Religious Practices and Political Life in Cambodia Today

April 1, 2016

Religious Practices and Political Life in Cambodia Today

by Sok Keang

Cambodia  is a Southeast Asian country that borders Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Her official name is “Kingdom of Cambodia”. The name of the country was changed very often in the last three decades depending on the changes of the forms of government. Cambodia was a monarchy from ancient times until 1970, when she became a republic . It was only in 1993 that Cambodia could reestablish the Kingdom again by following the constitutional parliamentary system. Along with this, Cambodia is also known as a Buddhist country . In the 1960’s about 95% of the total population are Buddhists. The facts show that the Cambodian political culture has its roots in the combination of Buddhist culture, monarchism, and republicanism.

Regarding the topic of the Conference, which focuses on the relation between religions and cultures in Southeast Asia, I would like to share in this conference the relation between Theravada Buddhism  and the political culture of Cambodia by examining how the people behave, believe, expect, and value the political system and political issues. Furthermore, I will also examine how the process of transformation from the authoritarian to the liberal-democratic regime influences the Cambodian political integration in 1993.

Religious Practices in Cambodia

According to the 1993 Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, “Buddhism shall be the State Religion” (see article 43). Due to this article, most people identify themselves with the saying: “To be a Khmer  is to be a Buddhist”. However, in practice they believe not only in Buddhism, but also in Brahmanism (Vedas)  and Animism (Nakta)  under the name of Theravada Buddhism. This is a traditional heritage from the 13th century A.D.  when Theravada Buddhism was the dominant religion in Cambodia. Some people have the image of Buddha as Preah Indra (God). They expect to receive happiness, peace, prosperity, and power from Him. A contrary view of this version is the belief that Buddha is a Great Master (philosopher) and Buddhism is a philosophy of life. Therefore, Buddhism in Cambodia could appear in the forms of “Philosophy”, “Religion”, and “Native Belief” (animism).

As a philosophy, Buddhism plays a secular role in order to lead all humankind to live in equality, justice, peace, and freedom. According to the Buddhist tradition, the pagoda was not only the sacred place but also a school of education. In the past, most Cambodian people got their education in the Buddhist temples. The more you were educated, the more you became a Buddhist. Without knowledge, one might stay away from Buddhism.

As a religion, Buddhism plays the role of Brahmanism instead of the Buddhist philosophy. Here, people believe in the superpower of Buddha as a Creator. Even though they know that the theory of Karma and Rebirth take the role of God and the individual should try to liberate himself by following the ethics of Buddha, still they pray for help from Heaven. It is really different from what Buddha taught. Anyway, this is just the way of practicing Buddhism in Cambodia.

Concerning the belief in Nakta, people see the role of Nakta as an ancestral local spiritual governor (administrator) who has power to judge for social justice, to bring peace, security, prosperity, health, and happiness to society as well as to the succeeding generations in a specific or limited territory.

As you see here, the Buddhist monks serve the society at both secular (moral conduct)  and spiritual (religious practice)  levels. However, Christianity and Islam were considered as foreign religions. Therefore, it was rather difficult for the Cambodian people to appreciate the Christian and Muslim philosophy. Nevertheless, the young people of Cambodia today are very much open to ideologies of the non-Buddhist background, especially Christian philosophy. This fact shows that the practice of Buddhism in Cambodia is going to decrease compared to Christianity and Islam. So, what is the relation between Buddhism and the political culture?

Relation between Buddhism and Political Culture in Cambodia

According to the present political perspective, the root of the Cambodian political culture today is based on the combination of Buddhism, monarchism, and republicanism . It is a result of observing the long process of making peace and integrating the nation in Cambodia during the civil wars for almost three decades (1970-97). This fact shows that when the government denies any one of these three political elements of Buddhism, monarchism, and republicanism (aristocracy or democracy), the country would face a civil war and collapse. For example, the Pol Pot regime (1975-79) collapsed because it denied the role and value of the King, the elite people, and all kinds of religious practices, especially Buddhism.

However, in reality there is a group of people who support monarchism because they believe in the power of Heaven to choose the leader instead of believing in their role, duty, and freedom to choose a leader and participate in politics. As a result they became instruments of politics. This group might fight against other groups such as the aristocrats (elites) and the democrats (majority) wherein people actively participate freely and equally in the world of politics. This is a very important part in the study of the current Cambodian political culture.

