The Best of 2005: Non-fiction

(Not that this was comprehensive to begin with, but this year-end look at non-fiction shrank even more on the page. Carried in the Business Standard, December 2005. I did a fiction round-up too, but can’t find that in my archives–will post if it turns up.)

According to S H Steinberg, the first printed book that might be considered a bestseller was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, which ran into 99 editions between 1471 and 1500. Europe’s bestselling author in the 16th century was unquestionably Martin Luther; by 1774, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther had provided the European market with the first book we would still recognize as a fiction bestseller. The USA had to wait till the 19th century for its first bestselling author in the shape of James Fenimore Cooper.

It’s a fair bet that none of those authors, from Thomas a Kempis to Goethe to Cooper, had any idea that their early literary success would eventually spawn a separate industry of its own—listmaking. I should be immune to the virus of bestseller lists, lists of the best books of the year and eclectic lists of gift books, but I catch the bug every year despite my best intentions. Here’s a list—highly selective, of necessity–of the most interesting non-fiction books of the year.

Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) grabbed the popular imagination, though several critics found his analysis of Globalisation 3.0 lacking in futurist detail. There were fewer quibbles with Steven D Levitt’s brilliant and provocative Freakonomics (HarperCollins), with its comparisons between management structures in crack gangs and other businesses, and its analysis of whether Baby Einstein toys really produce smarter kids (not really, say Levitt and Dubner). John Battelle’s The Search (Penguin USA) was a fascinating if slightly wide-eyed peek at what drives Google, the world’s largest search engine.

For those in search of more rigorous intellectual fare, books on science and technology did the job. There are too many to name in this column, but here’s a look at the best. God Created the Integers (Running Press), edited by Stephen Hawking, looks at 31 milestones in the history of mathematical thought, roaming through the lives of 17 mathematicians. Jared Diamond’s Collapse (Viking) was possibly one of the most influential books to be published this year. He asks a deceptively simple question—what caused some of the world’s great civilizations to collapse, and what can we learn from them—and, as always, comes up with challenging answers. I have a soft spot for Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin) because he chooses to tell the tale of our ancestors by using Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a literary model for the lessons to be learned from bacterium, peacocks and rodents. And Ray Kurzweil’s dazzling The Singularity Is Near (Viking) should be required reading for anyone who’s wondered when the frontiers between man and machine will be crossed; he imagines a future containing everything from nanotechnology implants to meatspace brains uploaded into the Net to create the ultimate wetware.

The great Bombay, Patna and Calcutta books this year were all in the fiction category; but if you’re looking for city memoirs, two names: Pamuk and Berendt. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (Knopf) crosscuts between literature, personal history and geography to create a portrait of the artist as a young man in an ageing city. John Berendt’s City of Falling Angels (Penguin USA) takes the masks off Venice; he does a nice outsider-as-insider number and comes up with more gossip than a Delhi socialite on her sixth Cosmopolitan. My favourite travel book this year, though, was probably the offbeat and thoroughly entertaining cricket odyssey, Pundits from Pakistan (Picador), by Rahul Bhattacharya. Mishi Saran’s Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin) set her on the trail of Xuanjang; this year, two Chinese monks have announced their intention to follow in his footsteps, and it should be interesting to compare their account of the journey with Saran’s.

If you have room for only two food books this year, don’t miss Lizzie Collingham’s entertaining history of Curry (Chatto & Windus) and Madhur Jaffrey’s recollection of a life built on scent, texture and taste, Climbing The Mango Trees (Ebury). The works of John Keay form a small library within my library, but even so I was glad to add The Spice Route (John Murray), a competent look at the origins of the fascination with clove, cinnamon and the other spices of the Orient and early globalization, to the list. It should be read in tandem with Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings (BBC Books): the brutal cost of trade hinted at by Keay is at the heart of Schama’s account of how the promise of freedom for slaves turned into a rough, racial deportation. In a strange but compelling exploration, Sumathi Rangaswamy tells the story of The Lost Land of Lemuria (Permanent Black), the imaginary land supposed to have bridged India and Africa.

The best thing about Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian (Viking India) is the argument it’s kicked off: the book has been discussed and debated by everyone from Ramachandra Guha to Pankaj Mishra, proving at least one of his contentions, about the strong tradition of debate in India. A far lighter read, but one with resonances for Indians brought up on a diet of Jeeves and Wooster, is Robert McCrum’s biography of Plum– Wodehouse: A Life (Viking).

If I had to pick one defining genre for the year, it would be biography and memoir. Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear At His Heart (Faber) brings together his father’s unpublished novels with the often pugilistic tale of his own journey as a writer. Ira Pande mined her own memories, family accounts and translated her mother’s stories and writings for Diddi (Penguin India), a collage of voices that wonderfully captures her mother, the Hindi writer Shivani, whom her children knew as Diddi. Vikram Seth muted his own voice in Two Lives (Viking India) to the point of invisibility, to tell the quiet story of his uncle and aunt, two ordinary people caught in the grip of World War Two. And two writers map different landscapes of loss and love with poignant and marvelously written memoirs: Joan Didion (Knopf) in The Year of Magical Thinking and Timeri Murari with his tale of losing an adopted child to another family in My Temporary Son (Penguin India).

That is still the stuff of normal lives. Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (Fourth Estate) tracks a homeless man’s story from his dark childhood to moments of epiphany on the streets, brought to an abrupt close when Stuart kills himself in 2002. And Tom Reiss goes in search of The Orientalist (Chatto and Windus), the mysterious Kurban Said, bestselling author of a romance set in Azerbaijan and published in 1970.

And if none of this appeals, all I can do is to direct you to The Complete New Yorker (Random House), the eight-DVD set that contains eighty years worth of issues. That should take care of the reading list for 2006.

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