Here's the best of what I read in 2019.
A large proportion of my reading this year consisted of books on climate. These were excluded here for I have provided a list of my recommended books and articles on climate elsewhere (scroll down to the end of that essay to see it). That made for a shorter shortlist, 31 versus last year’s 38, but the misery of trying to whittle that down to ten books appears to be perennial.
Like all of us, I am struggling to make sense of the world, and all of these books helped me on that journey. Perhaps one theme is that each one provoked thoughtfulness even when I strongly disagreed with the author.
As always, I provide a line or two of commentary on, and a quote from, each work. The titles link to the Amazon Kindle store page for the book. Page numbers are provided for the quotes if available and Kindle locations if not.
And a PS: I’d ask emulators of this format — they exist, to my surprise — to throw me an acknowledgement bone. Woof!
How To Read Foucault, Johanna Oksala
Close readers of my blog will know that I’ve found the work of Michel Foucault helpful in constructing my own world view. He is not prescriptive in his philosophical writings; what he offers is a toolbox in which one can rummage to find the right instrument. I read a lot of Foucault this year, for I think his work becomes more relevant to our culture as every year passes. He is also eminently readable for the non-specialist unlike many others (I’m looking at you, Jacques); but interpretation helps greatly. I have the highest praise for this excellent tour guide.
“Through reading him [Foucault] we are able to experience the world around us in radically new ways, and in the process become something different ourselves: subjects searching for ways of thinking, living and relating to other people that are perhaps currently still unimaginable.” (L1485)
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas
This book is an evisceration of much of how modern human society works: how hidden and not-so-hidden elite-driven agendas get in the way of the greater good, in the name of “doing good”. It forces you to look very differently at everything from philanthropic foundations to the execrable Davos culture to the concept of “thought leaders”. It should be mandatory reading in business schools.
“One heard from speakers ways of thinking that were all but barred from MarketWorld: the idea that there were such things as power and privilege; that some people had them in every era and some people didn’t; that this power and privilege demanded wariness; that progress was not inevitable, and that history was not a line but a wheel; that sometimes astonishing new tools were used in ways that worsened the world; that places of darkness often persisted even under new light; that people had a long habit of exploiting one another, no matter how selfless they and their ideas seem; that the powerful are your equals as citizens, not your representatives.” (P82)
Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen
Deneen is prescriptive: he wants us to return to what sounds like a collection of Greek city states (as is the case with many academics, they mostly know what they know — he is a scholar of Hellenic studies). There is no question that much of the book feels like a veiled argument for the privileging of one form of religious practice — and also no question that virtually any reader will find resonance in some of his observations.
“This is liberalism’s most fundamental wager: the replacement of one unequal and unjust system with another system enshrining inequality that would be achieved not by oppression and violence but with the population’s full acquiescence, premised on the ongoing delivery of increasing material prosperity along with the theoretical possibility of class mobility.” (P138)
Power, Pleasure and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison, David Wootton
Wootton — also an academic, this time of the Enlightenment — makes the case that the philosophical line from Machiavelli to Bentham has fostered rampant individuality and self-interest. This equates to “liberalism” in one sense or another but while Deneen’s work is an explicit polemic, Wootton’s is a more measured history.
“There is a key feature which power, pleasure, profit, and utility have in common and which marks the difference between this new world and all that had gone before: they can be pursued without limit.” (L148)
Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth
Tolkien famously disavowed any allegorical meaning behind The Lord of the Rings, and went on to point out that it was not World War II with its Manichaean template that might have influenced LotR; rather it was World War I or the Great War (“by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”). Garth brilliantly interweaves a close reading of Tolkien’s pre-war and wartime experiences with the evolution of LotR.
“Late on Sunday 4 June, 1916, Tolkien set off for the war. He did not expect to survive. ‘Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute,’ he later recalled. ‘Parting from my wife then… it was like a death.’” (P138)
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt
On the face of it, this doesn’t seem promising — a single volume history of “Europe” might feel like a categorization that just doesn't work, especially in the era of Brexit. But Judt is a brilliant writer — he is in my 2016 list, also on Europe — and I gave it a shot. Well, every page has insights that subtly shift how you think about Europe (and the world). And it gives equal weight to all of Europe — from the Urals west.
“What the historian Eric Hobsbawm described in 1995 as ‘the great age of historical mythology’ was not of course unprecedented—Hobsbawm himself had written brilliantly about the ‘invention of tradition’ in nineteenth-century Europe, at the dawning of the national age: the sort of ersatz culture dismissed by Edwin Muir (writing of Burns and Scott in Scotland 1941) as ‘sham bards for a sham nation’.” (P769)
The Pacific War, 1931-1945: A Critical Perspective on Japan’s Role in World War II, Saburo Ienaga
Ienaga fought a long battle with “the authorities” to publish an un-whitewashed description of the aggression, inhumanity, war crimes and lack of remorse shown by Japanese imperial forces during their colonization of much of East Asia from 1931 onwards. This book makes for cautionary reading, especially as those times pass from living memory.
“Japan did not liberate Asia. The Asian struggle for independence unfolded through the rigors of the Japanese occupation. Asians won their freedom by fighting and dying in the resistance to Japanese imperialism. To call Japan’s disgraceful and bloody rampage a crusade for liberation is to stand truth and history on their heads.” (L2999)
How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwahr
This brilliant and brilliantly understated book forces you to think about the United States wholly differently — not just as a physical “empire” but as a colonial power. Not just in the past but in the present as a “pointillist empire”. The quote below might cause a double take — if so, read this book.
“The Second World War in the Philippines rarely appears in history textbooks. But it should. It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on U.S. soil.” (L3586)
The Doctor and The Saint, Arundhati Roy
Last year B.R. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste was on my top ten list. I wrote then that Arundhati Roy’s introduction, written with extraordinary controlled outrage and copiously footnoted for the skeptics, was worth the price of admission in itself. Obviously others thought so too and it is now available as a standalone publication. The detailed footnotes are an intrinsic element of the book and must also be read, as you might with Gibbon.
From footnote 18, referencing a 2009 study of 1,589 villages in Gujarat: “In 98.4 per cent of villages surveyed, inter-caste marriage was prohibited; in 97.6 per cent of villages, Dalits were forbidden to touch water pots or utensils that belonged to non-Dalits; in 98.1 per cent of villages, a Dalit could not rent a house in a non-Dalit area; in 97.2 per cent of villages, Dalit religious leaders were not allowed to celebrate a religious ceremony in a non-Dalit area; in 67 per cent of villages, Dalit panchayat members were either not offered tea or were served in separate cups called ‘Dalit’ cups.” (L2076)
Awakening Bharat Mata, Swapan Dasgupta
This is a fascinating collection, collated from a sympathetic perspective, of readings that help define “some of the ideas, attitudes and beliefs that define the Indian right”. Sri Aurobindo is in here; so is Savarkar; Naipaul (!); a transcript of Vajpayee discussing the 1970 Bhiwandi riots in parliament; and much more. Whether you’re on the left or the right, this will be helpful in providing a philosophical background.
From an essay by R.C. Majumdar: “Thus the cult of non-violence is an ideal devoutly to be wished for, but when historians of India seriously maintain that this ideal has been followed throughout the course of Indian history, one rubs his eyes with wonder, for not only are all the known facts of Indian rulers against the assumption that they were averse to war, but war has been recommended by political texts as a normal practice and sanctioned by religion through the aśvamedha sacrifice and eulogy of digvijaya.” (L3491)