Here's the best of what I read in 2020. This comes after an aborted mid-year decision to do a book of the month — what was I thinking?! Back to the usual format (and here are links to prior lists: 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016).
I have just one book on my list about pandemics, but it is the best one. A trio on geopolitics as the world is in such flux. A book on education I wish I’d read a long time ago, and that I now recommend to everyone thinking about college or in college. Two books again on India (but very different in tenor and focus from last year’s choices). Finally I have three fiction choices compared with none last year.
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.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David Quammen
Quammen wrote this, the definitive popular work on pandemics, almost a decade ago. Virtually everything about Covid-19 was predictable, and as you read it you will be startled by the prescience (and will highlight passage after passage, nodding to yourself). You will also be startled by the science, the history and, if you can look beyond the grim subject matter, the quality of the writing and the storytelling.
“Will the Next Big One be caused by a virus? Will the Next Big One come out of a rainforest or a market in southern China? Will the Next Big One kill 30 or 40 million people?” (p. 42).
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz
There is a great deal of bitterness in this book, but that doesn’t get in the way of the fact that there is much truth in it. At my firm, Amasia, we are constantly searching for young women and men who can research, think and write. We now recommend this book to candidates interviewing with us, along with the use of the phrase “passionate weirdos” (read it to find out).
“The endless hoop-jumping, starting as far back as grade school, that got them into an elite college in the first place—the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches, tutors, “leadership,” “service”—left them no time, and no tools, to figure out what they want out of life, or even out of college.” (p. 10-11).
How Asia Works: Success and Failure In the World's Most Dynamic Region, Joe Studwell
Studwell’s insightful book provides one set of answers, and very believable ones supported by data and history, for why the East Asian “tiger” economies have performed so much better than those in Southeast Asia which on the surface appear to have many of the same attributes. And that is not just my opinion; Bill Gates appears to agree. Studwell also takes down economists in general and the mandarins at the World Bank and IMF in particular (institutions that have played a far larger role in Southeast Asia than in East Asia).
“The heart of the problem was that elites in south-east Asia were sufficiently co-opted by colonial rulers (before and after independence) that they lost their ability – or perhaps their desire – to think clearly about national economic development.” (p. 69-70).
Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs), Michael Beckley
There is a general belief that this is China’s century, a belief that is undoubtedly strengthened by the chaotic response in the United States to the coronavirus, as also the 2020 post-election period for which “chaotic” is an entirely inadequate adjective. Beckley presents a strong argument, with lots of data, to the contrary. You may not agree with him — and he does point out a whole litany of risks for the U.S. too, so this is not a mindless exercise in patriotism — but the book will make you think.
“…I measure power in net rather than gross terms. In essence, I create a balance sheet for each country: assets go on one side of the ledger, liabilities go on the other, and net resources are calculated by subtracting the latter from the former. When this is done, it becomes clear that America’s economic and military lead over other countries is much larger than typically assumed—and the trends are mostly in its favor.” (L95).
The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, Daniel Kalder
I’d like to call this a delightful book, because Kalder skewers an array of puffed-up personalities with their own words, and you’ll smile and occasionally laugh as you read it. But these individuals are amongst the great mass murderers of history. Words matter, and it turns out that many provided full written explanations of the convoluted theoretical basis for the unpleasant things they wanted to do and how they intended going about it.
“[Lenin’s] mental powers are undeniable but that was the problem: highly intelligent people are wrong all the time, and are especially good at being wrong because they have the cognitive ability to construct elaborate counterfactual arguments that appear to be backed up by judiciously selected and cleverly interpreted evidence.” (p. 17).
Beowulf: A Verse Translation, Seamus Heaney
I periodically drone on about translations being entirely new works, lamenting the fact that translators don’t get their due recognition for the peculiar creativity they bring to the translation process. We don’t have that problem here — Seamus Heaney was a world-renowned, and Nobel Prize-winning, poet before this marvelous translation of the Old English epic was published in the late 1990s. The translation is poetic, lyrical and accessible. Heaney’s lengthy and personal introduction is almost as valuable as the translation, and the quote below is from that essay.
“There is an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility and allows him to make general observations about life which are far too grounded in experience and reticence to be called “moralizing.”” (p. 24).
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carre
I re-read this wonderful book just a few days ago, after learning of Le Carre’s death — it was the work that brought him lasting fame. The Cold War was real when I first read the book in my teens in India; the Soviet Union was still one of the two global superpowers, and India was a site for this battle fought without weapons, and usually through intermediaries. I remember being struck by two things: the complexity and nuance of the plot, and the quietly devastating ending. Both still hold true, more than 35 years later.
No quotes from this one — the lines to be quoted are at the end of the novel, and that would give the story away.
Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
Sixteen years ago, Susanna Clarke wrote the utterly brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And for sixteen years her fans, amongst whom I count myself, have been waiting for another book-length novel. Piranesi does not disappoint. It cannot be pigeonholed — it is part mystery, part fantasy, part science fiction, part steampunk, part literary masterpiece. And all parts wonderful. A caution: you have to give yourself a few pages and pay close attention in order to fully enter the labyrinth.
“The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.” (p. 60).
Nehru: The Invention of India, Shashi Tharoor
The author of this book takes great care to ensure we understand that he did no original research; he didn’t root around in dusty archives to emerge triumphantly waving a newly discovered factoid. He takes a mass of secondary material, mostly other biographies of Nehru, and presents an interpretation. The interpretation is wholly convincing. It amounts to this: Nehru was almost certainly the only man who could have taken India from colonial rule to a truly democratic election (in 1952, which in some ways is the more important year than 1947), and he was unfortunately almost certainly the only man who could have dug the various deep ditches that India has been mired in ever since.
“In his case this was the mental state of an educated Englishman of culture and means, a product of two of the finest institutions of learning in the Empire (the same two, he would later note with pride, that had produced Lord Byron), with the attitudes that such institutions instill in their alumnae.” (L338-340).
When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, Milan Vaishnav
For anyone interested in seeing India prosper, this is an extremely painful book to read. But for that interested person, there is page after page of insight that at least allows for some understanding of how and why Indian politics is infested with criminal behavior. The author writes objectively, without moralizing and with the help of data and with grounding in political theory. There is very little here to which one could rise up and say “that is not so!”
“In one sense, the answer to why political parties in India nominate candidates with criminal backgrounds to stand for election is painfully obvious: because they win.” (L2227).