Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

What we read in 2017

Mint's editors, writers and columnists pick the best book they read in the year gone by

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad
By Lesley Hazleton, Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2013

This family birthday gift, which I began reading dutifully, soon riveted me. The story of Prophet Muhammad is told objectively without a trace of condescension, in prose that evocatively resurrects the setting and the time. Lesley Hazleton uses the abundant documentation by contemporaries and later historians to highlight the multiple streams that went into the new religion, Islam—submission to the word of an unseen God as revealed to the prophet over the course of his life.

The Kaaba in Mecca, the geographical focus of life for the nearly two billion Muslims of today, was a widely venerated pre-Islamic shrine, wholly extraneous to the Abrahamic tradition. The annual pilgrimage to that shrine preceded Islam by centuries, with access overseen by a few families in Mecca, the prophet’s paternal ancestors prominent among them.

Dispossessed as a posthumous infant, the child Mohammad was raised in harsh desert conditions until the age of five by his kindly Bedouin foster mother Halima, an unpaid volunteer. From there into a life of unimaginable rigour as a camel boy for trade caravans, he developed the fortitude to create a base in Medina from where he fought many battles with the Meccan establishment before a final advance, to wrest control of the shrine for the new religion. He had the steadfast financial and emotional support of his first wife Khadija, a successful businesswoman in the caravan trade. The author brilliantly delineates the zeal that drove the demolition of all obstructions to the explosive growth of the faith.

Indira Rajaraman is an economist.

Eat the Rich: a Treatise on Economics
By P.J. O’Rourke, Publisher: Picador, 1998

If you’ve ever wondered why some countries are rich and other poor, you are in good company. American political satirist and journalist Patrick Jake O’Rourke asked the same question and undertook a geographic investigation into this subject. He begins by asking a simple question: “Why do some places prosper and thrive and other just suck? It’s not a matter of brains. No part of the earth….is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup."

If you like your economics lesson to come through a snarky irreverent narrative, this book is just your thing. The author travels to Wall Street, Albania, Sweden, Cuba, Russia, Tanzania and Hong Kong and tries to decode the story behind the rich-poor outcome. He asks how Tanzania, a peaceful, uncrowded country well endowed by nature, can turn everything to nothing. He asks how a conflict-ridden, overpopulated, resource poor Hong Kong can be so vibrant and rich. Each country visited completes the matrix of questions on: what works and what does not.

Rourke ends the book with a check list of attributes for wealthy countries: hard work, education, responsibility, property rights, rule of law and democratic government. Remember this book was written in 1998. The China story was still happening and some of the conclusions of the book are now being debated. China makes the relationship between a democratic government and economic growth not that linear. A bit outdated, but still a hugely entertaining and educating read.

Monika Halan is consulting editor at Mint.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
By Timothy Snyder, Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2017

For a combination of work and personal reasons this has been an uncommonly interesting year in books for this writer. This was the year I discovered Peter Brown’s excellent books on charity and the world of late antiquity. His Through the Eye of the Needle was a revelation in terms of new ways of thinking of poverty, and religious approaches to charity. Philip Grierson’s classic Numismatics is an excellent primer to the great stories that tiny coins can tell. I’ve just started reading Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India. It came highly recommended from that most precious of all things: the vastly more intelligent and well-read friend who is generous with his time. The book is deserving of all the hype.

But my favourite book of the year for 2017 is also the shortest of all the books I’ve read in many years. Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is, and this is only slightly hyperbolic, a handbook for the age. In just 128 pages Snyder, the Yale historian of Central and Eastern Europe, distills all his scholarship of fascist and Stalinist brutality into a sequence of concise lessons for anyone troubled by contemporary politics, culture, media and society.

Snyder’s lessons are simple. Read books, pay attention to language, talk to people face to face, cherish your privacy, trust your fellow citizens, and, above all, learn the right lessons from history. Trump looms over the book like an unnamed spectre. And critics will, and have, called On Tyranny alarmist. This is nonsense. Snyder’s point is simple. Tyranny comes in many forms. Prevention is the best cure.

Sidin Vadukut is a foreign correspondent with Mint.

How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
By Lisa Feldman Barrett, Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Rarely does one come across a book that provides a paradigm shift to one’s existing knowledge. How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett draws on the latest scientific evidence to reveal that our ideas about emotions are dramatically, even dangerously, out of date. She challenges the classical view that emotions are pre-wired into our brains, that each emotion has a universally recognized distinct expression on our face and body, that certain regions in the brain generate emotions, etc. This new understanding refutes many of the commonly held beliefs about emotions and the brain that have been around since Aristotle’s time and were carried forward by Charles Darwin, Paul Ekman, Antonio Damasio and many others.

