1. Turing's Cathedral (George Dyson, 2012). I wrote a little review of it here; this is a book about the invention and early development of computers, particularly the one built at the Institute for Advanced Studies. This one easily takes the top of the list; anyone who is not fascinated by John Von Neumann is crazy (not to mention Nicholas Metropolis, Julian Bigelow, and Alan Turing). There is plenty for everyone here; it appealed to me as an economist but also due to my (embarrassingly amateur) interest in math, computer programming, and history (lots of great WWII and Cold War stuff). It also hits a lot of other topics ranging from biology to weather forecasting. Read this book.
2. The President's Club (Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, 2012). This is a book about relationships between presidents--past, present, and future. For example, I did not know about the interesting relationship between Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman. Some readers may be surprised to learn that Nixon was a key adviser to not only Reagan but also Clinton, who said that the death of Nixon was like the death of his mother to him (being among the Nixon-obsessed, I liked this vignette). Like everything I read about him, this lowered my opinion of Eisenhower. The book is full of interesting stories and reminded me that these are actually decent human beings when they're not trying to get elected to something--the post-Presidents are often likable, reliable, and useful to current presidents, regardless of past fights or the partisan divide.
3. Bismarck: A Life (Jonathan Steinberg, 2011). See Henry Kissinger's review here. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The narrative is engaging, and the characters are fascinating--Bismarck most of all. If you like European history, diplomatic history, biographies of incredible people, etc., you will like this book.
4. The Signal and the Noise (Nate Silver, 2012). Silver is probably overhyped by now, but it was nice watching him embarrass the pundit establishment. The book is very good, providing perspectives on forecasting from many fields including weather, sports (of course), economics, and many others. It is a very readable, nontechnical discussion, though it does ask readers to learn Bayes Rule (as everyone should). I will add the caveat that while his discussion of economic forecasting seems mostly fair to me, he did leave out a newer class of models (Bayesian DSGE) that seem to be improving forecasts. This book is a quick read, and I think most people with interest in even a few of the fields he covers would enjoy it.
5. Unintended Consequences (Edward Conard, 2012). Ignore the ridiculous subtitle; I reviewed this book here. I liked this book. It helped me get better economic intuition, though his discussion of monetary economics is wanting (and a few other topics can be sketchy, like his weird theory about inequality). Conard combines a lot of high-level business experience with a pretty strong academic economics bibliography. I wouldn't recommend it as the only book you ever read on economics, but I would recommend it as one important component of a popular press approach to the subject. And before you assume he's another conservative hack (my initial assumption), be aware that this is heavy on analysis and hits both American political factions pretty hard on some of their more ridiculous stances (e.g., progressives on taxation and conservatives on immigration).
- Grand Pursuit (Silvia Nasar, 2011). This may have made my top five if I could remember it better.
- Hypocrites and Half-Wits (Donald Boudreaux, 2012). This one probably deserves a spot in the top five, but it's a very different kind of book. You must buy it. I reviewed it here.
- Fairness and Freedom (David Hackett Fischer, 2012). I enjoyed this one because I have ties to New Zealand and read a lot of NZ history, but I'm puzzled to see it on so many other top books lists. The approach was too contrived--NZ and the US just don't make for great comparisons. The US is too big and diverse in terms not only of institutions but also people (including indigenous people). I would recommend this book to my friends with ties to NZ but probably not many others.