Opinion | A collection of year-end reads to give you food for thought4 min read . Updated: 29 Dec 2019, 10:51 PM IST
Invite a Harvard professor, a Chinese sci-fi writer and a phantom woke woman to your library
A Silicon Valley-based friend, who heads a tech giant’s in-house academy for its engineers, has been trying to inculcate the habit of reading among his students. Last week, he mailed me, asking for suggestions, especially since apps like Blinkist and 12min now offer the gist of important non-fiction books in text and audio form that you can gulp down with a cup of coffee, and be/appear more knowledgeable.
Fact is, we were already short on time, and now, we also have Netflix and Amazon Prime, so it really helps when someone tells you that the 816-page Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty can be summed up in one line: “The rich have been getting richer at a rate faster than world GDP, and that’s not fair."
But some books need to be read in full. They cannot be summarized. So, here are five (actually six) that I loved reading this year (not all of them are 2019 publications).
Enlightenment Now: In his most ambitious work till date, Harvard professor Steven Pinker tackles every big issue that humanity faces—the environment, wealth inequality, sustenance, peace, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, happiness—with clean data, multi-disciplinary expertise and powerful logic. He has been criticized as being too optimistic, but he sees some “existential threats" as “figments of cultural and historical pessimism", and the genuine ones “not as apocalypses in waiting, but as problems to be solved" through three weapons: reason, science and humanism.
War Or Peace: Prof. Deepak Lal is a formidable scholar. War Or Peace is a magisterial steeped-in-history analysis of current geopolitics, with the US resigning from its “globo-cop" role, China pushing for global hegemony, wannabe imperial powers like Russia and Iran flexing their muscles, and India, another aspirant, caught in the middle. Lal even considers the possibility of a Third World War, and ends with his views on how India can cope with the new global disorder. This is a profound examination of the threats that the democratic world faces, and how they can be countered.
Savarkar: We badly needed an un-biased biography of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar—neither a hagiography nor a leftist hatchet job—and journalist Vaibhav Purandare’s deeply researched and tightly written book is just that. Sourcing a wealth of new material, including previously untranslated Marathi documents, Purandare shines clear light on many controversies: the mercy petitions, Savarkar’s call to Indians to join the British Army during World War II, his decision to have the Hindu Mahasabha join Muslim League-led provincial governments, his views on the cow. Here is the charismatic visionary with all his quirks and warts—short-tempered, stubborn, miserly when paying his eternally loyal staffers and, though acquitted by the court of any complicity in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, perhaps bearing some moral responsibility for it.
The Coddling Of The American Mind, and Woke: I’m clubbing these two books together because both deal with the current wave of identity politics and “social justice" sweeping a section of the world’s educated population, especially the young. Fed by theories of post-modernism and intersectionality, “wokeness" sees the world only in terms of victims and aggressors, believes that feelings are more true than facts, often sees speech or content expressing opposite views as violence, supports actual violence to respond to such speech, and revels in “cancel culture", where un-wokes are ostracized (the definition of “un-woke" is broad: for example, if you are homosexual and don’t feel you are a victim, you are a “fake gay").
In Coddling, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff offer a sobering account of how fearful parenting, the decline of unsupervised play where the child has to take responsibility for the outcomes, the omnipresence of social media and a college system where dogmatic left-liberals, who have a stranglehold on the humanities and social sciences, indoctrinate rather than encourage openness to ideas, have created a fragile and angry generation with strong cognitive distortions. While Coddling deals only with the US, its insights and lessons are equally valid for India.
Woke, by Titania McGrath, the parody Twitter alter ego of British commentator (and “fake gay") Andrew Doyle, is satire at its most biting. Samples: “Socialism has been an unqualified success wherever it has been implemented. In Venezuela, a 2.4-kg chicken is currently worth a whopping 14,600,000 bolivars. So much for socialism making people poorer." “My friend Tabitha has recently given birth to a baby boy… After birth, one of the very first things this organism did was cry to be fed. That’s the kind of male entitlement we’re dealing with. Straight out of the womb, and it’s all ‘me, me, me’." Woke is the funniest book I’ve read in a long time.
The Wandering Earth: I was also lucky this year to discover the Chinese science-fiction writer Cixin Liu. Earth comprises ten longish stories. Rock-solid science, dazzling imagination, sublime philosophical queries, and one hilarious end-of-the-world comedy. Sci-fi seems to be yet another field where China is ahead of us.
Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines