The holiday season is upon us, so I thought I’d take to the blog once more to share some of the best books I read during the year. Following fortuitous retweets from Marc Andreessen and Conor Sen last year, these annual posts have become the most frequently visited pages on the blog, with the 2014 and 2013 iterations attracting nearly one in five views. So thanks! I hope you find one or more of the books listed below to be an enriching read.
World Order | Henry Kissinger
In every era, humanity produces demonic individuals and seductive ideas of repression. The task of statesmanship is to prevent their rise to power and sustain an international order capable of deterring them if they do achieve it.1
In the contemporary world, human consciousness is shaped through an unprecedented filter … For all the great and indispensable achievements the Internet has brought to our era, its emphasis is on the actual more than the contingent, on the factual rather than the conceptual, on values shaped by consensus rather than by introspection … In the Internet age, world order has often been equated with the proposition that if people have the ability to freely know and exchange the world’s information, the natural human drive toward freedom will take root and fulfill itself, and history will run on autopilot, as it were … Yet a surfeit of information may paradoxically inhibit the acquisition of knowledge and push wisdom even further away than it was before … manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.2
Henry Kissinger’s World Order was the best book I read in 2015. Entropy is besetting the international system, and the world is facing a governance crisis. A number of populist politicians—both here and abroad—appear to be more interested in sowing anger and division than fostering understanding and unity; and society has reached a disturbing point where pundits openly discuss that one of the leading candidates for President is a fascist. The blasé response to it all suggests a culture of decadence, as one might have encountered in the Belle Époque, or the complacence of the interwar period.
World Order offers a tonic of sorts—a hope that rational statesmen and -women might find a way to resist the allure of expedience, act with prudence, and reaffirm the principles of liberalism. Though I must confess that I struggle to see someone claiming this mantle of leadership in the near term.
Kissinger’s book inspired a post of its own (see: Henry Kissinger’s World Order and the Question of Universal Values), but interested readers may also wish to peruse this blog’s pieces on Entropy: The Defining Characteristic of International Affairs, Politics and Culture in International History, and The Reckoning.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China | Evan Osnos
We have more freedom of speech than we did. But at the same time, as soon as you get that freedom, you begin to see that certain people have even more freedom. So then we feel unfree again. It’s the comparison that’s depressing.3
Where to begin after World Order if not China? Earlier this year, Evan Osnos wrote quite an interesting piece in The New Yorker recounting how Xi Jinping has risen to become “China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao.” Having eyed his book since its release, I took the plunge and found it to be an enjoyable read that captures the tensions among growth, stability, and justice through illuminating interviews and anecdotes.
The Ancien Régime and the Revolution | Alexis De Tocqueville
Osnos is one of several China Hands to mention that the Party scrutinized Alexis De Tocqueville’s Ancien Régime and the Revolution to understand the causes of the French Revolution—with the aim of avoiding a repeat at home. So, as questions surrounding China’s domestic stability reverberated through the press, I picked up this classic, and am pleased to report that it exceeded all expectations. See the post about it here.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 | Lawrence Wright
His central concern was modernity. Modern values—secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism—had infected Islam through the agency of Western colonialism. America now stood for all that … He intended to show that Islam and modernity were completely incompatible … Separation of the sacred and the secular, state and religion, science and theology, mind and spirit—these were the hallmarks of modernity, which had captured the West. But Islam could not abide such divisions … Islam was total and uncompromising. It was God’s final word.4
The peaceful rise and accommodation of a great power is one challenge to world order. The threats from non-state actors, most visibly Daesh / ISIS, constitute another. Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book came out in paperback shortly after I left my job where I worked on strategies to counter terrorism, so it sat on my bookshelf for eight years until the growing spate of terror attacks this year and last prompted me to revisit the history of this cancer. Wright begins his narrative with the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (the subject of the quote included above), and he weaves an extraordinary yarn.
Story of a Secret State | Jan Karski
For the first time I encountered brutality and inhumanity of proportions completely out of the realm of anything I had previously experienced, and that actually made me revise my conception of the range of what could occur in the world I inhabited.5
For the first time in my life I understood that the sense of poverty is not a result of misery but of the consciousness that one is worse off than others.6
I know history. I have learned a great deal about the evolution of nations, political systems, social doctrines, methods of conquest, persecution, and extermination, and I know, too, that never in the history of mankind, never anywhere in the realm of human relations did anything compare with what was inflicted on the Jewish population of Poland.7
What happens when order disintegrates? And how quickly can the world one takes for granted disappear? I first learned about Jan Karski from my mother, who listened to Karski lecture while she was a student at Georgetown, where he was also one of my father’s professors (and apparently a member in his fraternity). It does make me wonder whether / how much professors’ ideas trickle down through generations.
