wonderful book about the systemic failures in scientific institutions that lead to bad science, the spreading of wild unproven hypotheses, and mass public ignorance about the topic. His proposed solutions won’t work as he doesn’t seriously contemplated how to change the incentives of scientists, but his examination of the problem is masterful and funny.
--Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies
The most interesting book I’ve read this year is Michelle Corson’s Freedom of Motion: Working Families and the Transportation Revolution. After a successful career in commercial real estate development, Corson decided to focus on “solving complex social problems using creative financial tools.” She soon learned that “if a low-income person with poor credit could buy a really good car, something relatively new that wouldn’t break down, with a warranty, and had the opportunity to get some financial coaching, they were able to get better jobs, build financial stability, and gain a path to economic mobility.” But banks charge such people up to 20 percent interest on car loans. Corson started On the Road Lending, which gives people low-interest car loans along with basic financial training. As this book shows, auto ownership has greatly improved the lives of her clients. On the Road Lending now operates in four different states. Though published in 2017, On the Road Lending’s annual reports since then show that it continues to successfully help people get out of poverty.
--Randal O'Toole, senior fellow
I read Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. Stuck at home for so long, one has to expand one's kitchen offerings!
--Khristine Brookes, vice president for communications
Andrew McAfee’s More from Less is an environmental book with two twists: it’s optimistic and pro-market. Using real-world examples and extensive data on U.S. metals, fertilizer, wood products, and fuels, McAfee convincingly shows that technological progress and capitalism have not only made us more prosperous, but also sparked “dematerialization” – the use of fewer natural resources to make more and better stuff. As he puts it, “[t]he fuel of interest in in eliminating costs was added to the fire of the computer revolution, and the world began to dematerialize.”
--Scott Lincicome, senior fellow
The best book I read this year is First, the biography of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas. Rather than just a review of her jurisprudence based on her published opinions, the book goes behind the scenes with extensive excerpts from the journals of both Justice O’Connor and her husband. It also features many observations from Justice O’Connor’s law clerks and close friends. It’s a fascinating account of how Justice O’Connor rose to become the first woman on the Supreme Court through a combination of extremely hard work, intelligence, pragmatism, a keen sense for politics, and some key moments of good luck. The story of her appointment also presents a remarkable contrast to the much more arduous vetting process that occurs today.
--Thomas A. Berry, research fellow
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore: This historical fiction centers around the legal battles between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison over the lightbulb, as told by Westinghouse’s boy genius lawyer Paul Cravath. The characters are well-drawn, including the late 1880s New York City setting, and it hews close enough to fact to provide a good education on the battle between alternating and direct current. Who knew patent litigation could be so exciting?
--Jennifer Schulp, director of financial regulation studies
The most fascinating book I read in 2020 was a novel published back in 1708 by Simon Ockley: "The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” (Full text available here.) This was the English translation of an Arabic novel penned much earlier, in the late 12th century, by Ibn Tufayl, an Aristotelian philosopher from Muslim Spain. It was a philosophical novel — in fact, probably the earliest philosophical novel ever written — which insinuated that human reason could discover all the secrets of the universe, even without the guidance of religion. This was a revolutionary if not dangerous idea at its time, as it still is in some parts of the Muslim world today. That is why a summary and analysis of this novel, along with its much-forgotten influence on European Enlightenment, is the theme of the first chapter of my forthcoming book, Reopening Muslims Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance.
--Mustafa Akyol, senior fellow
The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, by Eric Weiner. I read this book while planning out HumanProgress.org's Centers of Progress series. The author does not provide a satisfying unified theory of what makes a city likely to become a site of "genius," while I would argue that in many cases relative societal openness has been key. But the book is a pleasure to read and contains some fascinating historical details. Vicariously experiencing the author's travels to each city that the book profiles was a nice escape while stuck in quarantine.
--Chelsea Follett, managing editor, HumanProgress.org
The Fighting Bunch: The Battle of Athens and How World War II Veterans Won the Only Successful Armed Rebellion Since the Revolution, by NYT Bestselling Historian (and my friend) Chris DeRose. A great story of how some ragtag GIs fought back—including literally—against a corrupt political machine in their Tennessee hometown.
--Ilya Shapiro, director, Center for Constitutional Studies
Despite indulging in caricature and campy Soviet-era jargon, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (or TMiaHM, as it is affectionately called by fans) delivers an entertaining parable on the hazards of taking lightly legitimate claims to autonomy by people who hold both the moral and the physical high ground. Memo to Earthlings: never pick a fight with people who live on a giant rock at the top of your gravity well.
--Clark Neily, vice president for criminal justice
The Sixth Man, by Andre Iguodala. Autobiography of one of the key, but unheralded, NBA players of the past 15 years. Interesting and fun read.
--Jeffrey Miron, director of economic studies
Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009) [originally published in 1942]. Acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig, who grew up in late 19th-century Vienna, gives an account of his life and of how quickly and unexpectedly the rapid progress, openness, and seeming security that characterized much of Europe came to an end in 1914. Through personal anecdotes and telling observations, he describes the madness of nationalism, the subsequent cataclysms that beset Europe, and the disturbing swiftness with which societies and educated individuals can abandon tolerance and pluralism.
--Ian Vasquez, director, Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity
I finally read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I regret it took so long. The tale of life for a poor immigrant family in early twentieth century Williamsburg, Brooklyn, put color and flesh on the day-to-day existence of people about whom one ordinarily just reads a perfunctory sentence or two in U.S. history classes. I found it particularly engaging, perhaps, because my own family’s American origins would have been very similar.
--Neal McCluskey, director, Center for Educational Freedom
As for me, I hate to seem like a Cato cheerleader, but it's true: The best book I read in 2020 was The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement by my colleague Paul Matzko. He tells the little-known story of conservative talk radio in the 1950s and '60s, how the John F. Kennedy administration used the FCC and the IRS to crush those shows, and then the revival of conservative radio spurred by Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh. Not only a good story but a pleasure to read.