A list of the best of anything is certain to be subjective, incomplete, and highly contested. A book list, in addition, can also be scary, especially if you haven’t read a single title on it. Rest assured though that even the most beautiful minds don’t claim to have read every book in every compilation. But that does not take away from the satisfaction and the sense of achievement, smugness too, that results from finding even one of your own favourite reads in a compilation.
In this spirit, The Hindu offers its own list of 12 notable books of the year that has just gone by. As this page deals only with non-fiction books, the list contains no fiction titles.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Stories from a packed Mumbai slum near the airport that is surrounded by affluence. The book is based on four years of monitoring of the slum’s inhabitants and shows how the corruption and violence of the outside world exploits and sustains the undercity.
The Impossible Indian by Faisal Devji: This work makes a case for seeing Gandhi’s non-violence as premised on a refusal to treat life as an absolute value, and on the willingness to countenance violence. Non-violence could be morally superior only by being tested against violence.
Patriots & Partisans by Ramchandra Guha: Essays on India’s modern history, covering politics, culture and social trends. Attacking everyone from the Left and the Right, Guha takes the middle path and articulates his “moderate views” in “extreme fashion”.
Like a Virgin by Aarathi Prasad: A book on the future of reproduction; how science is redesigning the rules of sex. On the possibility of a solo parent, a woman who might use two of her eggs, converting one into a pseudo sperm, and allowing the foetus to develop in an artificial womb.
From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra: On the ideas of intellectuals who shaped China, India and the Muslim world. It depicts a distinct Asian intellectual tradition that challenged colonialism of the West.
What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel: A short, direct and readable philosophical diagnosis of a major global problem — the marketisation of all of society.
Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson: The authors argue that a nation’s growth and prosperity are not fully explained by natural resources or culture, but by the political institutions it has built.
The Meadow by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark: The authors piece together the story behind the 1994 kidnapping of six foreign tourists during the height of the militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. They arrive at a hypothesis about the response of the Indian state to the kidnappings that makes for chilling reading.
The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson: Anderson debunks the celebration of India as a nation, “the Idea of India”, and points to the violence and injustice in its society.
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie: The novelist recounts his fatwa years, how he created a new identity for himself as Joseph Anton, which he coined from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. His memoir reveals the details of his time underground with police protection following the fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini for his book The Satanic Verses.
Taj Mahal Foxtrot by Naresh Fernandes: In his story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, Fernandes mixes his sense of history with his sense of humour to bring alive the musical scene of Bombay, and the origins of Bollywood pop. The book is as much about the colourful city of Bombay as it is about the charming African-American performers who brought jazz to the city.
A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton: Sounds impossible but not if you remember a map is not just a set of lines but a way of looking at geography that is intimately connected to politics and power. So just as we read ‘history’ through the evolution of technology, economics and trade, why not cartography?
(A decision was made to omit books written by the newspaper’s staffers. The books are arranged in no particular order.)