Turning Back the Page: The stand-out books of the year 2015

From a history of Rome to a monograph on Ashoka and a masterful biography of Edmund Burke, the stand-out books of the year examined the intersection of morality and politics.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: December 26, 2015 2:03 am
best books of 2015, History of Ancient Rome, Radical Equality, Risk of Democracy, Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, The Fall of the Ottomans, world war II 2015 was a great year for fiction

If the quality of books and scholarship were a source of reassurance, the world would look very good indeed. Politics often requires a complex reflection on the intersection of character, high principle, institutions and evil. Certain historical episodes lend themselves to this theme. The Romans provide incomparable fodder, and it is always worthwhile revisiting Plutarch’s Lives and Tacitus’s Histories. This year, they could be supplemented by Mary Beard’s engrossingly readable history of a thousand years of Rome, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. There was also a reissue of one of the 20th century’s finest novelists John Williams’s magnificently moving “fictional” account of Augustus. For lighter, but readable fictional fare, there is Robert Harris’s Cicero Trilogy. The final volume published this year, Dictator, is on the tragedy and decline of Cicero.

Two other figures whom anyone interested in politics can never get enough of are Abraham Lincoln and Edmund Burke. George Kateb’s Lincoln’s Political Thought is a deep meditation on the complex relationship between democracy, institutional failure and evil. Richard Bourke’s Empire and Revolution is a magnificent intellectual biography of Edmund Burke. About half of the thousand pages are on his India engagement. Besides the trial of Hastings, it is rivetingly illuminating on the relationship between empire and local politics in India.

Staying on this theme of morality and politics, Nayanjot Lahiri’s Ashoka in Ancient India was a characteristically wonderful and restrained sifting of literary, archaeological and epigraphic sources on this pivotal figure. Shahid Amin’s Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan is a great introduction to the complexities of identity and culture in north India. It will unsettle all your assumptions about Hindu-Muslim relations. It has all the hallmarks of Amin’s work: incomparable grasp of vernacular sources in north India, an eye for historical irony, and a textured sense of story-telling.

Another must-read historical work is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth. It is a detailed archival history of the emergence of the historical profession in India, and even the emergence of the archive itself. It leaves one with a haunting question about historical methods and controversies: how did the creator of “objective” history come to be classed as a communal historian? That question says much about India and the idea of history.

Aishwary Kumar’s Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Risk of Democracy displays a great mastery of sources, and powerfully makes a claim for Ambedkar as a political theorist. But it risks obscuring its own great insights by an elusive concept of radicalism and somewhat straw-man construction of liberalism. But it throws an important challenge to our idea of equality.

Three outstanding books dealt with the first half of the troubled 20th century and how our world was remade during that period. The paperback edition of Adam Tooze’s monumental, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order 1916-1931 cements his reputation as one of the finest historians of our time. Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East was a riveting reminder of how much of the contemporary Middle East bears the imprint of World War I. It is also a marvel of historical writing.  Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth is a new and original take on the Holocaust, bold and controversial.

In economics, Anthony Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can be Done? is a masterful summation of the issues; but it was also a reminder of how so many 19th century debates over property, inheritance and taxation are making their way back. Paul Mason’s Post Capitalism is good, accessible, even if an unconvincing provocation about the kind of economic future we might imagine. It can be read alongside Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots. Arguably, the employment elasticity of capital will be the single-most important technical issue defining our economic prospects, and you get the sense that we are not prepared for what is about to hit us.

2015 was a great year for fiction. I managed to skip the great and the famous — Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh — for newer terrain. Kamal Daoud’s The Merselaut Investigation is much more than an answer to Camus’s Stranger. It deals with all of Camus’s themes, only better. Jenny Erpenbeck’s End of Days has an imaginative narrative structure, with the same life ending in different points and trajectories. But with a deft economy of words, it conveys more about the existential burdens of the 20th century than do most tomes. Both are also masterpieces of spare, concise writing. Another example of that is Simon Leys’s Death of Napoleon, to be savoured just for the writing. Raj Kamal Jha (chief editor, The Indian Express)’s She Will Build Him a City artfully converts Millennium City, Gurgaon, into a violent, perverse, haunting dystopia. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is deeply effective in its deft characterization and for making existentially vivid that question: What is there for Britain after World War II?

But the most fun, enjoyable, exuberant and imaginative fiction book of the year was Cixin Liu’s two volumes, The Three-Body Problem and The Black Forest. They have been wonderfully translated and published by Tor Books. The science fiction books were a rage in China. Cixin Liu is one of China’s most prolific and celebrated writers. His books are wonderfully plotted and full of all kinds of mordant social observation even as they recreate a world for the future. They are an amazing reinvention of the earth-encountering-aliens genre, and are a window onto just how sophisticated Chinese popular fiction is.

On translations, the big event of the year was the release of the first volume of the great scholar Tridip Suhrud’s translation of Govardhanram Madhavaram Tripathi’s Saraswatichandra, still worth reading more than a century and quarter after it was published, and now with the benefit of a masterly scholarly edition.

Indian writing on law is now reaching a new era of excellence. It is the one field where a critical mass of young legal scholars is doing first-rate work. One great example is Gautam Bhatia’s recently published Offend, Shock, or Disturb: Free Speech under the Indian Constitution. It is a book that speaks to our times, with rare legal rigour and historical sensibility. He is a young scholar to watch out for.

Markus Gabriel is a rising young philosopher in Germany. His clever philosophy book, Why the World Does Not Exist, has just been translated, and will draw you in with the intriguing claim that although the world does not exist, everything else does. This is indeed a puzzle to ponder.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor, The Indian Express

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