Following the smashing success1 of last year’s post on my favorite books from 2013, I thought I’d aim for a repeat and perhaps inspire some gift ideas for the holidays. Here are 11 standouts that I remember from this year.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity | Katherine Boo
In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.2
On the prowl for something to read on the Subcontinent in advance of India’s momentous elections earlier this year, several friends recommended Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. Somewhat allergic to a more academic treatment of the country, I sought a book closer to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger or Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods.
The Khilnani recommendation, however, was nearly on point, as his wife, Katherine Boo, had written a book that I had been eyeing for some time: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. While all of the rave reviews from colleagues and commentators made me hesitant to take the plunge—expectation management, after all—everyone was right; this book is astonishing.
Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, embedded herself amongst families in the slum of Annawadi, amidst people striving to extricate themselves from caste, corruption and circumstance. The writing is beautiful and the stories are utterly haunting. Boo’s was the best book I read in 2014. It exceeds the hype.
On the Good Life
On Obligations | Cicero
But above all we must establish who and what kind of person we wish to be, and what pattern of life we wish to adopt.3
I didn’t make as much of a dent in the Roman classics as I’d hoped this year, but Cicero’s On Obligations: De Officiis made up in quality what lacked in quantity. In On Obligations, Cicero explains to his son the importance of living an honorable life, with a useful exploration of the apparent tensions between the honorable course and the seemingly expedient one.
Meditations | Marcus Aurelius
One who has seen the present world has seen all that has ever been from time everlasting and all that ever will be into eternity; for all things are ever alike in their kind and their form.4
Sticking with the practical wisdom bent, and offering a second heaping of stoic philosophy, is Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Starting off with gratitude for his grandparents, parents and teachers, Marcus Aurelius drops mad knowledge about life and maintaining perspective throughout the journey. Replete with wisdom. (See also: Meditations (at ~ 3,000 feet))
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Thomas Kuhn
No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others. Instead, normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies.5
I don’t remember his exact words, but my dad handed me a copy of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions over a decade ago, saying that if I could read this book and understand its arguments, then I’d be on my way to becoming an educated young man. Well, I finally read the book and I think I understand its arguments, so hopefully I’m on my way. Regardless, it was very cool to travel through the history of science and to explore how scientific paradigms shift. Good grist for thought experiments, though a bit of a challenging read.
Nostalgia for the Absolute | George Steiner
The political and philosophic history of the West during the past 150 years can be understood as a series of attempts to fill the central emptiness left by the erosion of theology … The decay of a comprehensive Christian doctrine had left in disorder, or had left blank, essential perceptions of social justice, of the meaning of human history, of the relations between mind and body, of the place of knowledge in our moral conduct … These [recurrent] features [of “scientific” theories] directly reflect the conditions left by the decline of religion and by a deep-seated nostalgia for the absolute. That nostalgia … was provoked by the decline of Western man and society, of the ancient and magnificent architecture of religious certitude. Like never before, today at this point in the twentieth century, we hunger for myths, for total explanation: we are starving for guaranteed prophecy.6
Speaking of paradigm shifts, George Steiner’s Nostalgia for the Absolute explores how Western man has been concocting “scientific” theories (e.g., Marxism, Freudian psychology) to quench a thirst for understanding and certainty in the absence of Christian doctrine. Much inhumanity has ensued.
I stumbled across this concise series of lectures while scrolling through a Twitter discussion between Marc Andreessen and The Epicurean Dealmaker, proving that it can be a useful platform for discovering better ways to spend one’s time than on Twitter. (See also: Pope Francis’s Critique of Capitalism and the Quest for the Good Life)
Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time | Carroll Quigley
The economic effects of soft prices after 1925 were adverse, but these effects were concealed for a considerable period because of various influences, especially the liberal credit policies of the United States (both foreign and domestic) and the optimism engendered by the stock-market boom. The facade of prosperity over unsound economic conditions was practically worldwide … Among the financial results of the stock-market boom were the following: In the United States credit was diverted from production to speculation, and increasing amounts of funds were being drained from the economic system into the stock market, where they circulated around and around, building up the prices of securities.7
One development in political life during the next generation or so that will be difficult to document is concerned with the very nature of the modern sovereign state. Like so much of our cultural heritage from the seventeenth century, such as international law and puritanism, this may now be in the process of a change so profound as to modify its very nature … Corporations exist and have the earliest mark of divinity (immortality), and have become, as they were in the nonsovereign Middle Ages, refuges where individuals may function shielded from the reach of the sovereign state. The once almost universal equivalence between residence and citizenship may be weakening.8
To the West, in spite of all its aberrations, the greatest sin, from Lucifer to Hitler, has been pride, especially in the form of intellectual arrogance; and the greatest virtue has been humility, especially in the intellectual form which concedes that opinions are always subject to modification by new experiences, new evidence, and the opinions of our fellow men.9
If you prefer your history books to be ambitious in scope with an infusion of Jesuit influence, this one may fit the bill. At 1,311 pages, Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope is massive; it weighs as much as a laptop. While Quigley’s book has become fodder for conspiracy theorists, it would be a shame to dismiss his work. I touched upon the reason I decided to read this in this blog post, and Quigley makes an appearance in this summer’s post on entropy in global affairs. Extremely long and at times daunting; but I have it on high authority that reading the book is not nearly as terrifying as sitting in his classroom.
