Chris Blattman

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Best nonfiction I read this year, Part II


Continuing from last week, a few more favorites of the past 12 months (none of which were written all that recently). And a reminder that you can sign up to get posts by email.

Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King, alongside Euphoria, by Lily King (and Gillian Tett’s Anthrovision for good measure)

Euphoria was my recommendation for best book in 2015. “Pioneering anthropologists in the field, making it up as they go along: The novel,” was my description. It was a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Margaret Mead  “I find it impossible to imagine the equivalent book on economists or political scientists,” I added. That has not changed. But now there is a fabulous non-fictional account of Mead and her unorthodox fieldwork, by Charles King. The subtitle is How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. It begins with Mead’s mentor, Franz Boas, the state of anthropology in the early 20th century (mostly racist and poorly researched), and the empirical turn that Boas and Mead and others brought about (including Zora Neale Hurston, for more books to add to this trio.

There are some beautiful ideas (like Boas’s concept of anthropology as Herzensbildung—the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another). And there are some amazing factoids (did you know that, back in the 1920s, Foreign Affairs was called the Journal of Race Development?). Mostly this is a book about a scientific revolution and the individuals who brought it about.

As I was finishing these books I spotted and skimmed Anthrovision, a guide to using some of the basic tools and ideas of the field in your everyday life. Now, I don’t think you can teach anthropology in a class or a book. I’m no expert, but (having worked alongside or under a couple of ethnographers and anthropologists) it seems to me it’s something you have to do, and have your notes and your conclusions relentlessly critiqued. Then read and critique others. But alongside these other books, I grew a much better sense of what anthropology strives to do and why.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford

If I’d been around to blog a best-of list for 2019 or 2020, books that would have placed would be Tamin Ansari’s Destiny Disrupted and perhaps Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment. Both are histories of Central Asia that reversed my thinking on the region. I had taken Adam Smith quite seriously, who once wrote that all the inland parts of Africa and Asia lying any considerable way from the sea “seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilised state in which we find them at present.” That’s not true for many parts of Africa (think the Malian Empire) and these books show how it was anything but true for Central Asia. The Silk Road flowed through, rather than any river system or sea, and this brought about some of the biggest cities, the most advanced technologies, and the most sophisticated art and philosophy, all while Adam Smith’s great-great-great-great grandparents were wallowing in sheep and mud. Much of this was a revelation to me and it made me more curious about the region.

The Genghis Khan book was the next one to really satisfy. The leader and his troops arrived out of the desert and devastated the civilizations that had grown up, but laid the foundations for the next ones to grow. The mongols created countries that survive to modern times, from Korea to India. They spread like a plague, destroying entire cities, but in their wake came an epidemic of commerce and trade and the exchange of ideas. The Mongols emphasized ideas that were unusual then, but more commonplace now: free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and participatory administration. They created the first global culture, Weatherford concludes. That’s maybe a tiny bit grandiose, but not by much.

Taliban, by Ahmed Rashid

Continuing with my unaccountable Central Asia theme: after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, I decided I wanted to try to understand the war better. Why did it even happen? Why didn’t the Taliban concede just enough to keep the US from invading? Why didn’t the US leave shortly after the successful toppling of the regime? And when they didn’t, why did it take so long to depart.

Despite what many people say, I see nothing inevitable about this war. Had a few events gone differently, the world might look back on the capitulation of the Taliban, or the brief US invasion, as benignly as they regard the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, or or as forgetfully as the collective amnesia over the US invasion of Haiti in 1994 to uphold an election and stop a coup. But those alternative histories, and the origins of the war, are a post for another day.

This book isn’t about the war, because it was written just before the attacks of September 11, when few people cared about the curious band of fundamentalists who were winning the Afghan civil war, in defiance of all expectations. Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, had been following then and events for years. Having the United States attack your book’s subject right around the time of publication is more or less the best thing that can happen to your book sales, and reputedly every US military officer read a copy of Rashid’s book (or at least claimed to). It’s a great book. How the Taliban prosecuted the pre-2001 civil war is a great start to understanding why some of its leaders were unwilling to compromise with the United States. I would summarize it as a mix of principled intransigence and asymmetric information (or really just an absence of information and communication). Plus Pakistani private interests and meddling. More on that in my future post on why the US and Taliban fought.

1491, by Charles Mann

If I had read this book before I entered grad school, I might have become an archaeologist. From the outside, archeology feels like a field where it’s hard to do pathbreaking work. How much more can we really learn about the Egyptians? But what 1491 makes clear is that there is an enormous amount we do not know about pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas, and what archeologists learned in the late 20th century was radical and field changing. Mexico and the Andes were home to vast, sophisticated states and empires with technologies and populations that rivaled any on the planet. The Inca were bigger than Ming China or the Ottoman Empire. Their dominion extended “over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude—as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo,” Mann tells us. The book was full of mind-blowing revelations–science that is out there but seldom taught. And we still have an astonishing amount to learn about these places, their competitors, and their predecessors.

If there is an updated book on this subject (1491 first came out in 2006) I would love to hear about it. Which reminds me: I haven’t seen an updated take on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and I’m curious how far the science has come in two decades.

In Service of the Republic, by by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah

Last time I said I wasn’t going to blog any of the books from my How to Change the World class, but I have to mention this one. It’s a bit of a niche pick. If you want the most earnest and neoliberal take on how to make India a more functional and dynamic place, then this is the book for you! I realize that is not much of a sales pitch. But Kelker and Shah give us one of the best examples of simple and straightforward prose writing, of commonsensical policy design, and of synthesizing a century of social science on social change, all rolled into one book. They are are Indian economists, living and working there, who have spent most of their careers trying to make the state and the economy work for people. If you live in a liberal democracy anywhere in the world (including the United States) and you want to try to make your government function better, this is one of the top five books you can read.