On the other side, the Khmer language  also causes in part the political problem. The Cambodian people believe that “the death of the language is the death of the culture and the nation.” The Khmer language  determines the moral conduct, the social order, and the way of thinking of the people. So, protecting the language is very important to them. For example, in 1943 the French18  tried to change the Khmer alphabet to the Roman alphabet, but this was defeated because the Cambodian people, especially the Buddhist monks, objected.

However, there is no longer a need to limit oneself to the Khmer language in view of the process of globalization and the free market economy. These new ideologies have influenced the young generation to open up, by saying: “If you know how to speak English, then you will survive wherever you are”.

We can also discuss the problems facing most of Cambodian society today, such as the issues on property, the relation between freedom and equality, and the conflict between democracy and communism.

The issue of property. According to the Buddhist teachings, the worth of a person is not based on one’s economic background or social class. No matter how rich one is or how smart he or she is, if one does not know how to behave oneself in society, then he or she is nothing to the people  even if he or she is a powerful politician. Actually, the people expect to have a good leader who is smart and rich but not corrupt. The people believe that the rich uncorrupted person must either be reborn as rich or s/he was rich in moral values from his/her past moral life; so that if s/he is born poor, s/he can obtain wealth in the present life. And this type of person, which is characterized as morally good, should serve as the leader.

In relation to the land conflict, the significance of Buddhist philosophy appears in Cambodian society through the question: “Does the Earth belong to the person or does the person belong to the Earth?” Some are inclined even to ask the question: “Can a man take all his property with him when he dies?”

Freedom and equality. Most people wish to have freedom and equality in their own society, especially in a democratic country. But somehow they cannot have both equality and freedom because either “one is free but unequal” or “equal but unfree”. According to the Buddhist teaching, social equality is important . For those who believe in Buddhism as a philosophy, he would agree with the theory of social equality. This type of person wishes to live in a society without discrimination, without the caste system. The Buddhists might support socialism, communism, liberalism, or democracy. For example, in true communism the people can be equal in material services and benefits, but unfree in the sense of being controlled by an authoritarian leadership. On the other hand, in true democracy the people are free in their choices but cannot be equal in material possessions and benefits.

But for those who believe in Buddhism as a religion, they would follow Brahmanism in the Buddhist sense. This type of people believe in the saying: men are unequal by birth or they believe in the caste system. They support monarchism which can be constitutional or absolute. The monarchy expects a society with a hierarchy: the king is the head and the people are the subjects. This means that the people are unequal in view of the hierarchical structure and at the same time unfree in the sense that they are subjects. However, the Cambodian Buddhists as subjects can be free in the sense of being not alienated from the monarchy if they acknowledge and accept the fact they are subjects within the structure of the hierarchy. Presently, Cambodia practices constitutional (parliamentary) monarchy. The Cambodians believe that without social structure or hierarchy, man would live in anarchism. In Cambodian society, the people expect to have freedom and equality with respect to social structure, position, and duty. One would have freedom if he or she can maintain the balance between title, role, duty, and responsibility.

Democracy versus Communism. Some political leaders believe that Buddhism is the root of democracy while others consider Buddhism as the root of communism. They explain that when democracy reaches the level of the absolute majority (the common will or 100%), democracy will be transformed into communism because democracy could exist only when there are differences between the majority and the minority. Ideally, democracy and communism are almost the same in the sense that they have similar aspirations in terms of equality, freedom, social justice, brotherhood, and the like. They differ only substantially in terms of property ownership and political leadership. The Cambodian Buddhist believes in a political culture that accepts both private and public property. We expect to have private property with regard to basic needs. But we expect to have public property with regard to the national ideology.


Since the role of Buddhism in Cambodia appears in the forms of philosophy, religion, and animism, the value of the political culture is also different. The majority are the group that believes in Buddhism as a religion and the minority are the group that considers Buddhism as a philosophy. The Middle Path of Buddhism guides both politicians and the people: the politicians, to be moderate in their political life, and the people, to participate in politics through correct balance or the Middle Path. This is the philosophy of the “Head-Wing,” which accepts both sides: the left and the right with the center or the Middle Path as dominant.

