The Best Books of 2009 in History & Philosophy

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

Graham Farmelo

 

As the Large Hadron Collider gears up at CERN in Switzerland, the general public is having to swot up its quantum physics. There is no better guide to doing it than this thorough biography of one of the geniuses who invented quantum theory and, through the beauty of his mathematical insights, made far-reaching predictions about the microstructure of reality that have since proved right.

 

 

 

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

Neil Sheehan

 

The story of the U.S. development of a nuclear armory is a surprising and instructive one, not least because it owes so much to the energy and belief of one man: Air Force general Bernard Schriever. In telling this tale, the book absorbingly spans the military and diplomatic history of the Cold War world.

 

 

 

The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Iain McGilchrist

 

Few books this year can match this one in breadth of erudition, scope, and ambition. Though not many of its readers will agree with what McGilchrist says follows from the brain’s asymmetrical division for the nature of Western civilization, it is a highly stimulating read all the same.

 

 

 

Ayn Rand and the World She Made

Anne C. Heller

 

Heller’s biography is a riveting examination of the fascinating but in many ways rebarbative and challenging libertarian novelist who told wonderful stories in promoting raw-meat capitalism and lived a life of passionate commitment to her cause that swallowed some of her followers whole. Many love her ideas; this uncompromising account asks whether the thinker is equally lovable.

 

 

The Life You Can Save

Peter Singer

 

This might be the most important book of the year. Philosopher Peter Singer shows not only that almost everyone in the developed world can easily contribute 5 percent of their gross income to help reduce world poverty on a massive scale; but that it is immoral not to do so, because it means we value our own convenience far more highly than the lives and health of people struggling in desperate Third World poverty. He is right.

April 17: "In less than three years, both GM and Chrysler would be bankrupt, and a resurgent Ford would wow Wall Street..."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.