1. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (Penguin, $20). A monumental achievement. Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, draws on 5,000 years of historical evidence to explain in fascinating detail how violence has declined across human history. More broadly, he shows that human beings have learned to treat each other better in general.
2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16). Most "idea books" are bloated essays; this one, from a Nobel Prize–winning economist, is worth reading all the way through. Kahneman offers a fascinating set of ideas about how human beings think and reason, for better and worse.
3. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt (Vintage, $16). A brilliant mixture of political philosophy and sociology. According to Haidt, two reasonable people can find themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum based on the relative importance each assigns to just six values. The book explains why we embrace certain ideologies better than any other I've read.
4. Civilization by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, $18). I love big, sweeping history, and this account of the West's rise to global dominance is one of the best recent examples. As always with Ferguson, you can disagree with him and still admire his work for being smart, provocative, and well written.
5. The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama (Free Press, $16). This book grew out of a celebrated 1989 essay, published as the Cold War was ending. Fukuyama's ideas are often caricatured, mischaracterized, and misunderstood, but his basic point here still holds. We have witnessed the end of a great centuries-old ideological debate over the right way to organize societies, especially economies. We are still living in the world Fukuyama described.
6. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (Random House, $28). Here's something lighter — ideas you can use! Duhigg's examination of how people get caught in loops of frequently counterproductive behavior is entertaining and can help you develop good habits. Who doesn't need that?
— Author and syndicated columnist Fareed Zakaria is celebrating his fifth year as host of the weekly foreign-affairs program Fareed Zakaria GPS, broadcast globally on CNN each Sunday. His most recent book is The Post-American World.