Friday, September 19, 2008

On reading this year

A rambling post about some books I've read and come across this year.

It’s frustrating to not settle on a good book. But it’s also a pleasure to read in an unsystematic way. I try whatever interests me, and move on if the book does not get my attention. In the process, I get to read a lot of little bits and pieces, a couple of chapters here and there. This goes on until I find something that reads easily and gives great insight. I gravitate towards non-fiction these days. I am steadily losing faith in fiction, though every now and then there comes a novel that startles.

I’ve finished some hefty books this year: The Brothers Karamazov was a miraculous book, not only full of speculation about religion, philosophy and the Russian 19th century social context, but also one of the best murder mysteries I’ve read. And there is humor almost throughout the book – it erupts at unexpected moments. Dostoevsky is a bleak prospect to most readers; his name portends gloom and tragedy. But there’s a lot more to his writing.

And I finished too The Fate of Africa, another hefty book, and which I’d been tarrying for a while. Among novels, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves caught my attention. There’s a growing trend of popular economics writing – economics explained in accessible fashion, with everyday examples. Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist were two of this kind I liked. And it won’t be long before I read Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point and Blink.

But my favorite non-fiction read this year is a book about chance and probability. Leonard’s Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Affects Our Lives was a revelation. Discussing the role of chance is like discussing the supernatural, discussing God. Certainly, the book felt that way: like a scientific approach to understanding destiny, success and anomalies. When someone becomes successful, we tend to attribute special qualities after he/she has made a mark. In retrospect, everything seems obvious. We look back and say he/she succeeded because he/she had something special. But perhaps many great people are just ordinary people who got lucky. Look, for instance, at how the Man Booker prize long and short lists are created and how the winner is chosen. It’s a ridiculously random process; almost nothing can be inferred.

If I ever teach Probability and Statistics – and it turns out I might have to soon – I’ll make Mlodinow’s book required reading. No, it's not a mathematical book full of incomprehensible equations. Quite the contrary: There's not a single equation and Mlodinow takes great pains to ensure his ideas are understood easily.

There were about a dozen other books I began and skipped or skimmed. But unsystematic reading is almost apt since my mind wanders so much these days. Browsing through the Economist magazine, for instance, is an ideal sort of wandering: one glimpses so much of the world, current affairs, economics, science and technology. Switching from book to book, especially books with no relation, creates a similar experience.

Here's a sample from the last two months: Guy de Maupassant’s The House of Madame Tellier and Other Stories; Mukul Kesavan’s The Ugliness of the Indian Male; Patrick French’s The World is What It Is. More recently: Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a book that adds to the nature vs. nurture debate; The Redeemed Captive, a memoir set in the New England of the early 18th century when Indians, the French and the English were competing for territory; Claude Levi Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a work of anthropology, which many recommended, but which I could not read beyond a couple of chapters; David Duncan’s Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas, a biography of the great Spanish explorer, the so-called “discoverer” of the Mississippi, whose expedition through the American Southeast in the 16th century and whose hostile encounters with the Mississippian Indians there still remains mysterious – mysterious because the Indians vanished after De Soto’s expedition.

I’ve finally settled on Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure, which is about the history of AIDS in Africa. It is also a history of how the West and its multi-billion dollar aid industry got many things wrong.

And what does the future hold? The non fiction collection AIDS Sutra; Rajmohan Gandhi’s Mohandas, a biography of Gandhi from last year (the author is Gandhi’s grandson) – a massive book, but which beckons every time I look at my shelf. I’ve never read a biography of Gandhi, and I hardly know anything about his personal life. It is time to fill that gap .

Also on the list: The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, the first person account of the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, which recounts the fall of the great Mexica city of Tenochtitlan, a surreal historical moment. I hope also I’ll enjoy Richard Dowden’s book on Africa; like the many books on India and China, heralding their rise, there are many gloomy ones about Africa. But this one –whether gloomy or not – is different, or so we’re told. Chinua Achebe likes it, and Achebe is a picky guy, especially when it comes to how people outside Africa write about it.

I’ll have to stop somewhere; otherwise this post will go on and on. Sometime in the future, I’ll be back with another post, about this or that magnificent book, and a new reading list. Until then,


Krishnan said...

Man ! you have eclectic taste ranging from Russian classics to economics to African and Latin America. Wow. I hope you get to read the books you have listed and post your reviews of them. I have been wanting to read Pinker for long but never got my hands on it.

Hari said...


My tastes might be eclectic, but rarely do I get to finish all the books I hope to read. There simply isn't enough time. Besides I am such a slow reader that even a book that reads well might take me a few weeks. And books that are difficult? Well, the sky is the limit: they may take months to finish. If I review even a small subset of the books I've listed, I'll be happy.

Pinker is a good writer. His prose is not a problem. But I think his books are way too big. His chapters tend to be long. That's true at least in *The Blank Slate*. But he's definitely incisive in his analysis.

D said...

here is something you may like
richard dowden's Lessons from Africa : Laughter and music. comes well endorsed by chinua achebe himself

Hari said...

Good suggestion, D - I've already ordered it...