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Best Book of 2010 ( that I read)

Saw a number of interesting posts on this “best book”  theme, starting with Cameron Schaefer and Lexington Green and Cameron challenged me to make a comment in this regard.

I am reading two excellent books right now, The Human Face of War by Col. Jim Storr and The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward Luttwak, but as these are unfinished, they are out of the running. So are any books that are fiction, as I am poorly qualified to evaluate books purely upon their literary merit alone. I leave that to the English majors.

As my criteria for “best” will be the book with “most profound idea” then….the winner is…..The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. As I wrote recently:

A superb academic book, previously featured and reviewed in the blogosphere by John Robb and Joseph Fouche, The Collapse of Complex Societies embarks upon a critical examination and partial de-bunking of theories that purport to explain the “sudden” fall of great empires, such as Rome or the vanishing of the Mayans. With caveats, Tainter settles on declining marginal returns from increasing societal investment in complexity as a rough proximate cause capable of subsuming a ” significant range of human behavior, and a number of social theories” under it’s rubric. Highly recommended.

What was your favorite book?

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21 Responses to “Best Book of 2010 ( that I read)”

  1. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Tainter’s was the most important book I read this year. Richelieu and Olivares was the most entertaining. From Dawn to Decadence was the best re-read.

  2. J. Scott Says:

    Happy New Year to Zen, Charles, and your readers and contributors..Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order was the best non-fiction. Robert Coram’s BRUTE was the best biography, and the best fiction was an oldie, Gore Vidal’s Creation. In reviewing my reading for the 2010, outside some old cowboy stories, Creation was the only work of fiction I reviewed—-I may have read something else and forgot to review. Storr’s Human Face of War is outstanding, btw—and should be read with Robert Leonhard’s The Principles of War in the Information Age—very complementary reads. Don’t y’all hate the exclusivity of these lists?:)) I read a lot of good books this year—it is difficult to down-select just one.

  3. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    My best nonfiction: Tony Judt’s Postwar. It’s a nice summary of European history since WWII. I hadn’t read a book that put it all together. Living through it wasn’t the same.
    .
    Also nice: it’s from a European viewpoint, mentions the US only when absolutely necessary.

  4. Cameron Schaefer Says:

    Thanks for the post Zen! Still working through Tainter, but am already amazed at how the simple concept of decreasing marginal returns from investments in societal complexity have shaped the way I see the world…much easier to see when one works for the govt."Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson was an interesting read you may like, if for nothing else than the huge amounts of Boyd parallels running throughout its pages.

  5. onparkstreet Says:

    <blockquote>So are any books that are fiction, as I am poorly qualified to evaluate books purely upon their literary merit alone. I leave that to the English majors.</blockquote>
    .
    Oh Zen. You make me sad with that thought. Fiction is art and art doesn’t need a degree or major to have interesting and meaningful thoughts :).
    .
    Sorry to nitpick but that is one of my pet peeves. I swear, contemporary arts in the US suffers from so much "academy" dreck. It’s all Duchamp all the time. All the friggin’ time.
    .
    So sad :(
    .
    - Madhu

  6. onparkstreet Says:

    Hmm. My html skills no good? (Don’t answer.)
    .
    - Madhu

  7. The Best of Everything, 2010 « The Crolian Progressive Says:

    [...] The Best of Everything, 2010 Following is a list of “bests” I’ve compiled for 2010. These range from the personal to the professional. The immediate inspirations are Kevin Levin’s annual “best” posts, Scott McLemee’s “The Year in Reading,” and Mark Safranski’s “Best Book of 2010 (that I read).” [...]

  8. seydlitz89 Says:

    I have to agree with Charles Hill’s "Grand Strategies" as the best book.  The best book for 2010 that I should have read long before is Neil Postman’s "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and the best re-read book for 2010 is undoubtedly Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 classic "Moral Man and Immoral Society".

    Funny, I am reading Storr and Luttwak as well but have not finished either . . .

  9. Best books I read in 2010 | ComingAnarchy.com Says:

    [...] Mark Safranski’s lead, I would like to post about the best book I read in 2010. I could go the nepotistic route and [...]

  10. tdaxp Says:

    The Generalissimo’s Son, by Jay Taylor, a biography of Chiang Chingkuo. The book marks the turning point in which I ceased thinking of the CCP-KMT divide as meaningful, and instead focused on domestically-trained v. internationally-trained leaders.

