Books to Remember from 2013

Apart from the staple of American foreign policy page-turners such as Confront and Conceal by David Sanger, Little America by Rajiv Chandrasakeran, and Vali Nasr’s incisive Dispensable Nation, for me 2013 was intellectually dominated by two big-span-history books. The Measure of Civilization by Ian Morris, and Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; Morris’s book is a successor to Why the West Rules-For Now, and is important for all those seeking to grapple with the grand narratives of received history, and its revisions, in order to understand what path societies take, and why some succeed in overcoming challenges through mastering their ability to literally “get things done” over space and time, divided into East and West.

His now famous index of social development is a tool buttressed with extensive data and nine core concepts, which arguably operate as the metrics for measuring the success of a civilisation as diverse and fascinating as the Chinese Imperial war-machines in the gunpowder era and their decline, or the effectiveness of Egyptian agriculture, to wage inflation in mediaeval Britain.

Acemoglu and Robinson, meanwhile, argue that state-failure, or chronic economic crisis, is not rooted in culture, destiny or geography.

The origins of power, prosperity and poverty, they say, lie in choices societies make. Breathtaking in its magisterial span, this book leaves one with hope for the future: economic success is an outcome of inclusive institutions built over time, as they were in many Western societies, not the other way round. The bottom line is that the slow march of democracy should not be belittled, but neither should redistributive justice and the fundamental commitment to free, open societies.

Governments can learn a lot about Afghanistan from history, and for this I recommend William Darlymple‘s The Return of a King.

Another must-read from 2013 is Labyrinth of Reflections, a Rashid Rana retrospective by Hameed Haroon and NazishAtaullah; this is actually a catalogue and anthology of essays on Rana’s eclectic new language of post-modern Pakistani art. But it is breathtaking in its scale as a stand-alone commentary and corpus of Rana’s oeuvre. Truly a magnum opus if ever there was one, on one of Pakistan’s most celebrated artists.

Who could ignore I am Malala by the iconic young MalalaYousafzai, with Christina Lamb. Although it could have been a richer narrative, it is an account of life in the raw, in the trenches and crosshairs of many frontline conflicts that epitomise our lives and times in Pakistan. Have to confess I liked the part where she prods at her generally supportive father for “not helping in the kitchen”, because it is asides like this that bring refreshing tonalities into what may have been a one-dimensional picture of a life much-discussed, and not enough deconstructed for the searing bravery of its choices.

Currently, I am reading a gripping new account on the creation of Bangladesh, called The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan by Gary J Bass. It is a chilling and bare-knuckle account of American policy in East Pakistan when it was all breaking down, but provides a scalding view of Dhaka and its environs as they fell in 1971, through the eyes of diplomat Archer Blood, the American Consul General to Dhaka. The title professes a focus on Indian double-speak in Bangladesh, but the book spares no players, including Islamabad in its General Yahya-led delusions, Washington in its usual myopia in South Asia, tilting one way or another, and of course the local Bengali resistance.

On my nightstand I have India at Risk: Mistakes, Misconceptions and Misadventures of Security Policy by Jaswant Singh.