The book provides an alternate theory of emotions—the theory of constructed emotions. Barrett explains that emotions are not temporary deviations from rationality, nor are they pre-programmed in our brains and bodies. Rather, they are psychological experiences that each of us construct based on our unique personal history, goals, and environment. With this new discovery about emotions, many existing initiatives to understand emotions by deciphering the physiological changes in a person, like facial expressions or skin conductance, will not find many takers.

The new understanding that this book provides about emotions has the potential to transform the foundations not only of psychology but also of medicine, the legal system, child-rearing, and individual well being. The book is an ambassador for a radically different view of what it means to be a human being.

Biju Dominic is a Mint columnist and the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
By Philippe Sands, Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2016

Some crimes are so grave that even naming them becomes difficult. What would one call the killing of a vast number of people, indiscriminately, with a view to eliminate that group of people? We do have the words now. There is genocide, where one group specifically goes about annihilating another; we even have international law criminalizing such behaviour. Then there is the phrase, crimes against humanity, or deliberate and systematic killing on a large scale: nearly as grave as genocide, and it differs from it only to a degree.

In East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands writes an exceptional memoir, which weaves in the stories of two persistent lawyers—Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin—with his own family history, and the post-war trial of Hans Frank, a Nazi officer, responsible for thousands of deaths. The apparently unconnected lives congregate in the Ukrainian city of Lviv (or Lwow or Lemberg, depending on the period of history when you look at the city).

In telling this engrossing story Sands combines the skills of a magnificent storyteller with the erudition of a legal scholar, to show how a few good people, committed to the idea that mass atrocities must never recur, built the architecture of international law that enabled the prosecution of those accused of grave crimes that were the hallmark of the Holocaust. Never again, was the refrain: Lauterpacht and Lemkin gave us the vocabulary to name the crimes; Sands reminds us why the quest for justice must continue.

Salil Tripathi is a Mint columnist and a writer based in London.

Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste
By Diane Coffee and Dean Spears, Publisher: HarperLitmus, 2017

I scarcely imagined reading an entire book on open defecation, let alone enjoying it, and recommending it to others. For this I blame Diane Coffey and Dean Spear’s masterful analysis and narrative.

More than half the households in India defecate in the open. And it is making Indian children sick, stunting their growth, killing infants, creating long-term consequences. Basic latrines are not that expensive, and people in countries far poorer than India build inexpensive latrines to avoid defecating in the open. Typically, as nations get wealthier, open defecation decreases. Despite increases in GDP per capita, and increase in latrine availability through government programs, India has witnessed very little decrease in open defecation.

Why do Indians, even with those accessible latrines, go in the open?

Coffey and Spear’s recent book, Where India Goes, explains the cause and consequences of open defecation. They show that many Indians prefer defecating in the open to using basic latrines. The latrines provided by governments are often used for storage, washing clothes, play areas—essentially everything except the intended use. The reason is that basic latrines that must be pumped or emptied out manually are unacceptable to higher caste Hindus. This process is considered polluting the individual and the home, and historically associated with Dalits.

It is therefore a deeply entrenched policy problem entangled with caste, religion, and culture. Coffey and Spears steer away from quick fix solutions, and instead make the reader think more broadly about culturally contextual behaviour that might be trapping Indians in lesser lives.

Shruti Rajagopalan is a Mint columnist and assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York.

Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture
By Carl E. Schorske, Publisher: Vintage Books, 1980.

There is no better time to read (or re-read) this classic work of intellectual, cultural, and social history by the great historian Carl Schorske. The book, a deserved masterpiece, studies the decay of the certitudes of the 19th century world into the uncertainties of the birth of modernism, and of the many -isms that defined the time and continue to resonate today: fascism, socialism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, among others.

The book’s central argument is that it was the enormous churn in the polyglot world of Vienna’s coffee houses and drawing rooms, where pivotal figures of early modernity who still define our culture—Freud, Mahler, Klimt, Schnitzler to name but four, from different fields, to say nothing of the Austrian School of Economics or the Vienna Circle—found inspiration from each other and their shared setting to blow up the smug received ideas of the bourgeois, Victorian (or, in the case of Austria, late Habsburg) world into which they were born—the product of the mid-century political revolutions and beyond—to forge the beginnings of a new understanding—richer, more complex, more dangerous—of the human psyche than had been thought possible earlier.

