A reading list for reporters

For a while now, I have been thinking about listing the journalism books that taught me the most. And so, with the blessings of a rough typology, here we go.

On the moral imperative of journalism: Simple, reporters should belong to the time they live in. In other words, their work should try to create a proportionate picture of their time. They should not be blind-sided by events.
1. Joseph Conrad did this well. He belonged to his time.
2. So did Orwell. And so, read this magnificent biography of 1984.
3. Assignment in Utopia, Eugene Lyons
4. Dust On The Road, Mahasweta Devi (her non-fiction writings).
5. Ear To The Ground, by K Balagopal
6. As Long As Sarajevo Exists, by Kemal Kurspahic (I cannot recommend this highly enough. In the thick of Milosevic’s onslaught on Bosnia,the reporters at Oslobodjenje kept bringing out their paper. What kept them going was their professional obligation to journalism; their commitment of the ideal of plurality; and the determination to bear witness, that nothing would go unrecorded. It is a book that speaks to our time — and reiterates principles we neglect).

Books like the one by Kurspahic should be mandatory reading. Even as journalists talk endlessly about holding power accountable, the dominant history of journalism is one of navel-gazing and missing the biggest stories of the time.
1. William Shirer missed the holocaust.
2. So did the NYT. Its miss became the subject of Laurel Leff’s investigation into the newsroom failure.
3. More instances? The US financial press missed the subprime crisis.
While on this point, you must watch Jon Stewart’s complete interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer on why the financial press failed to warn americans about subprime crash. Here is Part One. Part Two. And Part Three.

Thinking about journalism (and language)
1. Victor Klemperer, on the language of the third reich

Thinking about journalism (and how the brain processes information)
1. Robert Sapolsky, Behave

Thinking about journalism (and its capacity for pushing through change):
1. The Race Beat, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.
2. The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin
3. The Assassination of Lumumba, Ludo De Witte
4. Putin’s Kleptocracy, Karen Dawisha (These two books are not by reporters but they support my thesis, that perseverence can nail most truths to the door).
5. The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean
6. The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk. A quote by Amira Hass, about the role of the press being to “monitor the centres of power” stays with me.
7. Seymour Hersh, Reporter
8. Every single book by Studs Terkel.
9. A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan
10. The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam
11. When a Tree shook Delhi, Manoj Mitta
12. The Fiction of Fact-Finding, Manoj Mitta
13. Blood On My Hands, Kishalay Bhattacharjee
14. Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, by Sidharth Varadarajan
15. The Windrush Betrayal, by Amelia Gentleman (The UK’s version of India’s CAA/NRC).
16. The Arizona Project, by Michael F Wendland.

Journalism as practice
1. Once Upon A Distant War, William Prochnau

Thinking about journalism (and the role of curiosity)
1. Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski

Thinking about Journalism (and the threats it faces)
1. Play It Again, Alan Rusbridger
2. On Russia’s attempts to control the internet. The Red Web. By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
3. This is not propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev (I am yet to read: Post-Journalism, by Andrey Mir; How To Lose The Information War, by Nina Jankowicz)
4. Everything by Anna Politikovskaya
5. Edward Snowden’s foreword in The Assassination Complex
6. Amusing Ourselves To Death, by Neil Postman
7. Arkady Ostrovsky, on the rise of Putin and the age of fake news
8. Everything by Masha Gessen.

Thinking about Journalism (news from other countries, on specific beats)
1. Will The Boat Sink The River, on the crisis facing Chinese peasants (I am waiting to read Dai Qing’s book on the Three Gorges Dam, not to mention Unholy, by Sarah Posner (on why evangelicals flocked to Trump); and Hun Sen’s Cambodia, by Sebastian Strangio.
2. China, again. A Death In the Lucky Holiday Hotel. This is on the downfall of Bo Xilai
3. Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner.
4. Thailand. A Kingdom In Crisis. (This book was duly banned by the regime)
5. Fools’ Rule, William Marsden’s scathing take on the politics around climate change. Just as good is his other book – on Alberta and shale oil.
6. A Sea in Flames, Carl Safina on Deepwater Horizon

Needless to say, this is an incomplete list. I have left out some of the most commonly read books — All The President’s Men; Everybody Loves A Good Drought; A Writer at War, Bernard Fall, etc — as well as a clutch of other books. The idea is to dwell on some of the relatively lesser known ones. Thank you for reading.

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at despitethestate@protonmail.com.


…une plongée dans les failles béantes de la démocratie indienne, un compte rendu implacable du dysfonctionnement des Etats fédérés, minés par la corruption, le clientélisme, le culte de la personnalité des élus et le capitalisme de connivence. (…a dive into the gaping holes in Indian democracy, a relentless account of the dysfunction of the federated states, undermined by corruption, clientelism, the cult of the personality of elected officials and crony capitalism).” Le Monde

…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

…strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy.” Scroll.in

M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and pelf.Moneycontrol.com

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,” Booksfirst.in.

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

12 November, 2022: Stop Loss: Overcoming the systemic failures of the Indian State. Tata Literature Festival, Mumbai.

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society