22 December 2016

The CapX Christmas reading list


At the end of this turbulent and traumatic political year, we asked our contributors to pick their favourite read of 2016. Most were published in the past 12 months, but some older favourites were selected as their insights were deemed to have a renewed relevance.

Algorithms to Live By’ by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
Chosen by Tim Harford

Okay, I’m a nerd, so I’m biased. But I loved this elegant book. It shows how various ideas from computer science can help us deal with the messy problems of everyday life, from finding an apartment to organising a bookshelf. For example, the “Least Recently Used” algorithm helps computers use their fast memory caches, but it also explains why that pile of paper on your desk is actually much more usefully organised than you might think. You’ll learn a few life-hacks worth knowing, and, almost without noticing, you’ll also learn a great deal about how computers that surround us actually work. Perfect.

Tim Harford is the Financial Times’s “Undercover Economist” and author of “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy Minded World”.

‘Settle for More’ by Megyn Kelly
Chosen by Charlotte Henry

Megyn Kelly took centre stage in the 2016 US Presidential election campaign after she was attacked by Donald Trump, having challenged him over his comments about women. This book provides the inside story, with insight into Kelly, and what she had to overcome to become one of the highest rated anchors on cable television. She details how she switched from law to TV news, was preyed on by a stalker, and faced the full force of Trump and his supporters. A worthwhile read by one of 2016’s key players.

Charlotte Henry is a journalist and broadcaster covering technology, media, and politics.

‘Democracy’ by Paul Cartledge
‘Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies’ by Calestous Juma
Chosen by Victoria Bateman

Both of these books provide a treasure chest of historical knowledge, detailed and yet very readable, helping inform two current very topical and not entirely unrelated issues: democracy in the age of populism, and social resistance to change (in particular, new technologies). After what has been a tricky 2016, and with 2017 potentially looking even darker, there is no better time to look back at thousands of years of democracy, and hundreds of years of societal adjustment to new technologies, to help carve out the way forward.

Dr Victoria Bateman is a Fellow in Economics at Gonville & Caius College at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow at the Legatum Institute, London.

‘Mud Blood and Poppycock’ by Gordon Corrigan
Chosen by Tim Worstall

This book is nearly 15 years old now but is an excellent, lightly weighted rebuttal to the standard lions-led-by-donkeys account of the British in WWI. While some have questioned the details of the account, the underlying structure of possibilities and incentives is sound. So much so that I’ve used his major point about tactics in management training sessions to European corporates.

The fighting tactics at the Somme were simple because that’s all the New Armies were trained for. By 1918 tactics could be more complex and less wasteful of lives simply because everyone was better trained. And thus the modern lesson, how you structure a workforce, how you manage and delegate, will depend on how well trained they all are. Beats reading Clausewitz or Machiavelli as a method of man management, certainly.

Tim Worstall is senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

‘Incandescence’ by Craig Nova
Chosen by Chris Deerin

The book that truly stopped me in my tracks this year came out in 1979. Incandescence, by Craig Nova, is set in New York – the old city of car-jackings, street-corner wise guys and ratty apartments – and follows the declining fortunes of Stargell, a repeat loser who even as he sinks accesses fathomless reserves of optimism, spunk and mercy.

The book’s tumbling, high-octane centrepiece, in which Stargell auditions as a gorilla impersonator at a funfair, leaves the reader gasping for air. A little bit Bellow, a little bit Kerouac, Incandescence also has a spirited grace that is all its own, and was something of a balm during these 12 graceless, callousing months.

Chris Deerin is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail.

‘All Out War’ by Tim Shipman
Chosen by Alex Massie

This deserves to be considered an instant classic. It is undoubtedly the British political book of the year. This view-from-inside-the-bubble account of Britain’s Brexit wars would be a considerable achievement if it had been published 12 months after Brexit; that it should emerge within 12 weeks seems astonishing. Shipman has spoken to everyone and discovered where all the bodies are buried.

His account of how David Cameron misjudged first his party, then his country, could be subtitled “The Unmaking of a Prime Minister”. It is a rich drama, packed with pathos, superbly told. Few of the protagonists emerge with their reputations enhanced but that seems fitting in the aftermath of a squalid campaign that, whatever else it did, changed the course of British political history. Shipman has written a political thriller that does justice to the moment; as first drafts of history go, this is unbeatable. The perfect Christmas present for Leavers and Remainers alike.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.

 ‘The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide’ by Chris Bickerton
Chosen by David Waywell

When I was first handed Chris Bickerton’s introduction to the European Union, I embraced it like a man embracing a floating corpse amid a shipwreck. This book was a lifesaver for my sanity in those hard weeks leading into the referendum. If my vote wasn’t informed by any deep expertise on the European question, I was at least informed about my ignorance.

EU policy described over 230 tightly printed pages would normally appeal slightly less than the thought of the Labour front bench dancing an erotic hokey-cokey. Thankfully, Bickerton explains the EU without resorting to technical language or jargon. Yet the book is as much about the flaws of the EU as it is about the EU’s successes. Hard points are softened with anecdotes. Every benefit is described in the context of inevitable failures; ambitions usually followed by some flawed application.

It’s a book about idealism brought down by practical detail, political theory broken on the back of political necessity. After reading it, I came to the conclusion that the British public had been set an impossible task: like being asked to decide a point of particle physics written in a foreign tongue and etched onto a matchhead.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman
Chosen by Robert Colvile

Reading Michael Lewis’ new book about the work and friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has sent me back to Kahneman’s fascinating study of human nature, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Essentially, what the pair proved – and laid out in experiment after experiment – is that we human beings aren’t half as rational as we think we are. We’re messy, muddled, instinctual creatures. And while we can behave like rational actors when we focus on it, we all too often make the easy, lazy choice.

In a year in which emotion and reason have often been at loggerheads, it’s a reminder that it’s not just having the right ideas that matters, but presenting them in a way that appeals.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX.

‘The Great Convergence’ by Richard Baldwin
Chosen by Philippe Legrain

With globalisation under threat from Donald Trump and a growing backlash across the West, Richard Baldwin’s excellent book is a salutary reminder of its huge benefits. The Great Convergence explains how information technology has enabled an unprecedented un-bundling of know-how and labour. This has created global value chains that have enabled emerging economies to catch up with advanced ones, lifting billions out of poverty, while making the West richer too. But those who have lost out – or fear they might – now want protectionism. That would make us poorer without bringing manufacturing jobs back. It would be better to help people retrain instead.

Philippe Legrain is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute.

What were your favourite books of the year? Email us your suggestions at [email protected]