Earlier this evening, I sat down to write a blogpost about the better books I have read over the last few months.
There has been – due to all manner of complicated reasons — a lot of reading. The months that immediately followed the end of my states reporting project for Scroll saw me pick up a bunch of long overdue books. Among them, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day, Nilanjana Roy’s sequel to The Wildings, The Hundred Names Of Darkness. And then, travels with Charley, a really good exploration (on bicycle) of pre-Brexit United Kingdom, and Superorganism — Edward Wilson and Bert Holldobler’s fascinating work on insect societies.
Other fabulous books in this period include a look at the sudden resetting of human-animal relations in Japan which culminated in the extinction of the Japanese wolf, John Dower’s look at how history treats modern Japan (in a fairly cherry-picked way, as is the habit of history), Jan Vansina’s brilliant (I use the word deliberately) Paths in the Rainforests, where he builds a 3,000 year long history for equatorial africa — a place long dismissed by academics, due to the absence of written records, as a place without history where people lived as hunter-gatherers right up to the point colonialism arrived — by surveying local languages, and tracing back the origins of commonly-used words. A technique he calls Glotto-chronology. I take notes as I read, flowcharting my way through a book. It is the only way I can ever remember anything. A good book will take up, say, two pages in my diary. Paths In the Rainforests? It stretched over 12 pages. I now have to read his book on the Kuba during colonialism. And his account of working in Africa. And then, there was Sujata Gidla’s AntsAmong Elephants.
Each of those books, except Gidla’s, was read for fun. To give the brain a taste, as with the Vansina, of large questions and grand answers. Essential for a reporter whose months and years go into chronicling ugly, petty processes. This is also why I read fab books like the gorgeously produced ‘Extinct Boids’. To give the old brain, sagging after writing too damned many depressing reports, an injection of wonderment and delight.
And then came Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been described by some as a sort of pupating James Baldwin. Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, Consuming Life, Wasted Lives and, most recently, Moral Blindness. And Tzvetan Todorov’s “The Inner Enemies Of Democracy“. Bauman and Todorov are the two writers who have helped me understand our modern times the most. And then, there was Victor Klemperer’s “The Language Of The Third Reich“. In the book, Klemperer, a professor and a person of the jewish faith living in Dresden during the Nazi regime, decides to study its language. Read this bit.
“What was the most powerful Hitlerian propaganda tool? Was it the individual speeches of Hitler and Goebbels, their pronouncements on this or that theme, their rabble-rousing against the Jews, against Bolshevism? Certainly not, because a lot of this was not even understood by the masses, or it bored them with its endless repetitions…No, the most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not acheived by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or conscious emotions. Instead Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously… language doesn’t simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”
One reads this book. Thinks of phrases like ‘Love Jihad’ entering our everyday lives –with all the bigotry and insinuation wrapped into them — and finds it impossible to differ with Klemperer. I have to now read the first volume of his account of living under the Nazis. I Will Bear Witness (1933-1941). Here is historian Peter Gay’s review of that book. Reading Klemperer– and Bauman before him — was shaming. Their books are vital for understanding our present and yet, I had not been able to make time to read them till now. Or take Vansina. I bought that book in 2007, around the time my MA at Sussex was ending, but read it only in 2018!
The next book was again about the Nazis. In the first month of the break, I had also read this biography of William Shirer which ended by saying that he, Berlin correspondent during the Second World War, author of a very good book on Gandhi, and the writer of “The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich”, had failed to spot the holocaust while reporting from Germany during the war. This was a larger failing. The New York Times, despite being headed by a family of the Jewish faith, failed to report on the holocaust as well. Which raises questions about journalism. It is a profession which wraps strong myths around itself. Go to journalism schools and you will run smack into this self-aggrandising narrative — Watergate, Bofors, you name it — but a more accurate history of journalism would include its many failures. In some ways, the failures are more instructive about our profession than its wins. And so, I read Laurel Leff’s book damningthe NYT’s holocaust reportage.