We might get confused in theory when we analyze the political system and political issues of the Kingdom of Cambodia. According to the classical theory, democracy was against monarchy and in modern times the republic is also considered the antithesis of the monarchy. In the case of Cambodia, however, there is a constitutional (parliamentary) monarchy whereby democracy exists “under the roof” of the monarchy. The only way to solve the political conflict in Cambodia is to integrate all aspects of society so they become one unitary formation.

Philosophy Department
Royal University of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Food for Thought: The Harvard MBA’s Soul Goal

March 13, 2016

Food for Thought: The Harvard MBA’s Soul Goal

So, he’s going off to Harvard, in search of that Promethean fire, hoping he might bring it to the dark places, to shine a little light that might otherwise never shine. And if he’s lucky enough to one day live the simple, luxurious life of the Mexican fisherman, his reward will be twice as sweet knowing that he didn’t just build a better life for himself, he built a better world for us.

A friend of mine was recently accepted to Harvard Business School for his MBA. In jest, my friend’s family brought to his attention the story of the Mexican fisherman and the Harvard MBA. It can be found here and goes like this:

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while.”

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat, with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then?”

The American laughed and said that’s the best part. “When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions . . . . Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

I enjoy stories like this. They’re useful for putting our world in perspective and for challenging what we might think are solid assumptions. Assumptions like the Harvard MBA is wiser than the subsistence fisherman, or the world would be better off if everyone could be educated at Ivy League schools. But what about the moral of this story? I read the story as extolling the virtue of the simple life and the folly of ambition. Who’s the fool: the fisherman or the MBA? So, I started thinking about my friend, the future Harvard MBA. Will he be wasting the next few years going a hundred thousand dollars in debt and studying hard just so he can make all the money he needs to one day enjoy the life of a subsistence fisherman? Maybe. But if he just wants to fish, he can fish – what’s the difference to us? Perhaps the more important question is: Would we be better off if he just followed the fisherman’s approach? No. He might be better off, but we wouldn’t.

I originally planned to argue meticulously that a well-functioning economic system requires specialization and increased productivity. The description of the fisherman’s life is enticing to be sure, but why? For me, it’s playing guitar, sipping wine, enjoying my family and friends – that is why I envy the fisherman’s life. But, of course, such a life requires a guitar. Who made the guitar? The fisherman? No. Someone else had to spend a lot of time and energy learning how to make the guitar. Who made the wine? Probably a vintner who learned the process and dedicated many months to making a few bottles. What about the kids? I guess we know who made them, but who keeps them healthy? When they get sick, the fisherman surely wants someone with medicinal expertise to make them better. Anyway, my point was going to be that without the guitar-makers, vintners and doctors, the fisherman can’t enjoy his relaxing life. “Man does not live on [fish] alone . . . .” And, similarly, without fishermen selling excess fish, the guitar-makers, vintners and doctors can’t enjoy smoked salmon or a $9 tuna fish sandwich. Specialization increases individual productivity so one person can provide another with the things that are needed to make even the Mexican subsistence fisherman’s life an enticing one. But, I don’t think that’s my strongest argument against the “lesson” this story tries to teach us.

The story’s moral fails because it assumes the Harvard MBA goes to school and works hard for years with the sole goal of self-gain. The MBA is the fool and the fisherman the wise man because the MBA studies hard so he can pay thousands to attend a top school, so he can then study harder and one day come up with a business plan that will allow him to work ridiculously hard for years, so that eventually he can relax with his friends and family in a tropical clime. What dupe would think this is a good plan? Anyone who simply wants to live a relaxing life with friends should know you don’t have to go to Harvard for that. You don’t need your MBA – you don’t even need your bachelor’s degree. If that’s what you want, you move to Mexico and buy a fishing net – have at it. But some people seek something more – and our communal obligation demands more – than a relaxing life with their friends. Their sole goal isn’t self-gain, they understand that the goal is soul, and they rest easier, laugh harder, and sleep deeper knowing they’ve provided for more than simply their own immediate needs.

