The Year Gone By – 2018

It has been a year of ‘reading’ audio books and books from the local used book store.

The former has made it possible to ‘read’ books during my drive to work and enabled me to read books that I found difficult to read before. Picking up books from the local used book store has made me discover forgotten or unheard of books, besides the fact that they cost practically nothing.

Audio books have constituted a majority of the books that I ‘read’ this year and the few non- audio books are marked to indicate otherwise (* indicates a paper book and ** an e-book). I have also used ‘listen’ and ‘read’ interchangeably when referring to audio books.

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Philosophy and History

My interest in the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche owes to numerous quotes and references to his writings not only while reading about Western philosophy and but also because of his influence on the Poet of the Awakening of Asia, Muhammad Iqbal. However, my experience with both the books (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None , Beyond Good and Evil) has been very disappointing. There are lots of quotable quotes and aphorisms, but I still can’t understand why he is considered to be such an important philosopher. I get that his concept of Will is in opposition to the determinism in Hegel and Marx, but there is little else.

I grew up reading the science fiction works of HG Wells and Jules Verne in childhood and was not aware of this book on history that Wells wrote in the aftermath of the First World War. A number of things stood out as I listened to the audio version of The Outline of History, the beginning being the most fascinating one because Wells opens the book not with the early man, but the origins of the universe and then the formation of the sun and the earth, placing our history in the long chain of events that preceded mankind.

The other fascinating aspect of the work is the very antiquated style of expounding on the subject- most of it is about great men and great events- usually wars, understandably so since the book was written in the aftermath of what was then called The Great War. There are a lot of chapters that are of little interest for a layman, like the detailed history of early Rome and Greece, even though these are peppered with interesting nuggets of information. I did not know, for example, that the words Czar, Kaisar and Qaisar (as in Qaisar- i- Hind) all derive from Caesar.

Ariel and Will Durant ‘s The Lessons of History was written late in life, much after Will Durant had made a quiet jump from being a socialist to taking conservative positions on issues like the family, preferring order over liberty and considered one of the glorified American myth, competition to be the central driving force of human history. It is difficult to agree with him, and even consider seriously most of his what are less ideas and more opinions.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting audio read, and Durant, even in old age, comes across as a very engaging conversationalist.

One of the more interesting topics that I found was the one where Will Durant feels that the socialist East and the free West will converge. History has proven otherwise, but it is worth listening to that such a contra- factual possibility.

Interestingly I found echoes of this line of thinking in Tony Judt’s last book written before he passed away in 2010, Ill Fares the Land, which is a collection of talks that examine the post- 1980s neo- liberal phase in the West. There is a lot that is already familiar and yet one finds not only the style engaging but also some great insights and interesting polemics.

The most interesting bit is about the influence of the Austrian thinkers from the 1930 on the Chicago School of Economics, considered to be the fountainheads of neo- liberalism. Judt suggests that these thinkers (among who are Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek) reacted to the failure of Red Vienna. Besides the interesting history behind this, it provides a context to neo- liberalism and hence the questionable claims for its universality.

The polemical bits are related primarily to Judt’s views on the importance of the State (whose opponents are both libertarians as well as anarchists and early communists) and his call to return to social democracy.

Howard Zinn’s classic, A People’s History of the United States is the history of the United States since the European conquest and the creation of a settler colonialism, seen through the perspective of those excluded and persecuted- the natives, workers-white, black and Latinos, women, and their struggles. The book is a mandatory detox from the story of the Empire’s belief of “Manifest Destiny” and triumphalism.

The late 1990s were a boom time for “Sovietologists” or “fossil hunters” (as Catherine Merridale calls it) when the Soviet archives became available for researchers. Catherine Merridale’s book on Lenin’s famous journey (Lenin on the Train) through Germany and Sweden in the spring of 1917 is a recent addition to that literature. I ‘read’ the audio version of the book that is well researched and well narrated, providing some interesting bits of information on Lenin and the months leading up to the Great October Revolution. While the narration is good, it is more about the months leading up to October and understandably not just about the train journey.

My quibbles are elsewhere- Merridale’s near obsession with British secret service records and inability to see anything good in the Revolution and its aftermath. In this she is hardly different from others whose names come to mind- Robert Service, Orlando Figes, Edvard Radzinsky and Dmitri Volkogonov, writers whom I read in the late 1990s or early 2000s and all of them were either unsympathetic or hostile to the Revolution.

On a less earth shaking note, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History- Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman tells the real story of two young women journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, who began a race in 1889 to complete a journey around the world in less than eighty days. The inspiration came from the novel Around the World in Eighty Days. The travels were sponsored by the respective employers of the two women, The World and The Cosmopolitan, in order to increase their falling sales.

Their journeys are, however, far less exciting than that of Phileas Fogg in the novel- the excessive verbosity of the book is irritating and the book is more interesting for its digressions- New York’s journalism in the late nineteenth century, the few women journalists employed there, the personalities of the owners of its two major publications- including that of Joseph Pulitzer, and the subsequent lives of the two women rather than their actual journey around the world in eighty days.

