In a season of political discontent -- trivialities and distractions, renewed culture wars and the rebirth of regressive impulses -- these books remind us what is really at stake in political participation and democratic tension. It's easy to get depressed, or lose sight of social justice goals, in the midst of electoral theater, and convenient to look away from the real causes of income inequality or human rights violations. We're engaged in a losing counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, and an escalating one in Pakistan, continuations of the Long War; we've never really paused to understand why the law was so cavalierly abused in the last ten years--let alone hold the offenders accountable; we've tried to move past the financial collapse with at best superficial remedies, without addressing the motivating economic causes; and we still root for the American Dream (the one that John Boehner has finally, tearfully chased down) without inquiring into the quality of life the dream actually embodies. We can improve our quality of life, we can take inspiration from active citizens inside our borders and from nations dedicated to social welfare; we can even look back at shining moments in our own history to retrieve democratic virtues. These were some of the best books of the year that made just such a case for social uplift, based on reason, analysis, and judgment.