21 Books to Read in 2012

Foreign Policy picks the books that will matter in the year ahead. Get that Kindle warmed up.


If 2011 was the year of the “tell-some” Bush administration memoir, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for a somewhat spicier new year in printed matter. And by all accounts, it seems promising: From riveting narratives of the bloody Arab Spring to Pulitzer-prize reporting from India and Lebanon to an inside look at Gen. David Petraeus — and hopefully another scorcher from Michael Hastings — FP‘s editors are looking forward to a crop of smart books slated for publication next year. Here’s our pick of the best 21.

Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation by Ashraf Khalil (Jan. 3)

Cairo-based reporter and FP contributor Ashraf Khalil was in the thick of the Egyptian revolution when it broke out in January. Nearly a year later, Khalil looks back at the time he spent among the masses in Tahrir Square — where he withstood angry mobs and tear gas attacks — in this eyewitness account of the movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak.



The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings (Jan. 5)

Now famous for the bombshell 2010 Rolling Stone article that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired, Michael Hastings picks up where he left off with a behind-the-scenes look at the war in Afghanistan. His reports from top-brass planning sessions and late-night bar conversations leave the author questioning the strategy and long-term prospects of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power (A Memoir) by Wael Ghonim (Jan. 17)

Wael Ghonim — the young Google marketer whose Facebook and Twitter posts helped spark the Egyptian Revolution, and whose emotional release from captivity incited even further resistance to Mubarak — offers his take on the social media-driven protests in Tahrir Square, which he famously called “revolution 2.0.”



All In: The Education of General David Petraeus by Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb (Jan. 24)

Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq war surge and counterinsurgency strategy, is arguably among the most influential U.S. generals in history. After embedding with him in Afghanistan, military expert Paula Broadwell, with Washington Post editor Vernon Loeb, traces Petraeus’s life from his training to his retirement, ultimately assessing his long-term impact on U.S. military strategy.

Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzezinski (Jan. 24)

Three decades after he served as Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski is still an active foreign-policy player at age 83. His new book argues that global stability is at serious risk in an age of American decline and that the United States must strategically engage with the rising East if it is to reverse this course.




Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (Feb. 7)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Katherine Boo has earned advance praise for this book from the likes of Amartya Sen, Barbara Ehrenreich, Tracy Kidder, and David Sedaris. Drawing on three years of reporting in India, Boo portrays the Mumbai slum of Annawadi, whose residents grapple with poverty, corruption, and discrimination in the shadow of India’s rising economy.

The End Game: The Hidden History of America’s Struggle to Build Democracy in Iraq by Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor (Feb. 7)

With access to top U.S. and Iraqi officials, Gordon, chief military correspondent for the New York Times, and Trainor, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, offer their definitive history of the military, political, and diplomatic struggles of the Iraq war. The authors’ previous book, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, was a national bestseller.



Power, Inc: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government — and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead by David Rothkopf (Feb. 28)

Many companies today have revenues higher than the GDPs of small countries. The number of Wal-Mart employees worldwide is higher than the populations of nearly 100 nations. How did we get here? In his latest book, heavy-hitting FP blogger David Rothkopf explores the rise of private power and its implications for governments and economies in the years ahead.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy by Andrew Preston (Feb. 29)

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush described the struggle in part through the lens of religion. “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world,” he said. “It is God’s gift to humanity.” Although Bush was criticized for mixing faith and diplomacy, Cambridge historian Andrew Preston argues that, in fact, religion has always been a motivating factor in American foreign policy — a case he makes in this history spanning from colonial times to the present day.

