Saturday, January 3, 2009

In defense of 2008

Wasn't it considered bad form to speak ill of the dead? Somehow, where the defenseless year 2008 is concerned, no one seems to mind the lack of good manners. I mean, the poor year has barely taken its last breath, and a relentless chorus of 'good riddance' and 'you were the worst ever' is reverberating wherever you look. OK, so the stock market lost 40%, house prices lost 30%, and the economy lost a couple of million jobs. Makes a pretty compelling case for the 'good riddance' chorus.

However, 2008 was less terrible on some fronts. Hollywood, for instance, had some success. Two films released this year - The Dark Knight and WALL.E - achieved instant classic status and climbed into IMDB's top 50 films of all time. Compare this to 2007 with no entries to IMDB's 50 best, the highest ranked release being No Country for Old Men at 92.

And then there is the book world, the subject of this Brick and Rope post. 2008 was by all accounts a great year in books. Here then, is a partial list of books I most enjoyed in the year past. In no particular order -

1. The Post-American world: If there is a more clear-sighted global affairs journalist than Fareed Zakaria, I haven't come across him. The Post-American World is a brilliant exposition of how the world order is changing, how important new economies (particularly China and India) are arriving on the big stage, and how America should modify its policies and 'purpose' to continue its leadership role in the international arena. To all those who worry about this being yet another ideologically driven, 'America is going to the dogs' treatise, the best bottom-line is the very first sentence of the book - "This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else".
2. Complications - A surgeon's notes on an imperfect science: This is a book first published in 2003. But I never came across it all these years. Early in 2008, I came across Better - A surgeon's notes on performance, which is Atul Gawande's most recent book. I started reading it and was stunned by the quality of the writing, by the sensitivity and raw honesty of the author. So I went back to his first book, which makes my top 5 best books I read this past year. Gawande is a doctor unafraid to admit that he is human. He is a doctor whose love of his job and sincerity and empathy towards his patients is transparent. He is a doctor with a phenomenal talent for writing. Complications will leave you breathless.
3. The God Delusion: Richard Dawkins is familiar hero to atheists around the world. He is also a familiar foe and lightning rod for orthodox religious (primarily Christian) establishments. As a practicing believer, it is not entirely easy for me to list The God Delusion (released in paperback in early 2008) here. But it is impossible to ignore the power of scientific and logical arguments that Dawkins proposes in this book of epic scope, in making his case for "Why there almost certainly is no God", as one of the chapters in the book is titled. Dawkins is one of the better known evolutionary biologists in the world and is a professor at Oxford. His understanding of evolutionary science, theist history and arguments, and conventional questions against atheism is all on display here. Whether you get convinced one way or the other is beside the point. Whether each individual argument that Dawkins puts forth is equally bullet-proof is beside the point. What cannot be denied is that The God Delusion is as important a contribution to The Big Question as has been made in many years, if ever.
4. Unaccustomed Earth: Eight little short stories from Jhumpa Lahiri form this delicious book. I loved The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, and had very high expectations from Unaccustomed Earth. Happily, the book easily met all those expectations, and is probably my favorite Jhumpa Lahiri book now. Lahiri is a master of tales of the immigrant experience. In her elegant, polished way, she directs here unflinching eye at the emotional lives of her central characters. As always, she has a great handle on emotional nuance and every melancholy tale in this book left me wanting to embrace the central characters and say 'I understand'.
5. Big Bang - The origin of the Universe: Again, an older book that I was introduced to this year. Simon Singh has written some extremely readable works on mathematics and science. Fermat's Theorem and The Code Book are as thrilling and entertaining as they are illuminating. I was hesitant to start Big Bang because I didn't feel like there was going to be anything that I hadn't already read in many other books before. And that is somewhat true. There isn't anything actually 'new' here that other popular science books haven't covered in recent times. What makes Big Bang truly exceptional is Simon Singh's ability to take diverse developments in science over the last few centuries and put them together in a coherent sequence. He makes the development of prevalent scientific consensus on the origins of the universe seem like a thrilling mystery. If there is only one book on modern physics you want to read, let this be the one.


  1. JS,

    Very nice blog. All you book readers seriously challenge my (last 5 year) habit of devoting all my reading exclusively to current affairs articles. Maybe I should change it this year! So how come the Buffett-Snowball didn't make it into your list of top books for the year?


  2. strangely enough, I haven't read the book yet. It has been on my bookshelf for a while ... but it is forbiddingly thick. Will probably take it up next.

  3. Joy...waiting for take on India After Gandhi. I thought you mentioned it was on your waiting list. Not read it yet? or does it not make the cut according to you? I quite enjoyed reading it

  4. " If there is a more clear-sighted global affairs journalist than Fareed Zakaria, I haven't come across him. "

    BTW are you presuming foreign affairs journos are primarily male? Might get into trouble with the Mrs.

  5. I think I agree with your sentiments that you should be SUPER selective with the books you read, although for me I definately have a bias in applying that doctrine more towards fiction.

    I've read numerous mind-numbingly dull non-fiction books, but rarely do I mind this fact, as I at least gain new perspective, learn new examples, or find different ways to build new strawmen. With fiction books, however, I can't tell you how many times I become really angry when reading some garbage "literature," as that was time lost when I could be reading the books I already pretend to have read (I still haven't read any Hemmingway).

    Thus, when new works of fiction go out, I tend to stick to the tried and true authors first. This year, I found Roth's Indignation, and Robinson's Housekeeping to be exceptional books, but I only read two other recent works of fiction all year (also by mainstream authors Rushdie and Keillor).

    With non-fiction books, however, I'll at least skim through loads of books, and I feel much more confident talking about my favorite ones of '08. My absolute favorite has to be Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, which affected me much more than any book has in a long time. In Defense Of Food was also a fantastic read. If I wasn't intimidated by word counts, I would also love to read Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power, but I doubt that I will ever get to it.

    An absolute dissapointment was Jeff Sach's Common Wealth, which read more like a combination of 50 position papers than an actual book.