Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow (Princeton, $42). Think you can make high-risk technology disaster-proof? Think again. Published after Three Mile Island but before Chernobyl, this 1984 book is the seminal work on how the best-planned safety measures fail, often catastrophically.
Everything Is Obvious by Duncan J. Watts (Crown, $16). We like to think that success is just a matter of hard work, good character, and solid planning. Sociologist Duncan Watts demonstrates how often it actually depends on factors we can't possibly foresee or control — and how our 20/20 hindsight makes us think otherwise.
Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott (Yale, $23). Scott analyzes why so many grand-scale government projects, from planning cities to reforming agriculture, go so awry. This is often thought of as a libertarian book, but every corporate employee will feel a shock of recognition.
How We Got Here by David Frum (Basic, $19). This is one of my favorite books for both the breadth of its subject and its pellucid prose. The 1970s was a dark decade for America: cultural upheaval, economic stagnation, political crisis. How we boogied our way out of it and into the modern era is an extraordinary tale that Frum tells with rare skill.
When Brute Force Fails by Mark A.R. Kleiman (Princeton, $26). Starting in the 1970s, a society fed up with crime responded by throwing harsher and harsher sentences at criminals. Kleiman shows why this approach didn't work, and how we can punish less harshly but more effectively. This is not touchy-feely criminal coddling: Kleiman offers solid evidence that we can have more rehabilitation and less crime at a lower cost.
The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery (out of print). It's wonderfully freeing to read the often acerbic and morose thoughts of the woman behind Anne of Green Gables. Though Montgomery struggled with a manic-depressive husband and the often-tedious duties of a minister's wife, she wrote books filled with happy endings and gentle humor, delighting untold millions of girls around the world.
— Megan McArdle is a columnist for Bloomberg View and the author of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.