    Chingkuo is also interesting because he learned Leninist strategy (people’s war, the use of terror, party discipline) in the Soviet Union, where only a direct intervention by Stalin prevented him from being a CPSU member. He then used all these techniques extremely effectively during the White Terror, which elimianted the Communist Party on Taiwan.

  11. zen Says:

    ha! Doc Madhu, I was once an art major a long, long time ago. Even took 9 hours of art history and criticism. :)
    .
    "Chingkuo is also interesting because he learned Leninist strategy (people’s war, the use of terror, party discipline) in the Soviet Union, where only a direct intervention by Stalin prevented him from being a CPSU member"
    .
    And kept him from returning to China for some time. A princely hostage.
    .
    Never read Moral Man… though I have read Children of Light, Children of Darkness.I need to order the Charles Hill book.

  12. Eddie Says:

    Its hard to decide from so many I had to read for class or discovered in the library but I’ll leave it at one required reading and one personal choice.

    "Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis" (Rayna Rapp). An ethnography of amnio testing, this is a real gem that shows what engaged anthropology can achieve, esp. in fleshing out the experiences, applications and meanings of new genetic technologies. The chapter on how women (and families) w/ positive amnio tests choose to abort or not made for the most difficult reading of my life but also the most enriching.

    My personal enjoyment/enrichment choice is David Hackett Fischer’s "Growing Old In America", narrowly beating Kotkin’s "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050". Both are excellent considerations of issues (aging, America’s future) all too easily pigeonholed or over-simplified and both men suffer no fools in their respective fields gladly. Richard Florida in particular should just move to a log cabin and avoid Kotkin at all costs for fear of being even further exposed as a hack geographer.

  13. J. Scott Says:

    The Charles Hill book is probably still hardback, but a gem. I bought copies for my college-age children, and I have used as a reference to add "classics" to my list that I’ve not read (some of the Russian stuff I’ll probably never read). One of Hill’s references was a interesting take Applied Imagination by Osborn—once I got through the central planning yuck, it wasn’t a bad book—and it was quick and, no pun intended; imaginative:)) Hill also recommended People of the Book (a 30′s year war history) and The Ruin of Kasch—I bought both on the secondary market but haven’t managed to read; the latter seems impenetrable on first glance. Hill’s larger thesis for more people in public/foreign policy to be well-read/educated enough to know their "world" isn’t so different from that of days gone by is important. We suffer more from ignorance than malice; most folks in positions of power in DC are ignorant of the world that came before (many are Marxists, but know) and have zero incentive/curiosity.

  14. david ronfeldt Says:

    oh gosh, i feel i must dissent.  tainter’s book is illuminating, but i continue to doubt his analysis.  it is too linear.  it overlooks something i’ve noticed as i work on how progressive combinations of tribal, institutional, market, and info-age network (TIMN) forms of organization explain social evolution.  as i recall, tainter does not recognize that simplicity may increase along with complexity.  and sorry, but i’m just going to quote an old 09/09 blog post to elaborate on this:
    .
    “Complexity increases with TIMN progress, but so does simplicity: TIMN treats the evolution of “complexity” as a cumulative, combinatorial process, in which a social system develops sub-systems that operate according to different forms of organization. Thus TIMN, like most theories about social evolution, emphasizes differentiation and specialization — but with a twist. In classical theory, evolution amounts to a movement from simplicity to complexity — with that complexity becoming evermore complex. But in TIMN, the successful addition of a new form spells a reconfiguration that amounts to a kind of simplification — a resolution of excessive complexity (or complicatedness) from trying to do too many new things with old forms. Thus a triform T+I+M society is more complex than a biform T+I society; but a T+I+M society is also more streamlined and efficient — in key ways, simpler, less complicated — than a T+I society that is trying to conduct and control complex economic affairs without adopting the +M form. The drive for differentiation cannot be unceasing; resynthesis eventually requires a simplifying kind of de-differentiation as well.”
    .
    in tainter’s view, simplicity and complexity are opposites.  complexity just becomes evermore complicated.  collapse leads to a re-simplification as people revert anew to more tribal (T) types of existence.  and then the cycle starts over again.
    .
    ok, in a way, sometimes.  but from a TIMN perspective, that’s not the only way that complexity and simplification relate to each other.  in TIMN, the historical rise of a new form adds new kinds of both complexity and simplicity to a society a a whole.  a crisis in complexity does not always have to lead to collapse and reversion to a reliance on simpler forms.  a crisis could lead to a transformation as a society finally learns how to add a new form in the TIMN progression.
    .
    thus china has not collapsed.  it has renovated by adding the +M (market) form.  the united states does not have to collapse; it has to figure out how best to adopt and adapt to the next form: the +N (network) form.
    .
    or did i misread tainter those years ago?