1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky is certainly one of the best books of the year that I read. It provides a pulsating view of one of the most tumultuous post War years in world history when disparate movements in different parts of the world seemed to converge in their aims and ambitions.

I wasn’t even aware of The Return of Eva Peron* by  V.S. Naipaul until I picked it up at a used book store. It is not a book that is as well known as his other ones. Naipaul is a great writer and keeps the reader engaged and make the pages turn. The problem lies with his very narrow perspective. It is paradoxical for me and many others, I am sure, that a person who is so perceptive and obviously intelligent cannot come out of his prejudices. Perhaps he is a good illustration of what Franz Fanon called the colonization of the mind (“Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.”).

The first essay in the collection is about Michael X, a Trinidadian born advocate of Black Power in the 1960s who was executed after being charged for murder. While interesting, it seems Naipaul’s focus is on making public the shady side of Michael X. The perspective does not change when in the next essay he goes on to write a much broader essay on Argentina in the 1950s and 60s, with an insightful foray into its short history. The refrain that I felt in this one too is that while Argentina imported a lot from Europe, including art and architecture and virtually eliminated its indigenous population, it has merely tried to imitate ‘civilization’. I did not read the last two, somewhat shorter essays. There is only so much that one can take of Naipaul’s prejudices.

The Lotus and the Robot* by  Arthur Koestler

What a disappointing work by the author of ‘Darkness at Midnight’ and ‘Yogi and the Commissar’, both among the best works in fiction and essays, respectively, of the 20th century. I wonder if it is not so much because of the loss of Koestler’s enthusiasm for communism – indeed his disappointment formed the basis of these two stellar works, but rather because of new found love for spirituality and eastern traditions. The Lotus refers to the essays based on his travels in India and the Robot to the essays based on his travels to Japan. There are a few interesting observations particularly about the history of Japan that I found to be useful, though the essays on India are practically worthless.

A Time of Madness by Salman Rashid**

This book has been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Science and Technology

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech** by Franklin Foer

This is a book about ideas. It is also about how ideas are being increasingly manipulated. Foer guides the reader through history to illustrate how it was done in the past- whether through the monopoly of the telegraph in the early part of the 20th century, then through slick public relations (e.g. faced with decline in selling books, a sly manipulator of public consciousness focussed not so much on selling books, but on selling bookshelves as a marker of upscale taste) to newspaper and television advertisements in the 1960s till the 1980s.

The internet, and its virtual monopolization by Facebook and Google have not only highly diminished the value of writing (and thereby earn a living via writing) but also have led to the possibilities of mass manipulation of minds. It was quite telling that while I was reading this book, Facebook was embroiled in the Cambridge Analytics data leak scandal.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman by Richard Feynman. Certainly not the best works of the physicist who was also a wonderful communicator. I have to look for another one next year to get a taste of the famous physicists’ popular writings.

Fiction

The Neighbourhood* by  Mario Vargas Llosa

It is amazing that Mario Vargas Llosa continues to be prolific – this novel was released two years ago in the original Spanish just as he turned 80. His command over technique- often sloppy in the works in the last decade or so, is at its best in chapter 20: A Whirlpool. But that is about all.

The novel contains non- fictional characters like the former president of Peru, Fujimori and his right hand man, Vladimiro Montesinos. Like his previous work (The Discreet Hero), this one too ends on a happy note. Not so for the reader though. The characters are soundly flat, the plot does not hold together and the dialogues are, with very few exceptions, bland. A good review should elaborate and illustrate these conclusions, but after having wasted a good amount of time reading it, I am in no mood to review this work by Mario Vargas.

There is something perverse in a 90 year old man gifting himself a 14 year old virgin. Some of the prose in Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez, is a poor reflection of Gabo’s great works. There are echoes, too, of Garcia Marquez’s earlier works.

The only way I can make sense of this work is to read it as an allegory for the Spanish conquest of what is now called Latin America. Narrated by a small time journalist who considers a Latin dictionary to be his most important possession, listens and writes about classical pieces of Western music and never falls in love in his long life, making sure that he always pays for sex. This, until he gives himself the child virgin, starts singing Carlos Gardel songs and begins to experience love as he turns to what emanates from Latin America.

Per Petterson’s shot to fame just over a decade ago with his first novel Out Stealing Horses. Like in his first one, the prose in I Curse the River of Time is long and languid and sad. This one particularly so set as it is with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and hence the demise of the ideals of the narrator, whose personal life is in crisis because of his impending divorce and his mother is dying of cancer. If one can wade through this long and even erratically told tale of sadness, the last few pages are a treat and work like a rear window mirror that puts the previous pages in a perspective. Like it was in Out Stealing Horses.

I ended the year watching some delightful films, one of which is based on a novel that I happened to read earlier in the year. The Door* was Magda Szabo’s last major novel published during the last years of communist Hungary. It is a brilliant political novel camouflaged under a mundane story of a house help, Emerence. It reminded me of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel that was supposedly about love but in reality, a guide for action against Tsarist Russia, What is to be done? Szabo’s work is no such clarion call as a wry observation of the dilemmas of a communism imposed from above- on the lines of Andrei Platonov’s The Soul.

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