The Short American Century: A Postmortem, edited by Andrew J. Bacevich (March 19)

In the February 1941 issue of Life, Henry Luce declared the arrival of the “American Century.” But, following years of economic decline and military blunders, that “century” has ended — at least according to Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and Boston University international relations professor. In this so-called postmortem, Bacevich offers essays from historians seeking to explain America’s rise to preeminence, its subsequent decline, and, now, its legacy.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (March 20)

Why are some countries wealthier than others? Drawing from historical and modern-day examples, Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist, and James Robinson, a Harvard political scientist, argue that troubled nations will not emerge from poverty solely by implementing recommendations from international organizations or through foreign aid. Economic success, the authors say, is fundamentally a product of granting political power to citizens.



Finance and the Good Society by Robert Shiller (March 21)

Yale economist Robert Shiller recently told the New York Times that teaching a class on financial markets in the wake of the 2008 crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement is “a little like teaching R.O.T.C. during the Vietnam War.” Though his book doesn’t apologize for Wall Street’s slipups, it defends the virtues of finance as a tool to manage society’s assets, ultimately for good.

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden (March 29)

Despite all the attention North Korea has received following Kim Jong Il’s death, the country largely remains a mystery to the outside world. Harden, a former Washington Post correspondent in northeast Asia and an FP contributor, sets out to expose the cruelty of Kim’s totalitarian rule through the story of a rare escapee from one of the Dear Leader’s political prison camps.



House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid (March 27)

Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times, tells of his two-year effort to restore a decaying estate built by his great-grandfather in South Lebanon. Over the course of the project, the author contemplates his family’s history in the Middle East, where Shadid has reported for 15 years, and the region’s current turmoil.

Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles by Ruchir Sharma (April 9)

All that hype about rising economies like China’s, Russia’s, and Brazil’s? This book says it’s overblown. According to Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, the world’s up-and-coming economies have weaknesses that will slow them down, while the real rising stars — think Indonesia, Nigeria, and Poland — have been overshadowed.




Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World by Ian Bremmer (May 1)

As U.S. power wanes, FP blogger Ian Bremmer sees no strong candidates to assume America’s leadership role on the world stage: China lacks the will, European countries lack the money, and rising economies such as Brazil, India, and Russia still face internal obstacles. Hence, the “G-zero” world. Bremmer explores what this shakeup will mean, predicting intensified conflict over financial regulation, trade, and climate issues.

Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands, edited by Shahzad Bashir and Robert D. Crews (May 14)

This book aims to dispel Western notions that Afghanistan and Pakistan are backwards societies flailing and in need of intervention. Two Stanford professors have collected essays from journalists, economists, and academics — rooted in on-the-ground observations and firsthand knowledge — that provide a counterpoint to simplified media reports.



The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future by Gerard Lemos (May 29)

China’s economy may be rising, but the image of a country living in harmony and prosperity is a government-manufactured myth, according to Gerard Lemos. For this book, the London-based social policy expert and government advisor interviewed hundreds of Chinese residents of the megacity Chongqing, where he encountered a people who are frustrated and broken, burdened by social and financial anxieties.

Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 by Leon Aron (June 26)

As Leon Aron wrote in FP in July, much of what we think we know about the fall of the Soviet Union is wrong. In this forthcoming book, the American Enterprise Institute scholar explains the collapse anew, exploring the shift in moral and intellectual values that emerged in the glasnost era, and explaining how these values were disseminated.



Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars Is More Important Than Winning Them by David Keen (July 31)

Why does war continue to break out — and then drag on — despite how costly it is known to be? According to London School of Economics professor David Keen, the answer lies in understanding who benefits when conflict arises, economically, politically, or otherwise. Approaching wars in this way, he concludes, will ultimately help us figure out how to end them.

The Arab Uprising: The Wave of Protest that Toppled the Status Quo and the Struggle for a New Middle East by Marc Lynch by Marc Lynch (March 27)

After spearheading much of FP’s blog analysis of the Arab Spring, Marc Lynch is primed for his new book exploring the long-term impact of the movement that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Lynch, who directs George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, finds that while the political shape of much of the Arab World is still in flux, the countries affected by the Arab Spring — and the West — are merely beginning to understand just how powerful the force of public opinion in the region is — and will be.

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