The British historian A.J.P. Taylor famously said that the 1848 revolutions were a turning point where history failed to turn. Well, perhaps not quite, since the intellectual turning inspired by the failed liberal revolution and its aftermath—was to come some half century later, in the gloriously decaying imperial metropolis of Vienna, a harbinger of our troubled times.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist.

Two Saints: Speculations around and about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa & Ramana Maharshi
By Arun Shourie, Publisher: HarperCollins, 2017

The link between science and spiritualism is one of the most fascinating disciplines of study. And yet it remains under-explored—perhaps not because of lack of interest but because of the nature of the subject. The single biggest contribution of Arun Shourie through this book is that he makes us believe that a passionate researcher armed just with an irresistible quest for scientific inquiry can make a difference to this field even without any training in the disciplines of neurosciences and psychology.

Shorn of all the complexities of religious experiences and workings of the brain, the central argument of the book is relatively straightforward: a number of mystic experiences of spiritual gurus can be explained by behaviour of neurons. Some of these experiences can also be recreated by stimulating specific points in an ordinary human brain with an electrode. There are also non-invasive ways of recreating these experiences in a laboratory. And far away from the world of experiments, human beings are capable of experiencing similar out-of-this-world phenomena in extreme circumstances—for example, mountaineers and sailors have experienced the presence of a companion in times of extreme stress, hunger and exhaustion.

Shourie’s is not a perfect book by any means. While it goes into details of what constitutes consciousness--the example of single cell organisms which arrange themselves to recreate the Tokyo rail network in search for food kept at different points on the city map is perhaps the highest point of the book--it fails to make the account richer by not taking advantage of works that have elaborated on the connections between Eastern (and specifically Hindu and Buddhist) mysticism and quantum physics. Werner Heisenberg, one of the greatest ever quantum physicists, had himself talked about these synergies. But despite such omissions, Shourie has indeed made a stellar contribution and must be commended for the same.

Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint.

Empire of Cotton
By Sven Beckert, Publisher: Vintage Books, 2014

Empire of Cotton is the most impressive book I have read in recent times. It is a scholarly work about the history of cotton but it offers rich insights into the evolution of industrialization leading on to the kind of economic growth and prosperity that makes our world today almost unrecognizable from 200 years ago. Sven Beckert, a professor of American history at Harvard University, weaves together a fascinating tapestry of events and developments, ostensibly about cotton but over and above that about the beginnings of capitalism and the subsequent transformation of the global economy.

Beckert has a keen eye for connecting the past with the present as when he talks of outsourcing in its earliest and possibly most repugnant form with the cotton growers working on the slave plantations across the American South. In the process he also chronicles the violent treatment of native Americans who were increasingly forced off their lands co-opted to grow cotton for rapacious traders. Indeed that pursuit is also at the root of the expansionist marauding in places like India and West Africa. His sweep is massive, encompassing the role of rich merchants from Britain as well as governments in the US and Japan and how they were all part of a huge land grab in distant colonies as well as dispossessed people at home. The exploitation in the cotton factories of Manchester and Liverpool which recruited the weakest members of society, namely women and children, also provides an early pointer to the causes of the gross income inequalities that we see around us today.

Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom
By John Pomfret, Publisher: Henry Holt and Co 2016.

Among the many books I read this year, I would pick The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom by John Pomfret as the best.

It was slow to start as the book traced the history of the Sino-American relations from several centuries ago. But, once the book entered the contemporary era, I perked up. What comes out rather clearly in the book is that China has played America like a fiddle over several decades--from President Nixon to President Obama. It appears that America won the Cold War not because of but in spite of the State Department. Nixon reflected later that he might have created a Frankenstein monster. Too late. When President Trump told Xi Jinping that China did what was right for it and that his predecessors had to be blamed for the unequal relationship, he was spot on.

It is interesting that Mao waived Japan’s apologies for its crimes against China but that did not stop his successors from making it a big issue. The amount of damage that Nixon and Kissinger have done to America’s (and India’s) interests thanks to their utter cynicism is considerable. We learn from the book about the origin of Siamese twin. The lesson that comes out rather clearly is that China views solicitude as a sign of vulnerability. Being nice is unrequited diplomacy with China. The book is a must read for India’s diplomatic community that includes both policymakers and starry-eyed commentators.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a Mint columnist and an independent consultant based in Singapore.

Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality
By James Kwak, Publisher: Pantheon 2017

The rise of inequality in recent decades is one indicator which highlights that the way economic policy is being conducted is not perfect. James Kwak, a professor at the University Of Connecticut School Of Law, argues in Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality that the problem is not with the free market economics, but the way some of the ideas are implemented without adequately appreciating the complexities of the real world. Kwak uses economism as “the belief that a few isolated economics 101 lessons accurately describe the real world." This may not be the case. Kwak has picked some of the contemporary economic policy debates to show the impact of economism.

Although the book is focused on the US economy, the broader context is equally relevant for other economies, including the developing world. For instance, does increasing the minimum wage lead to more unemployment, or does decreasing tax rates always lead to higher investments and job creation? The basic idea behind light touch regulation on the Wall Street was that firms understand what they are doing, and if things go wrong, they will go out of business. But the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 showed that reality is more complicated than textbook models.

Before moving to some of the important policy questions, Kwak shows how basic free market ideas began to dominate policymaking and how economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman influenced the world of ideas. Broadly, this book adds to the ongoing debate on all that has gone wrong with the free market economic system. The challenge, however, would be to find ways that will help broaden the gains of market economics.

Rajesh Kumar is deputy editor (views) at Mint.

Who Me, Poor?: How India’s Youth are Living in Urban Poverty to Make it Big
By Gayatri Jayaraman, Publisher: Bloomsbury India, 2017

The two most prominent mega trends of India’s economy are urbanization and the demographic bulge. The twain meet in the urban influx of youth job seekers, many from small towns. Their struggles and triumphs, dreams and disappointments, is an unfolding story.

One new phenomenon is of a new class of “urban poor". These dwell above the official poverty line, have college degrees. But many are barely surviving until the next paycheck. Often in a debt trap, they max out on their credit cards. Yes, they have credit cards. Gayatri Jayaraman’s book Who Me Poor is a highly readable chronicle of real stories, some heartbreaking, of these youngsters lost in the big city. Their first hand account, is deftly juxtaposed with plenty of background research and statistics, to convince you that this is an important public policy issue, covering issues like affordable housing, public transportation and financial literacy.

The Vanishing
By Prerna Singh Bindra, Publisher: Penguin Rendom House 2017

Prerna Singh Bindra’s The Vanishing is a compelling insider and outsider account of the crisis in India’s wildlife. The author has been part of the policy making establishment, and also a foot soldier and field reporter. Thus the multi-angled perspective, told in an urgent, persuasive and anguished voice.

India’s great wealth of biodiversity is under threat from mindless, undisciplined growth and ever encroaching urbanization. But the author carefully slays the false dichotomy of development versus ecology. Just as there are no sparrows in Beijing, or no wild animals in Schwarzwald, what will be the fate of India’s forests and dwellings? The author convinces us, that saving the tiger is not a luxury, it is actually about saving us. It’s about our survival. This is a must read, impassioned plea and wake-up call.

Ajit Ranade is a Mint economist and chief economist at Aditya Birla Group.

The Assumptions Economists Make
By Jonathan Schlefer, Publisher: Harvard University Press, 2012

The past few months have witnessed a furious debate on whether or not the discipline of economics requires serious reforms. One book that can help us make sense of this debate between mainstream economists on the one side and heterodox economists on the other is a 2012 Harvard University Press publication The Assumptions Economists Make, which I got around to read only this year. Schlefer is a political scientist by training, with an undergraduate degree in math and a deep engagement with economics, making him almost the perfect outsider to write about the discipline.

Schlefer traces the problems with the disciplines to its oversimplifying assumptions and the disregard with which some economists have treated relevant work of others, such as macro-economists’ disregard for general equilibrium theory. General equilibrium theory is a branch of micro-economics founded by Gerard Debreu and Kenneth Arrow who showed in 1954 how it is possible for markets for all possible goods and services to be in equilibrium at the same time. But Debreu’s later work in the early 1970s showed that such equilibrium is unlikely to be stable. Macro-economists ignored this problem even as they claimed to build new models based on “micro-foundations".

Schlefer’s insightful book provides numerous examples where economists (including micro-economists) have chosen to just ignore quandaries, or have ruled them out through assumptions. Schlefer’s lucid and witty account of the evolution of economic thought makes this book an easy and fun read for anyone interested in the subject.

Pramit Bhattacharya is editor (data) at Mint.

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