Every time I walk into a book store, I remember the iconoclastic American musician and composer Frank Zappa who once famously said: “So many books, so little time.” As big tomes on history stare down at me, mocking me for my ignorance of this war or that invention or this spice “that defined the modern world”, or the latest buzz-worthy books on business or meta-trends pop out at me, or the hot new novels with alluring covers and titles entice me, I feel a sense of anxiety, and remember what Zappa said. Yes, so little time.
So, in the spirit of year-end lists and in Frank Zappa’s “so little time”, I have a personal and short list of the books that caught my reading attention in 2017 and deserve yours.
The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young by Somini Sengupta
Every month, a million Indians turn 18. About half of India’s population is below the age of 25 – some 650m Indians. That means there are more Indians under the age of 25 than the entire population of Latin America or the Arab world.
Clearly, the fate of India is in their hands, and Somini Sengupta, the former New York Times New Delhi bureau chief, does a masterful job of exploring the lives, hopes, and furies of what she calls India’s “noonday generation”. Aspiration, Sengupta writes, is the “one word that embodies the bullishness of this generation”. But she offers numerous cautionary tales, writing: “Aspiration is like water. It needs a place go, or else it drowns everything in its path.” Earlier this year, I sat down for tea and a discussion about the future of India with this dynamic author.
Ruchir Sharma is one of the savviest and most well-traveled emerging market investors in the world. He also happens to be an excellent writer with a deep sense of the historic sweeps and cycles that change our world. The Rise and Fall of Nations, published in 2016, represents a summation of a quarter century of traveling, observing, and thinking about what makes nations rise and fall.
With chapters like “Good Billionaires, Bad Billionaires”, “The Price of Onions”, “The Hype Watch”, and “The Kiss of Debt”, Sharma knows how to bring his subject to life. I read long chunks of the book on a flight from Washington to Dubai, and felt as if I was sitting next to a chatty and erudite investor walking me through his 10 rules on how to spot a country on the rise. A couple of hints: If Time magazine favorably puts a country on the cover, run for the exits. If leading locals run away from a currency or start pulling money out of their country, run with them. If they keep investing and buying amid a crisis, that’s a good sign that a turn-around may be imminent.
In a chapter called “Geographic Sweet Spots”, Sharma convincingly points out that “trade routes are not written in stone, and the advantages or disadvantages of location can be reshaped by good policies”. He pointed to China, Morocco, Vietnam, and several South-east Asian countries as examples.
The chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, is a ubiquitous presence on the Davos circuit and he occupies one of the most powerful foreign affairs commentator perches in the world. These two ‘distinctions’ do not always guarantee probing insight – but Rachman delivers plenty of it in Easternization. His central thesis speaks to the change unfolding in emerging markets:
“For more than 500 years, ever since the dawn of the colonial age, the fates of countries and peoples in Asia, Africa, and the Americas have been shaped by developments and decisions made in Europe – and later the United States. But the West’s centuries-long domination of world affairs is now coming to a close. The root cause of this change is Asia’s extraordinary economic development over the last 50 years. Western political power was founded on technological, military, and economic dominance, but these advantages are fast eroding. And the consequences are now defining global politics.”
Rachman uses his perch at the Financial Times well, probing the high and mighty about the shape of our new “Easternized” world. He describes managing the inevitable process of Easternization, driven by demographics and economic might, as “the great political challenge of the 21st century”. This fall, I sat down with Rachman over tea to discuss the origins of the idea.
Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
“Hajiya Bintu Zubairu was finally born at 55 when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like a field of miniscule anthills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart.” With that great opening sentence, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, a rising star in the increasingly shining firmament of African and Nigerian literature, had me hooked.
This was my favorite book of 2017. It’s a deeply affecting novel set in northern Nigeria around an unlikely love story between a middle-aged widow and a young, local thug abandoned by his mother. The book achieves what great novels should aspire to: It universalizes the particular. In this case, the particular is a sprawling family of northern Nigerians with their own wounds, grievances, and joys, and the setting is northern Nigeria, a region that generally enters the global consciousness with the latest Boko Haram attack.
The family was like any other family in the emerging world, albeit living under a shadow of violence, and the characters navigated between modernity and tradition, longing and restraint, amid a political environment plagued by corruption and cronyism. This is a familiar world, but Ibrahim’s writing is sparkling and his characters, especially the middle-aged widow, Hajiya Binta, will remain with me forever.
“You know,” Hajiya Binta notes towards the end of the book, when lives have collided, tragedy has ensued, and they are once again picking up the pieces, “someone said life is like a dress. Some are made fortunate, others not so. So when it gets torn or stained, all you can do is wash it, mend it, or cut it up and make something new out of it.” For more about Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, I chatted with him about his origins over tea earlier this year.
The Governance of China: Part II by Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping was already one of the most powerful men in the world on the eve of the 19th Communist Party convention in late October of this year. That convention elevated him to an even higher plane of power and enshrined his world view into the Chinese constitution, officially titled ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. Not since Mao Zedong has a living leader had his thoughts ‘constitutionalized’.
There is no more important rising power today than China, and to understand its trajectory one must understand its leader. One place to start would be through his own words. This book, translated into dozens of languages, gives the reader insight into the thinking of a country that will do more than any other to define the world over the next decade. It should not be the only book you read on China in 2018, but it certainly needs to be one of them. Launched last month, the book is high on my reading list for 2018.
Books will endure
More than 85% of the world lives outside of Northern America and Europe. This ‘85 world’ is connecting and consuming in ways unimaginable a generation ago. The temper of our times is shifting, and there is no better place to step back, take a breath, and examine the great transformation taking place than through books. We were told that the smartphone would kill the book, but the physical book has been making a comeback from Sao Paulo to San Francisco.
If there is one thing we should have learned by now from the many books we have read, it’s that change is constant but we can never predict the exact nature of that change. Books have endured for millenia. We may end up consuming them differently over the next decades, but I would not bet against the survival of the book – and I look forward to the day when translation services become so routine that we’ll all have access, in real time, to the latest Swahili best-seller or the latest self-help book making the rounds in China.