Sure, there are plenty of people who would be content with the subsistence fisherman’s lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, if we could all be content with such a lifestyle – one that has little or no negative influence on our world – it would be a great thing. But, there are lots of other choices for people besides fisherman and MBA. For instance: thief, liar, cheater, murderer, manipulator, plunderer. When someone chooses one of those things to be instead of fisherman, an imbalance results. We have a bunch of fishermen fishing and sipping wine with their friends, while the thief steals, the liar lies, the murderer murders. After awhile the fisherman himself has his guitar stolen, the person he thought was his friend turns out to be a liar, and the simple, beautiful life he carved out for himself is ruined by the murderers, manipulators and plunderers. In our world, those people exist. So, if we have any hope of progress from one generation to the next, we need people to step up, let someone else catch the fish and sip the wine, and return balance to the world equation. We need people with gifts to set those gifts on the positive side of the scale and push down hard. That way those still fishing for themselves and sipping wine can continue living the good life, happily unaffected by the lying liars, cheating cheaters and plundering plunderers.

If my friend was just looking out for himself – if all he wanted was to live the good life of the subsistence fisherman – Harvard would be a mistake. But he wants to be more than someone who takes care of his own. He wants to do something to make our world better, for fishermen, guitar-makers, vintners, and even MBAs. So, he’s going off to Harvard, in search of that Promethean fire, hoping he might bring it to the dark places, to shine a little light that might otherwise never shine. And if he’s lucky enough to one day live the simple, luxurious life of the Mexican fisherman, his reward will be twice as sweet knowing that he didn’t just build a better life for himself, he built a better world for us.

Ideal Pragmatism, or Pragmatic Idealism

March 13, 2016

Ideal Pragmatism, or Pragmatic Idealism

Thomas Jefferson (left) and George Washington
I just finished reading two rocking books by Joseph J. Ellis: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and His Excellency: George Washington. Both were eminently readable factual and psychological histories of who I’d argue are the two most important founding fathers.

Washington and Jefferson, at first blush, seem like they could have been cut from the same cloth. Both were upper-class Virginia planters, running multiple tracts of land in the way of the contemporary planter society. Both were tall, physically impressive, enjoyed surveying their lands from horseback, and exemplified the manners and civility that were supposed to characterize the leading men of Virginian society. They both shared a dislike of the British society that gave birth to their colony, Washington detesting British condescension, and Jefferson abhorring the corrupted nature of their economy that sacrificed the first principles of republican government. They were also both in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, where they helped fuel the fire that would combine with its New England brother to spark the rebellion that turned to a revolution. The revolution itself was securely fastened to both men. The military enterprise would have languished without a unifying leader if Washington had not accepted command of the Continental Army; and the ideals for which that army was to fight found their voice in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. But the similarities pretty much end there.

As much as the two men were on the same team – Jefferson even served as Washington’s first Secretary of State – these Virginian patriarchs represented the political poles necessary to assure the principled survival of the nascent American nation. Washington, ever the military man, saw the birth and building of the new nation as a set of problems whose solutions had one goal: survival. Not that he did not have his ideals, but Washington was primarily concerned with creating the environment in which ideals could be achieved, or at least pursued. Jefferson, on the other extreme, would sacrifice all order and stability in the name of the republican ideals he espoused. His declaration that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” was a true measure of his allegiance to ideals only, not men or their governments. In modern musical terms, Jefferson was the lead singer, providing the melody and the lyric to the Revolution, while Washington was the virtuoso one-man-band, providing the rhythm, bass and chords through which Jefferson’s lyrics could be heard. But unlike a rock’n’roll band, the lead singer was never the biggest star. Washington, the stoic man of action, was the singular hero of the revolution and enjoyed unmatched celebrity status. Even Jefferson acknowledged Washington as his unquestioned superior (until Jefferson began to think Washington’s faculties were abandoning him during his second term).

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Washingtonian figure to unify our polarized country today? Or at least to have a Jeffersonian figure to give voice to the values we all hold dear? The problem is that these days we haven’t been able to coalesce around one, all-important issue. For Washington, the issues were independence and survival. When those were your goals, Washington was your undisputed leader. For Jefferson, republicanism, the building of an independent, agrarian society where political power was diffused among ward-republics, was the cause he personified. But once those issues began to fade, so faded the broad support for their leaders. Even Washington was the subject of harsh criticism (especially from Jefferson and his Republican allies) during his second term. Jefferson’s second term was even harder, as events beyond his control ruined his ability to erode the size of government and make way for the ward-republics.
Once we get that all-important issue, hopefully we’ll also find our next Washington or Jefferson. It happened with Lincoln in the 1860s and Roosevelt (twice, really) in the 1930s and ’40s. So, what will be the next big thing? Global warming? A new economic meltdown? Another war? Energy policy? Perhaps all of the above. Maybe we’ll have to find someone who can unify us around all the big issues. Maybe that’s the real task for our next Washington or Jefferson.

