by Rod D. Martin
December 31, 2013
This is my end-of-year review of the best books I read this year. They weren’t all published in 2013 (though some were), nor are they everything I read in 2013; but I did read them in 2013 and hope you will read them in 2014. Moreover, I am leaving out the Bible, which is obviously my favorite book every year. I submit them in no particular order.
1. Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How it is Revolutionizing our World, George Gilder
Okay, okay: there’s certainly an order to this first one. This is the book of the year, and one of the books of the century. In Knowledge and Power, the inimitable George Gilder — tech guru, Christian, foster son of David Rockefeller, co-creator of supply-side economics and Ronald Reagan’s most-quoted living author — posits an economics rooted in information theory, and in the process corrects all economists before him, rewriting much of what we think we know and particularly clarifying the essential, indeed epic, role of the entrepreneur. It is a contribution as great as those of David Ricardo or Carl Menger, and in key respects may excel Adam Smith himself. This is the absolute must-read of the year (and I am tickled pink to report that I got to read it in manuscript form prior to its publication).
2. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Peter Thiel with Blake Masters
And come to think of it, this was probably the second best book of the year (though you’ll have to pre-order it, because it’s not generally available yet). Zero to One is a distillation of my old boss Peter Thiel’s class “Startup” which he taught at Stanford in Spring 2012. It is a tour de force: perhaps not all, but more than enough for most folks, of Peter’s accumulated wisdom on how to succeed where most people fail.
To quote from the book’s description (helpful to understand the title):
Thiel starts from the bold premise that we live in an age of technological stagnation, even if we’re too distracted by our new mobile devices to notice. Progress has stalled in every industry except computers, and globalization is hardly the revolution people think it is. It’s true that the world can get marginally richer by building new copies of old inventions, making horizontal progress from “1 to n.” But true innovators have nothing to copy. The most valuable companies of the future will make vertical progress from “0 to 1,” creating entirely new industries and products that have never existed before. Zero to One is about how to build these companies.
Like my brilliant friend George Gilder, Peter Thiel is a true brainiac. He’s a deep thinker and he says nothing casually. While George and I are a lot more optimistic about the world than Peter, you disregard Peter’s thinking at your own risk. This book is a treasure.
3. Puritan Economic Experiments, Gary North
Not everyone realizes that America’s early Christian settlers were advocates of Big Government, but they were…at least until they started starving. The Pilgrims dropped the common storehouse within two years, reversing the self-inflicted famine that nearly wiped them out. The Puritans who settled the rest of New England learned not to repeat that mistake, but failed to appreciate the underlying principle. They held the colony’s lands in common, placed extensive controls on the purchase and sale not only of lands but of most personal property as well, imposed wage and price controls, and even regulated who was permitted to wear what sorts of clothing. They were not Marxists — Marx hadn’t been born yet, and they were simply transplanting the accumulated traditions of medieval Europe to their new environs — but they were certainly socialists.
To the degree that they failed to jettison their socialism, they failed period. Reformed churches often lament that Puritan Massachusetts largely apostatized within three generations. They fail to grasp that perhaps the biggest reason for this was that the flock lost faith in its leaders on the most practical of levels. Statism requires some ability to keep most of its victims within the state’s control. But the New World was a boundless frontier, and all one had to do to escape the state’s control was…leave. Across the next ridge, anyone could start a new town, or even a new colony. This gave the statists something they could and can never withstand: competition.
That competition proved the undoing of the Puritan commonwealth and the genesis of the Yankee trader. The issue was not personal piety: it was economics. Like many Christian pastors today, the Puritans did not see proper application of the Bible’s teachings on economics as important. But like many rank-and-file Christians today, this just proved the pastors were horribly out of touch with reality, and worse, with the life-and-death needs of real people.
Puritan Economic Experiments is a fascinating look at early American history, at the failings of socialism, at the rise of the American free market consensus, and perhaps most crucially, at the danger posed by pastors who can’t see beyond the end of their own noses. Their myopia places all of Christendom at risk.
4. The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California, Richard Rayner
For viewers of AMC’s popular Hell on Wheels, a refresher course on the realities of the construction of the transcontinental railroad may be in order. But The Associates is far more than just that. This short biography of the founders of the Central Pacific — Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins — is the story of the establishment of California and one of the greatest entrepreneurial visions of all time.
A short 224 pages, this volume is accessible to anyone, but certainly leaves much unstated: Governor Stanford is particularly denied proper attention, which is a noticeable shame. The author manages to mostly avoid the normal “robber baron” cliches, but his leftist bent does come through at points.
Nevertheless, for a quick reintroduction to one of America’s greatest stories, The Associates delivers.
5. The Top 10 Distinctions Between Millionaires and the Middle Class, Keith Cameron Smith
We read this aloud in small doses over several weeks with our staff. Smith believes that the main difference between people who have and people who don’t is how they think about themselves and the world, and that insight alone would be worth many times the price of this short book. To most successful people, there’s little here that isn’t old hat. To the vast majority of everyone else, this is groundbreaking, highly challenging stuff. And since it is motivating and worthwhile for absolutely everyone, it makes this year’s list.
