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The Best Non-Fiction Books of 2015: The Year of the Biography

One of my favorite sources of reading material is Tyler Cowen. He’s consistently finding exceptional things that I’ve never heard of. His 2015 non-fiction list is no exception.

If he had to pick four favorites out of this list he would choose Musk, Kissinger, Thatcher, and Genghis Khan. (Also revisit his selections from 2014, 2013, and 2012.)

Here is the entire list (in no order).

Kissinger: Volume I: The Idealist, 1923-1968 by Niall Ferguson.
Cowen calls this a “background on America being screwed up.” We were a little more verbose in a recent edition of Brain Food, writing : “We love everything about this book from the font and the way the pages are laid out to the wonderful content. Niall Ferguson offers a rich look at how Kissinger came to be one of the pre-eminent statesmen of the past 100 years. As good as Ferguson is—and he’s magical—it’s the excerpts from Kissinger that really ignite the fire in my mind. A perfect Christmas gift for the intellectually curious.”

Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
We’d love to have Musk on The Knowledge Project. If anyone can connect us …

Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy
I’ve heard conflicting opinions on this book and Cowen seems to emphasize the last section, calling it “brilliant on current Japanese politics.”

Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect
We have a tendency to jump from cause to effect. This book offers the statistical tools to underpin doing that in system two thinking.

Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik.
“In this sharp, masterfully argued book, Dani Rodrik, a leading critic from within, takes a close look at economics to examine when it falls short and when it works, to give a surprisingly upbeat account of the discipline.”

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs
“A startlingly fresh and a uniquely inclusive account of the people who have a claim to be the oldest nation in the world. The English first came into existence as an idea, before they had a common ruler and before the country they lived in even had a name. They have lasted as a recognizable entity ever since, and their defining national institutions can be traced back to the earliest years of their history.”

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler
“Self-recommending,” says Cowen.

Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
The “first and only diary written by a still-imprisoned Guantánamo detainee.”

Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy by Frank McLynn
“Mongol leader Genghis Khan was by far the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. His empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to central Europe, including all of China, the Middle East, and Russia. So how did an illiterate nomad rise to such colossal power and subdue most of the known world, eclipsing Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon? Credited by some with paving the way for the Renaissance, condemned by others for being the most heinous murderer in history, who was Genghis Khan?”

Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own by Garett Jones

Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science by Daniel P. Todes
“By the way,” Cowen teases, “the whole salivating dog at the bell story is a fiction.”

The Mahabarata, by Carole Satyamurti

The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression by Scott Sumner

Foolproof: Why Safety Can be Dangerous, and How Danger Makes Us Safe
“How the very things we create to protect ourselves, like money market funds or anti-lock brakes, end up being the biggest threats to our safety and wellbeing.”

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China by Michael Meyer
In a review of this book in the LA Review of Books, Adam Minter writes: “So long as there have been memoirs, potential memoirists have sought out difficult places in which they might learn about the people and history of the place and — ultimately — about themselves. In one sense, Meyer is no different. In Manchuria is a bet that the desolate plains of northeast China will be more interesting to him and his readers than they are to most Chinese, and even to most residents of Manchuria.”

Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge
“Completed in the last months of the young Schubert’s life, Winterreise has come to be considered the single greatest piece of music in the history of Lieder. Deceptively laconic—these twenty-four short poems set to music for voice and piano are performed uninterrupted in little more than an hour—it nonetheless has an emotional depth and power that no music of its kind has ever equaled.”

Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers by Avivah Zornberg
More of Zornberg’s award winning commentary on the Torah.

North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson,
Insight into how things work there.

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy
A good understanding of Ukraine’s storied past.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio
Cowen writes this “goes deep into a place most people are ignoring.”

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
“Journalist Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians for more than ten years, and he has grown increasingly frustrated with the rose-tinted view of this part of the world offered up by the Western media. ”

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
“A brilliant, haunting, and profoundly original portrait of the defining tragedy of our time.”

Who is Charlie: Xenophobia and the New Middle Class by Emmanuel Todd
“In the wake of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January 2015, millions took to the streets to demonstrate their revulsion, expressing a desire to reaffirm the ideals of the French Republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité. But who were the millions of demonstrators who were suddenly united under the single cry of ‘Je suis Charlie’?”

Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane
“How to talk, think, and write about the British countryside,” Cowen offers.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
The foundations of modern environmentalism. He changed the way we see the world.

The Iran-Iraq War by Pierre Razoux
“From 1980 to 1988, Iran and Iraq fought the longest conventional war of the twentieth century. The tragedies included the slaughter of child soldiers, the use of chemical weapons, the striking of civilian shipping in the Gulf, and the destruction of cities. The Iran-Iraq War offers an unflinching look at a conflict seared into the region’s collective memory but little understood in the West.”

Margaret Thatcher: At her Zenith: In London, Washington, and Moscow, vol.2 of the biography, 1984-1987 by Charles Moore.
“This one I haven’t finished yet,” Cowen writes. “I ordered my copy advance from UK Amazon, it doesn’t come out in the U.S. until early January. There is some chance this is the very best book of the year.”