The Data Against Kant

February 21, 2016

The Data Against Kant

The history of moral philosophy is a history of disagreement, but on one point there has been virtual unanimity: It would be absurd to suggest that we should do what we couldn’t possibly do.

This principle — that “ought” implies “can,” that our moral obligations can’t exceed our abilities — played a central role in the work of Immanuel Kant and has been widely accepted since. Indeed, the idea seems self-evidently true, much as “bachelor” implies “man.”

But is it actually true? In 1984, the philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (above) outlined a series of thought experiments that, he contended, demonstrated that “ought” does not always imply “can.” Though his argument found some adherents, most philosophers were not convinced. We think that the consensus view that “ought” implies “can” is mistaken. In a psychological study to be published in the May issue of the journal Cognition, we offer empirical evidence suggesting that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong was right.

His thought experiments go something like this: Suppose that you and a friend are both up for the same job in another city. She interviewed last weekend, and your flight for the interview is this evening. Your car is in the shop, though, so your friend promises to drive you to the airport. But on the way, her car breaks down — the gas tank is leaking — so you miss your flight and don’t get the job.

Would it make any sense to tell your friend, stranded at the side of the road, that she ought to drive you to the airport? The answer seems to be an obvious no (after all, she can’t drive you), and most philosophers treat this as all the confirmation they need for the principle.

Suppose, however, that the situation is slightly different. What if your friend intentionally punctures her own gas tank to make sure that you miss the flight and she gets the job? In this case, it makes perfect sense to insist that your friend still has an obligation to drive you to the airport. In other words, we might indeed say that someone ought to do what she can’t — if we’re blaming her.

Three decades after Professor Sinnott-Armstrong made this argument, we decided to run his thought experiments as scientific ones. (We partnered with Professor Sinnott-Armstrong himself, along with the philosopher Felipe De Brigard.) In our study, we presented hundreds of participants with stories like the one above and asked them questions about obligation, ability and blame. Did they think someone should keep a promise she made but couldn’t keep? Was she even capable of keeping her promise? And how much was she to blame for what happened?

We found a consistent pattern, but not what most philosophers would expect. “Ought” judgments depended largely on concerns about blame, not ability. With stories like the one above, in which a friend intentionally sabotages you, 60 percent of our participants said that the obligation still held — your friend still ought to drive you to the airport. But with stories in which the inability to help was accidental, the obligation all but disappeared. Now, only 31 percent of our participants said your friend still ought to drive you.

Professor Sinnott-Armstrong’s unorthodox intuition turns out to be shared by hundreds of non-philosophers. So who is right? The vast majority of philosophers, or our participants?

One possibility is that our participants were wrong, perhaps because their urge to blame impaired the accuracy of their moral judgments. To test this possibility, we stacked the deck in the favor of philosophical orthodoxy: We had the participants look at cases in which the urge to assign blame would be lowest — that is, only the cases in which the car accidentally broke down. Even still, we found no   relationship between “ought” and “can.” The only significant relationship was between “ought” and “blame.”

This finding has an important implication: Even when we say that someone has no obligation to keep a promise (as with your friend whose car accidentally breaks down), it seems we’re saying it not because she’s unable to do it, but because we don’t want to unfairly blame her for not keeping it. Again, concerns about blame, not about ability, dictate how we understand obligation.

So here we face the other possibility, one less flattering to most moral philosophers: It’s their moral judgments that are distorted.

While this one study alone doesn’t refute Kant, our research joins a recent salvo of experimental work targeting the principle that “ought” implies “can.” At the very least, philosophers can no longer treat this principle as obviously true.

In the last decade or so, the “experimental philosophy” movement has argued for greater use of empirical science to inform and shape the discussion of philosophical problems. We agree: Philosophers ought to pay more attention to their colleagues in the psychology department (even if they can’t).

