Here’s what we enjoyed reading this year:
David Steven – Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent: the Wars for the Twenty-First Century is a long book written by a big brain. It offers penetrating insights into the vicious and virtuous cycles of globalization, the changing role of the state, and the alliances we need to preserve some kind of international order. Display prominently in your office, even if you don’t get round to reading the thing.
Daniel Korski – My holiday book is Jonathan Powell’s Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland. Powell was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and responsible for pushing through Blair’s Northern Ireland agenda. The book details the time spent working behind the scenes of the Northern Ireland peace process. At a time when the West is being encouraged to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan, Powell’s’ account of the steps taken to build confidence and trust among all the parties, while moving towards the main aim, is both topical and instructive.
Richard Gowan – David Milne’s America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War is a brilliant portrait of a largely forgotten figure in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Rostow – who rose to national security adviser under LBJ – was one of the most feted economists of his era, dominating thinking about economic development in a way that Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier can still only dream of. But on entering government he went berserk, demanding more and more war against North Vietnam and filtering out all the evidence that it wasn’t working. His story, told with great concision by a rising academic star, is a powerful cautionary tale about how theorists can go horribly astray when given a sniff of power – and how people who understand economics are usually particularly ill-suited to understand violence. It wasn’t quite the best book of the year, though. That was Kitty Hauser’s Bloody Old Britain: O.G.S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (Granta, May 2008), a spell-binding and utterly unexpected tale of how the pioneer of aerial archaeology in inter-war Britain succumbed to Communism. But this a blog for wonks not archaeologists.
Julian Evans – Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (published at the end of 2007, but the paperback came out this year so hopefully it qualifies). Taylor is a great historian of ideas, in the mould of Isaiah Berlin, building vast ideas-maps stretching centuries. In this book, he excavates the roots of secularism, and asks how it has changed our experience of the world. He’s particularly interesting on the move in the 16th and 17 centuries from an animist to a scientific world view, and the parallel shift in human identity from a porous self besieged by spirits to a buffered, isolated self that is cut off from nature and nature spirits, with a measure of autonomy from the natural world, but at the cost of loneliness and separation.
Mark Weston – I am currently writing my first book, so thoughts when reading are automatically dominated by the question of whether I could have written that. The book I most wish I’d written is Exterminate All The Brutes, by Sven Lindqvist. A coruscating but poetically written critique of colonialism in Africa, it convincingly traces a link from European abuse of Africans to 20th century genocides, and also makes understandable Africa’s continued failure to recover from this “monstrous intrusion.”
As for me, I’ve got three books of the year. First is Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power, which offers an incisive and hopeful vision of where the international development might be going next. The concern for effective states that’s been a growing theme in development thinking since 2005 is very much front and centre, but coupled with emphasis on the importance of citizens getting organised – politics is as important as institutions, in other words – and long term trends, above all scarcity issues. Second, Amanda Ripley’s brilliant The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes and Why, which is much the best discussion of individual level resilience I’ve seen to date.
And finally, a book from 1998 rather than 2008, but one which has lost none of its relevance in the intervening decade (and deserves a new edition in 2009): LT Evans’s masterly Feeding the Ten Billion: Plants and Population Growth. My first reaction on finding it wasn’t exactly upbeat, I’ll admit: I had already decided to call my Chatham House food pamphlet (out next month) ‘The Feeding of the Nine Billion’, so to encounter an almost eponymous book by an almost eponymous author seemed like a misfortune. But as I perused this erudite, readable and fantastically helpful tome, I realised that finding it was in fact one of my biggest strokes of luck in the project. If you’re interested in how we’ll feed a growing population at the same time as confronting the challenges of the 21st century, then this is the one must-read.
[Charlie Edwards has done his own top 10, such is the rate at which he devours tomes: you can find it here.]