In any event, a young Jan Karski, freshly back from studies abroad (in demography of all subjects), is enjoying a carefree party making plans to meet up with friends and an attractive Portuguese woman in a few days’ time. He wakes up to the sound of someone knocking on his door, and receives his mobilization orders to leave Warsaw within four hours; within days, the country is overrun; within weeks, he is a prisoner of war in Russia. Following his escape, Karski joins the Polish Underground.
This remarkable book recounts his work with the Underground to resist the Nazi occupation, including his capture and torture by the Gestapo, his undercover infiltration of a Nazi death camp, and his efforts to inform the Allied Powers of the Holocaust. As with Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, this is a book that must be read.
Christianity and History | Herbert Butterfield
The generations of the past are not to be dismissed as subordinate to the later ones, mere stepping-stones to the present day, mere preparations or trial shots for an authentic achievement that was still to come. Nor are we to regard the lives of our forefathers as mere means to an end that lies above personalities, that is to say, as subordinate to the history of any developing system or organisation … we shall look upon each generation as, so to speak, an end in itself, a world of people existing in their own right … So the purpose of life is not in the far future, nor, as we so often imagine, around the next corner, but the whole of it is here and now, as fully as it will ever be on this planet.8
I picked up a used copy of this book after coming across a delightful quote in Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History about the rigidity of mental frameworks within a given generation (featured in The Reckoning). Based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1948, Butterfield convincingly argues for the dignity of each individual, and makes the case that the world is an “arena for moral striving” in which the end is “the manufacture of human souls.” The book offers a thought-provoking meditation on the meaning of history—even for atheists and the irreligious. It also inspired a somewhat sentimental post about becoming a father.
Private Equity Investing in Emerging Markets: Opportunities for Value Creation | Roger Leeds
Simply put, there is no better primer for private equity in emerging markets. Blending a practitioner’s perspective, academic rigor and insights from industry professionals, Leeds argues that private equity can be an even more compelling asset class in emerging markets than in developed markets. The book includes case studies of developments in China, Brazil and Kenya, and has received hearty endorsements from some of the biggest names in the business.
(FD: Leeds was a professor of mine, and I helped out on the book; but I don’t receive any sales commissions!)
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” | Richard Feynman
That’s the way the world was: You worked long hours and got nothing for it, every day.9
Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and champion of intellectual curiosity recounts some remarkable and hilarious—and remarkably hilarious—stories.
The Ramayana | R. K. Narayan (translator)
A seed that sprouts at the foot of its parent tree remains stunted until it is transplanted … Every human being, when the time comes, has to depart and seek his fulfillment in his own way.10
In advance of a ten-day business trip to India, I read through a number of books about the country. Starting with the Hindu classics of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahābhārata (featured in Opinions), I moved on to more recent treatments such as Sunil Khilnani’s Idea of India, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital and a couple books by William Dalrymple, among others. However, my favorite was R. K. Narayan’s translation of The Ramayana, the epic story of Prince Rama’s search for his abducted love Sita, culminating in the cataclysmic battle with Ravana.
Redeployment | Phil Klay
Klay’s compilation of short stories has received much acclaim—and deservedly so. While some of the stories are stronger than others, taken as a whole, Redeployment helps to bridge the gap between a public that is completely divorced from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their fellow citizens who were sent downrange. See also: Thoughts on James Fallows’s “Chickenhawk Nation.”
Noble House | James Clavell
Looking for something to read on the flight to Hong Kong, I picked up James Clavell’s Noble House. The fifth book in his Asia saga (the first is Shogun), Noble House is a brick of a book nearly 1,400 pages long; but it’s an entertaining tale of corporate intrigue and clandestine competition set in Hong Kong during the Cold War.
Dead Souls | Nikolai Gogol
Chichikov is an unctuous narcissist—you know exactly the type—and he’s conceived of a scheme to swindle his way into a pile of rubles. Madness ensues.
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1 Henry A. Kissinger, World Order (Penguin: 2014), pg. 86.
2 Kissinger, op. cit., pgs. 348-51.
3 “W.” as quoted in Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2014), pg. 212.
4 Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Vintage: 2007), pg. 28.
5 Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State (Houghton Mifflin: 1944), pg. 34.
6 Karski, op. cit., pg. 250.
7 Karski, op.cit., pgs. 320-1.
8 Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (Fontana Books: 1964), pgs. 88-9.
9 Richard P. Feynman, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character (Bantam: 1989), pg. 13.
10 R. K. Narayan (trans.), The Ramayana (Penguin: 1987), pg. 10.