Bill Gates: The Billionaire Book Critic

January 8, 2016

Bill Gates: The Billionaire Book Critic

Evan Thomas, the best-selling biographer of Robert F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower and the author of a half-dozen other books, has seen those books reviewed over the years by The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Atlantic. But with the recent publication of his latest work, “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” he experienced for the first time a new phenomenon: the Bill Gates bump.

Bill Gates in May 2014. In his Gates Notes blog, he has reviewed books, including: “Thing Explainer,” by Randall Munroe and “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion. Just before Christmas, Mr. Thomas learned that his book had been favorably reviewed by Mr. Gates on his blog, Gates Notes.

“I’m surprised by the number of biographies I read that paint their subjects in black-and-white terms,” Mr. Gates wrote. “A classic example is former U.S. president Richard Nixon, who is too often portrayed as little more than a crook and a warmonger. So it was refreshing to see a more balanced account in ‘Being Nixon,’ by author and journalist Evan Thomas.” The review was illustrated by a photograph of the book on a desk adorned with objects from the Nixon era, like a rotary phone.

Bill Gates on Books and Blogging

Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, has emerged as a force in the publishing industry, thanks to the book reviews he posts on his blog, Gates Notes. Mr. Gates, who says he reads about 50 books a year, discussed his love of reading, how he makes his selections and what book Warren Buffett recommended. Below are excerpts from a recent email interview.

What role does reading play in your life?

It is one of the chief ways that I learn, and has been since I was a kid. These days, I also get to visit interesting places, meet with scientists and watch a lot of lectures online. But reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.

For example, this year I enjoyed Richard Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” which explains various scientific ideas and is aimed at teenagers. Although I already understood all the concepts, Dawkins helped me think about the topics in new ways. If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it.

What made you decide to start the books blog and write reviews?

I have always loved reading and learning, so it is great if people see a book review and feel encouraged to read and share what they think online or with their friends.

It also helps to have a platform for talking about the work I’m doing, both through the foundation and separate from it, because I find people are curious about it.

How do you choose the books you read? Recommendations from family/friends/media?

It’s a mix of things. Melinda and I will sometimes exchange books we like. I also get recommendations from friends. After I finish something great, I will often try to find other books by that author or similar ones on the same subject.

Earlier this year Melinda and I saw the musical “Hamilton,” which inspired me to read Ron Chernow’s biography.

What was the process of selecting the books for the best-of-the-year list? Any tough choices?

I didn’t set out to do this intentionally, but when I looked back at the books I read this year, I realized that a lot of them touch on the theme “how things work.”Some, like Randall Munroe’s “Thing Explainer,” are written exactly for that reason. He uses diagrams paired with the most common 1,000 words in the English language to explain complicated ideas.

Other books on my list offer insights into human beings, our values, our strengths and flaws.

Is there one book that was an unexpected choice for you that you unexpectedly loved?

One of the main reasons I started my blog was to share thoughts about what I’m reading. So it is nice to see people sharing their own reactions and recommendations in the comments section of the site.

One book that was especially fun to highlight was “Business Adventures,” by John Brooks. This is the first book Warren Buffett recommended to me after we met in 1991, and it is still the best business book I have ever read. Brooks deserves to be much better known than he is.

Although he wrote in the 1960s, the issues he talks about are still relevant today. “Business Adventures” went out of print decades ago and Brooks died in 1993, but his family was nice enough to let me post one chapter called “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox” on my blog.

I don’t read a lot of fiction but was surprised by how much I loved the novel “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion. Melinda read it first and kept stopping to recite parts of it out loud to me. Eventually, I decided to take a look.

I started it one night at 11 p.m. and stayed up with it until 3 a.m. It is very funny, while also showing a lot of empathy for people who struggle in social situations.After I sent it and the sequel (“The Rosie Effect”) to dozens of friends and wrote about it on my blog, I heard from a lot of people who were touched by it. There is talk of turning it into a movie, which I hope happens. Rosie and Don Tillman would make a great on-screen couple.

I like highlighting the work of Vaclav Smil. He has written more than 30 books, and I have read them all. He takes on huge topics like energy or transportation and gives them a thorough examination.

Smil’s books are not for casual readers and I don’t agree with him on everything, but I like to feature his work because the world would be a better place if more people thought as rigorously and systematically as he does.