  15. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Tainter paints an accurate picture of the collapse of complex societies subject to classic Malthusian limits (that would be the T and T+I forms in your model). I don’t know how well it carries beyond that point. In The Great Wave by David Hackett Fischer which follows the boom and bust cycle of price-revolutions (e.g. inflation and deflation) over the past millenium in Europe, Fischer outlines what you could call a ratchet effect where the catastrophes get less intensive and cause less suffering as time goes on. The thirteenth century crisis (featuring the Black Death) was far worse than the seventeenth century crisis (featuring the Thirty Years War) and so on. I think Tainter’s model works well for realizing the inherent limitations of the individual human mind, which is very linear and barely handles +I, let alone +M and +N. In IT, we have two models of scalability, scaling up and scaling out. If you were scaling up your large website, you’d be buying a bigger computer server and using its increased power to increase performance. If you were scaling out, you’d buy a lot of smaller computer services and spread the load out among them. The linear complexity Tainter describes is the more natural tendency of human beings to want to scale up linearly by means of a bigger T and a bigger +I. The +M and +N forms are examples of human beings scaling out. The mental load for processing societal complexity is distributed more efficiently among the members of that complex society. This would be an echo of a quote attributed to William Gibson that, "The future’s already here, it’s just unevenly distributed".  The pre-industrial complex societies that Tainter used as examples like the Maya, the Romans, and the Chacoans may have merely failed to cross the T+I threshold into T+I+M because they failed to make their complexity processing more evenly distributed.

  16. zen Says:

    hi David,
    .
    "ok, in a way, sometimes.  but from a TIMN perspective, that’s not the only way that complexity and simplification relate to each other.  in TIMN, the historical rise of a new form adds new kinds of both complexity and simplicity to a society a a whole.  a crisis in complexity does not always have to lead to collapse and reversion to a reliance on simpler forms.  a crisis could lead to a transformation as a society finally learns how to add a new form in the TIMN progression."
    .
    Agreed. True enough. However, I think you are being hard on Tainter, projecting back insights he would have been unlikely to have had.
    .
    First, Tainter wrote his book in, if memory serves the mid to late 80′s, at the twilight period of  institutional-bureaucratic- hierarchical dominance, before globalization exploded and before the internet served as a catalyst for insight into the power of scale free networks. And Tainter’s formative professional years in grad school were probably, what? The 1960′s? Early 70′s? A child hood in the late 50′s?. I think he saw the system in ’88 as one in danger of running out of gas – probably correctly given his inputs – but very few ppl foresaw the epochal shift of 1989-1991 coming. You, Arquilla, the Tofflers, McLuhan and a handful of others were ahead of the curve and/or understood what was happening, but not many. I can count on one hand the number of ppl in 1985 who thought the USSR was ever going to disappear – the cultural pessimism ran so deep that Jean Francois-Revel’s How Democracies Perish was well received by Reagan conservatives.
    .
    Secondly, has TIMN gotten close to manuscript form? You have a great taxonomic structure for understanding the 21st C. and it needs to be more widely known.

  17. tdaxp, Ph.D. » Blog Archive » Books I’ve Read in 2010 Says:

    [...] Younghusband‘s and Mark‘s posts, here are the books that I read in the past [...]

  18. Books I Read in the Year We Made Contact « The Committee of Public Safety Says:

    [...] monograph, but it’s still not fluid reading in the aggregate. Mark Safranski of Zenpundit rated it the book he read with “the most profound idea”. Noted RAND analyst (now retired) David [...]

  19. ShrinkWrapped Says:

    On The Collapse of Complex Societies…

    Millennialism has a very long pedigree; it seems that almost from the time Man first became aware of his own mortality, concerns about the end of the world have been a recurrent theme during stressful times. Our current times are……

  20. zen Says:

    Hi Dr. Shrinkwrapped
    .
    Indeed! My co-blogger Charles Cameron has made things eschatological his primary academic research focus – the parallels across time and culture he’s written about are amazing – maybe, given your field, we could say "Jungian"

  21. Inverted « The Committee of Public Safety Says:

    [...] the central social organization that transmits culture to the network following Ronfeldt’s justifiable criticism of Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies: oh gosh, i feel i must dissent. [...]


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