Raghu Srinivasan


Summer 2022 Book Recommendations

Destined for War by Graham Allison

Graham Allison is a professor at Harvard and, in this book, he explores what the growing wealth and influence of China means in the unipolar world where the US is the unchallenged top dog. He uses the historical lens of Thucydides' trap. Thucydides was a Greek historian and general who lived in the 5th century BC. He wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War in which he recounts the events that led to war between Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece. Thucydides himself lived in Athens at a time when Athenian power was on the ascendant and how this inspired fear in Sparta. His parallel is that Sparta = the USA and Athens = China and that increasing nervousness in the US about a wealthier and more assertive China might lead to armed conflict between the two. He makes an argument for how the US and China must learn to live with and accommodate each other rather than stumble into what might seem like inevitable war i.e. into Thucydides' trap. It's a scholarly work and picks upon multiple examples in history to show that war in such cases ie with an established incumbent power and a rising challenger is not always invevitable. Conflict did end up happening in cases such as Britain v France or Germany v the Allies as well as when it didn't such as Britain learning to live with an ascendant US. At one point he suggests that the US and the Soviet Union managed through the cold war with zero casualties. This is technically true as neither country directly attacked the other and neither country lost soldiers either at home or on the others' territory but completely ignores the Vietnamese and the Korean wars (to name just two) where proxy battles were fought between these two great powers. Just these two wars ended up claiming the lives of almost a hundred thousand American soldiers to say nothing of millions of Korean and Vietnamese civilian fatalities. Such blind spots aside, it is a good book and leads one to hope that the US and China do find a way to live with each other without falling into Thucydides' trap.

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple is a Scottish writer who now lives near New Delhi. Many of his books are historical and frequently deal with the era during 'British Raj' and feature stories that revolve around kings and nawabs and viceroys and governors general. In this book however, he writes about 9 contemporary and ordinary Indians. He follows people as varied as buddhist monks, a temple devadasi, a prison warden who is a dancer in one particular season and an idol maker who is the latest in a long line of hereditary idol makers stretching back hundreds upon hundreds of years. Fortunately it avoids - at least to a large extent - the exoticization that books like this about India often suffer from. The prose is top notch and he has a good travel writer's eye for the relevant highlights. Plus the 9 stories are enitrely independent and can be read in any order.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

This was a controversial book when it was published in 1980 and continues to be so today. In the book, Zinn walks through the history of the United States from the time of Columbus' arrival through to current times. Except, rather than follow the 'mainstream' storyline and tell the story from the perspective of the founding fathers or the settlers or the presidents and generals, he takes the perspective of the least advantaged people of each era - slaves, minorities, women and the poor. It frequently feels like a polemic but nonetheless is an expansive and well written book if only to hear a (very) different narrative. You don't have to believe all of (or much of) it but it is a book that will make you think about the history of the United States differently. Indeed of all histories when told from the vantage point of those who did not end up on top.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

I found this book both wonderful and crazy. I'm not sure how to classify it - it defies even the otherwise easy fiction vs non-fiction labels. Labatut is a Chilean writer and in this book he explores the links between scientific discovery and madness. As people make truly astounding discoveries such as when the German astronomer/mathematician Karl Schwarzschild sends Einstein a solution for general relatively (even as Schwarzschild was serving on the Russian front!), they end up with a deep sense of unease and foreboding that the discovery might lead to. For Schwarzschild it was that he might have described the mathematical basis for black holes. Or when brilliant mathematicians like Mochizuki and Grothendieck solve apparently impossible problems and then completely withdraw from the world - the prototypical 'mad scientists'. This is a short and unusual book and I highly recommend reading it especially if you have even a passing interest in how scientific discoveries are made and the impact they have not just on the world at large but also on the discoverers themselves. If sometimes it starts to feel rather 'out there', hang in and you'll be rewarded.

1991 by Sanjaya Baru

1991 will go down as one of the most consequential years of modern India. In May of that year, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assasinated just as he was wrapping up a campaign and a month later his party, the Congress, was swept to power in a sympathy wave. The Congress party then installed the recently retired P V Narasimha Rao as the Prime Minister in the midst of an economic crisis of historic proportions. Within days of becoming PM, to avoid defaulting on foreign loans, Narasimha Rao ushered in economic changes that have resulted in India not just avoiding default on its foreign debt back then but also in revitalising the country's economy, increasing its GDP an becoming ever more integrated into the global economy. In fact a lot of the economic success story that is the India of today (not discounting the many real and continuing challenges) can be understood as having started in that seminal year. The book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the impact of 1991 on India.

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