Next, another book on cycling — this one by a climate change scientist. Then, The Work Of Kings, on Sri Lanka’s militant monks. Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth. I had stumbled upon him after reading his grim warning, drawing from the holocaust, about climate change. Next, the prescient Amusing Ourselves To Death. An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism. Carl Safina’s book on animals‘ emotions and communication. David Remnick’s biography of Barack Obama — a sort of a followup read to Coates. James Comey’s book. Winner-Takes-All Politics. Paul Kalanithi’s very moving When Breath Becomes Air. All of these books were very good. I am not banging on about them only because this post is already very long.
And then, a tremendous book. This one by Piers Vitebsky on Odisha’s Sora tribals. In Living Without The Dead, he looks at the last fifty years for the Soras. A period in which they went from their shamanist traditions (which included talking through shamans with the newly-deceased whenever illness struck) to Christianity and, now, Hinduism. The book’s explanation for these dialogues with the dead is remarkable. Death always leaves the living with unresolved questions and hurt. Talking through shamans with the dead, says Vitebsky, gave the living a chance to work out those questions, hurts and fears and brought them nearer to closure. As ever, one reads books like this and fills with marvel about ancient societies and their wisdom. I have to now read Vitebsky’s work on Siberia. And also this book about aboriginal wisdom, this one from Australia.
Other good books. Nature editor Helen Pearson’s The Life Project, which tells us about the UK birth cohort studies and what they taught us. Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology. Rauf Ali’s very enjoyable Running Away From Elephants. Saeed Mirza’s Memory In A Time Of Amnesia. A book updating what we have found in recent years about dinosaurs. And then, another tremendous book. This is Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy. She details his capture of Russia — and how he transformed it from a country run by oligarchs to one where das oligarchen pay tribute to Putin, survive only at his pleasure, and how he and his cronies have enriched themselves at the cost of Mother Russia. Extraordinary book. Minxin Pei’s China’s Crony Capitalism and Alex Cuadros’ Brazillionaires are good. But the Dawisha book is superlative in its forensic detail. And then, Riot Politics. And The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper.
Like I said, this long break from work wasn’t a planned one. But the reading has been a bonus. The tyranny of the here and now obscures everything else about the world. And so, it has been good to step back for a while and just read. In a few weeks, I will be back at work. And this will be one challenge. To retain space for reading.
Update (Circa January, 2019): The highlights of July included Zygmunt Bauman’s Moral Blindness, Greil Marcus’ Listening to Van Morrison, Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society, Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China and Reporter, Seymour Hersh’s biography.
August started with a graphic novel set in the aftermath of the nuclear attack on Japan, In This Corner Of The World. Other highlights that month? Evicted, on the American crisis of poverty and housing. Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class. By the middle of that month, I was back at work. But managed to read I Will Bear Witness, the first part of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. And then, a delightful little book by Alan Bennette titled The Uncommon Reader.
Next up, a closer re-reading of Balagopal’s Ear To The Ground. I had read this book earlier but, after the Scroll states’ reporting project, it was good to read his essays again. And then, the second part of Klemperer’s diaries. In his foreword, Peter Gay describes these diaries as hypnotic. That is exactly correct. These are a haunting account of life under the third reich, by a person living at the very margins. That was September. Four books that month. Work was making its presence felt.
And then, another extraordinary book. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, on the biology of good and evil. And then, Frank Pasquale’s book on how algorithms structure and run our world, and how we are more poorly informed than ever about the decisions that impact our lives. This is Black Box Society. And then, John Hemming’s The Conquest Of The Incas. Followed by Steve Coll’s history of Exxon, Private Empire.
The highlights of November? Eduardo Galeano’s Days And Nights Of Love and War. Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company. Nikhila Henry’s book on the flowering of youth agitations in India. And a history of the Yellow River. And then, December. Its highlights? Eduardo Galeano’s mesmerising Football In Sun and Shadow. And Shehan Karunatilake’s Chinaman.
I look back now and think 2018 was my best year for reading since that year a decade back at the University of Sussex. The world forces an impoverishing intellectual straitjacket upon us — we are surrounded by a cacophony of news and information about places, events and people close to us in space and time.
It was good to slip that straitjacket in 2018. Must try and stay out of it in 2019 as well.