6. The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care), Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer
Yes, you should have already read this. But you probably need to read it again. I did, and do.
In this 2010 best seller, Schrager and Witwer compellingly make the case that Colorado’s flip from red to blue was neither accidental nor easily contained: rather, it was a prototype for the nation. In just a few years, Democrats built the political infrastructure to take control at every level of a deeply red state, even while Republicans were still in the ascendancy. There is much to be learned from this, for both sides.
One highlight: there’s a lot to be learned by Republican money men. Hint: Tim Gill, like George Soros, is way smarter than you. All of you. Fortunately, you can read The Blueprint to catch back up.
7. The Cure in the Code: How 20th Century Law is Undermining 21st Century Medicine, Peter W. Huber
Huber is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, used to teach engineering at MIT, and clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor. So he knows his stuff. And what he says is, our legal and regulatory systems are killing you. Literally.
In Huber’s view, there have never been two scientific revolutions of the scope and power of the digital and biochemical ones now underway at one time; but our government, thinking and acting in ways that were of questionable appropriateness decades ago, is holding these back with deadly cost. Fixing this will be difficult. Succeeding in fixing this will mean longer, better lives, vastly cheaper health care, and global leadership across an array of subjects for the nation that gets its act together first. That last bit, of course, is problematic, because only America is likely to do it, and America isn’t very likely to do it.
Huber is well worth reading, and more yet, acting upon. This is a topic that will only grow in importance. Technologists outside medicine and political types as well need to start paying close attention.
8. America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century-Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come, James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus, with a forward by Glenn Reynolds
I have good friends on both sides of this book, both strongly for and pretty strongly against. Which is exactly why you should read it. When men of the intellectual firepower just cited — who are otherwise in agreement on a vast number of things — find something worthy of so much vehemence, you need to know about it, and ponder.
You would need to anyway. Jim Bennett is, among other things, the Anglosphere guy, and that would be reason enough to read this next installment in his thought. And America 3.0 is a powerful reminder, if nothing else, that the gloom-and-doomers have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. Like Joel Kotkin and George Friedman (not to mention Julian Simon), Bennett and Lotus point out just how great a reservoir of strength America draws upon (Friedman would add to this, albeit implicitly, that that’s true even in an America that retains none of its distinctive ideas). But more than that, they lay out a highly interesting blueprint for a better America that enables not just a better future for our children but a better world for everyone.
Agree or disagree. But give it a read.
9. Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor
Okay, I admit: this is totally cheating, first because it’s a classic and most Christians should have read it by now, and of course because it’s far from the first time I’ve read it. Plus, it’s a condensed version of the Taylor’s two-volume biography of the famous founder of the China Inland Mission (which itself is well worthy of reading yearly, a luxury for which I don’t have the time, but which some pastors do).
Cheat or no cheat, aside from the Bible, this is one of the best books of any year. The Taylors (son and daughter-in-law of their subject) do not merely chronicle biographical details but rather focus intently on Hudson Taylor’s prayer life and its consequences. The great missionary, like his contemporary George Müler, believed intently that we serve a personal God who adopts us as sons and daughters and loves us as a Father; and for this reason, he prayed as a son asking sustenance from a parent, refusing to ask his fellowman even for contributions to his ministry. Yes, he never held a fundraiser, or even did a direct mail piece. Wow. And trusting God entirely for his provision at all times and in all situations, Taylor saw his ministry blessed beyond his wildest imaginings, as CIM placed and funded hundreds of missionaries across every province of a previously unreached China.
Not bad for a guy who started with less than nothing, and never asked any human for anything.
This book is challenging, inspiring, and a must re-read. (And before anyone says it, no, neither Taylor nor I are or were then suggesting that God requires this approach; but Taylor lived it, and I have found that like Earthly fathers, God greatly appreciates and rewards our childlike trust in Him.)
10. The Doctrine of the Christian Life, John M. Frame
This is the third volume in Frame’s four-part systematic theology, and at 1104 pages I’m not pretending it’s for everybody.
But it should be. Frame is one of the great theologians of our time, and this book is extremely accessible to the average reader. It combines the highest standards of scholarship with the highest possible fidelity to Scripture in addressing, clearly and readably, the demands God does and does not place upon us. If you want to know how Christians are supposed to live, generally or in any particular detail, this is a great place to start.
Among other things, Frame goes point by point through the Ten Commandments, explaining what they do and do not require. If I have any criticism of this, it is principally that he spends too brief a time with the Tenth Commandment, which I increasingly see as the capstone and climax of the ten, rather than the afterthought we generally view it as being. Indeed, in the Tenth we see (as Frame points out) the bridge to Jesus’ thinking in the Sermon on the Mount; but I believe it is far more than that still. I will have to write a great deal more on this in due course.
In any case, that’s not just the Tenth Commandment, but ten books, and that should be plenty for anyone, at least today. Sherri needs me elsewhere and I need to quit writing now; plus, there’s just so much more to read! So from all of us here at Grace Hall, our very best wishes for your 2014, and may God bless you and our nation in the year to come.