Politics and Culture in International History | Adda Bozeman
The image of the world as a physically indivisible entity was formulated slowly in the history of mankind as the continents were discovered and explored. It acquired new dimensions of meaning with the steady improvement of communications between the once isolated regions of the earth. The acceleration of contacts between the world’s various peoples that followed in the wake of these developments suggested a transposition of the image of wholeness, in the sense that the world could now be viewed as the abode of men whose various destinies were inextricably intertwined. This spiritual, as well as physical, version of unity received further definition when it became evident that certain ideas and institutions, first tested and defined in Europe and North America, had a universal appeal.10
For all the books on Western civilization in this list, it’s helpful to understand what it is and how it’s distinct from other civilizations. Adda Bozeman’s Politics and Culture in International History is sensational on this front. In fact, I enjoyed this book so much that it inspired a blog post all of its own.
Empires of the Monsoon: A History of the Indian Ocean and Its Invaders | Richard Hall
Until the ‘Age of Discovery’, there had been a thousand years of almost total ignorance in Europe about the Indian Ocean and the lands encompassing it … with the collapse of classical civilization in Europe, all the knowledge acquired by the Greeks [of these peoples and places] was lost to Europeans … [yet] the European presence from the sixteenth century onwards changed Indian Ocean life irrevocably. Thriving kingdoms were subdued and former relationships between religions and races thrown into disarray. With the advent of western capitalism, ancient patterns of trade soon became as extinct as the dodo (which Dutch sailors had unceremoniously wiped out on the island of Mauritius).11
Continuing with the theme of international history, a decade or so ago I found myself sharing a car to the airport with a Bahraini oilman. Hurtling through the streets of Athens, Greece, I turned to conversation to distract myself from impending doom and asked my fellow traveler what he thought of the prospects for a rejuvenation of former trade routes in the Indian Ocean, particularly among China, India and the Gulf. I don’t recall his answer, but he recommended that I take a look at Richard Hall’s Empires of the Monsoon, which I dutifully purchased upon my safe return to the States, where it sat on my bookshelves collecting dust for many a year.
In advance of two trips to East Africa this year, I decided to clean it off and immerse myself in the engrossing history of the Indian Ocean. Rich with anecdotes, this is a great book for those interested in the perennial quest for new markets, or those seeking to capture a hint of the Land of Zanj from the comfort of home.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century | Thomas Piketty
This book was truly a tough slog. I honestly cannot recommend reading the book, but the analyses—if not the policy recommendations—are important and worth considering. This academic explanation of the new Gilded Age won the FT and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award.
The Rum Diary | Hunter S. Thompson
Expat journalist romps around San Juan in a boozy haze. Terrific writing of a world gone by. Excellent beach companion.
Nostromo | Joseph Conrad
Of silver mines, Latin America, politics, religion and revolution, among other things.
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1 Defined as 10 clicks (maybe).
2 Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House: 2014), pg. 28.
3 Cicero, On Obligations (Oxford University Press: 2008), pg. 40.
4 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Oxford University Press: 2011), pg.53.
5 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Third Edition (University of Chicago: 1996), pg. 24.
6 George Steiner, Nostalgia for the Absolute (Anansi: 2004), pgs. 2-6.
7 Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (GSG: 1999), pgs. 342-3.
8 Quigley, op. cit., pgs. 1216-7.
9 Quigley, op. cit., pg. 1231.
10 Adda Bozeman, Politics and Culture in International History (Princeton University Press: 1960), pg. 3.
11 Richard Hall, Empires of the Monsoon: A History of the Indian Ocean and Its Invaders (HarperCollins: 1998), pgs. xxii-xxiii.
12 The remaining three books lack teaser quotes because they have already been donated to charity.