My favorite books

Lane Kenworthy
February 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 of the reasons some people don’t support policies and institutions that help the least advantaged is the belief 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 lives to be thrown radically off course by poverty, family disruption, neighborhood dysfunction, mental illness, violence, and other things over which individuals 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 an enlightening exploration of how our political system has affected, and been affected by, rising income inequality.
  • 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. There is no better way to improve the largest number of lives.

HOW TO LIVE A BETTER LIFE

  • Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life, Knopf, 2016. Try new things. If they don’t work or you don’t like them, try something else. It’s difficult to figure out what you like, and what you want to do, by thinking. Better to try doing things. And see failure as helpful, not shameful; it gives you useful information.
  • Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, Penguin, 2009. “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Pollan explains how best to eat and how we know this.
  • 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.