My favorite books

Lane Kenworthy
July 2020

HOW SOCIETIES WORK AND HOW TO MAKE THEM BETTER

  • Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Viking, 2018. The lives of humans have been getting better in many respects. This book is the best survey of the evidence. (For more, see Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Johan Norberg’s Progress, or Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape.)
  • Ronald F. Inglehart, Cultural Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 2018. One of the most important aspects of progress is our views about opportunity and inclusion for members of outgroups and our prioritization of personal liberty. Inglehart’s book documents these shifts and explains how and why they tend to occur once societies reach a certain level of affluence.
  • Anu Partanen, The Nordic Theory of Everything, Harper, 2017. What’s the set of institutions and policies most conducive to human flourishing in a rich democratic country? The Nordic model. For a similar take, with less on-the-ground detail but a more systematic assessment of the evidence, see Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  • Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids, Simon and Schuster, 2016. Nearly everyone believes in equality of opportunity. What does equal opportunity mean? How near or far are we from achieving it?
  • Bruce Western, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, Russell Sage Foundation, 2018. One reason for opposition to policies and institutions that help the least advantaged is the view that a person’s success or failure owes mainly to their effort. This book documents, better than any other I’ve seen, how common it is for people’s lives to be thrown radically off course by poverty, family disruption, neighborhood dysfunction, mental illness, violence, and other things over which they have little or no control.
  • Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy, 2nd edition, Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation, 2018. A great introduction to American politics and to some of the ways in which it’s changed in recent decades.
  • Rick Perlstein, Nixonland, Scribner, 2008. If it feels like the chaos, division, and hostility of the current moment are unprecedented, read this book.
  • Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker, W.W. Norton, 1989. Finance plays an outsize role in modern life. Lewis distills its essence.
  • Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999. What does improvement in well-being consist of? Sen gives a compelling answer.
  • Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion, Oxford University Press, 2007. The past generation has witnessed significant reduction in extreme poverty. But there has been little progress for about one-seventh of the world’s population. Why? And how can we change that?
  • Bryan Caplan and Zach Wienersmith, Open Borders, First Second, 2019. Ending discrimination based on place of birth is probably the single most effective way to improve the largest number of lives.

HOW TO LIVE A GOOD LIFE

  • Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life, Knopf, 2016. It’s difficult to figure out what you enjoy, and how you want to live your life, by simply thinking. Better to experiment. Try new things. If they don’t work or you don’t like them, try something else. And see failure as helpful, not shameful; it gives you useful information.
  • Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, Penguin, 2009. Pollan shows that scientists’ attempt to identify good and bad substances (betacarotene, cholesterol) and foods hasn’t led to improved health, and it may have, perversely, contributed to rising incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This might be because scientists haven’t yet identified the key substances. Or it could be because there are complex interactions within and between foods that outweigh the impact of specific substances (“a food is more than the sum of its nutrients and a diet is more than the sum of its foods”). By contrast, comparative analysis of diets — of the eating patterns of people in different places, of people in the same place over time, of people who move between places — suggests compellingly that some diets tend to yield better health than others. The keys to successful eating, according to Pollan, are an absence of processed foods, limited consumption of meat, and modest caloric intake. His summary advice: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
  • Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones, National Geographic, 2008 and The Blue Zones Solution, National Geographic, 2015. Buettner and his research team studied places — in Costa Rica, Greece, Italy, Japan, and the United States — where a larger-than-normal share of the population lives to age 100 or more. It isn’t only about living longer; the centenarians in these places have “long, healthy lives with vitality until the very end.” Buettner identifies several commonalities: (1) Eat as Michael Pollan advises: no processed foods, mostly plants, not too much. (2) Move frequently. It doesn’t have to be strenuous; low-intensity activity is good enough. Walk, cycle, garden, cook, clean the house or yard, water the plants, take the stairs, hike, do tai chi or yoga, swim. (3) Have a purpose. Do things you feel competent at and enjoy. It’s even better if what you’re doing helps others. (4) Belong. Spend time with family and friends. (5) Take time to relieve stress. Slow down, pause to appreciate (“smell the roses”) and give thanks, listen to music, meditate, pray, eat slowly and without phones or other electronic distractions, get enough sleep.
  • Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, 2nd edition, Random House, 2019. There now is good evidence that nongovernmental organizations can save lives in the world’s poorest countries, and we know approximately how much it costs to do so. What does this imply for how people in rich nations should use their money? The book is available free online.