Summer Reading

Barack Obama and Bill Gates publish their summer reading lists, so I figured why not me? Because, you know, I’m just as accomplished and the world is waiting to know what I’m reading.
Its been a good summer for reading so far. I knocked off my reading bucket list a few works of fiction considered modern classics: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and the Orwellian classics Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm.  I enjoyed most, to the surprise of almost no one that knows me, the dystopian Nineteen Eighty Four and the satiric Animal Farm. Although the latter I found less of a satire and more a grim and ultimately sad depiction of what has been in some parts of the world and what could happen over here. I’d heard that the sales of these books, especially the former had skyrocketed since the 2016 November elections here stateside. Now I know why. Animal Farm was first published in 1945 and Nineteen Eighty Four in 1949. The dates of publication are important because of how Orwell foretold events as they unfolded in the former Soviet Union before anyone knew how they would eventually unfold. It is fair to say that when these books were written,  in much of the world outside the United States and the countries then commonly referred to as the Western Democracies  — loosely comprised of the countries that fought Nazi Germany minus the Soviet Union — the jury was still out on which form of government was the best. As the historian Ram Guha writes, the Nehruvian tilt to socialism and the Soviet Union is a case in point that the matter wasn’t quite settled in everyone’s mind, as obvious as it sounds now. Orwell’s prescience is a testament to his brilliance. I enjoyed his most famous works of fiction so much that I have started reading Homage to Catalonia; his experiences during the Spanish Civil War that went on to shape his views on authoritarianism.
No seasonal reading for me is ever complete without reading a work or two by the late Christopher Hitches, so I picked up The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Provocative title aside, no one can quite put it like Hitchens. One line in particular jumps out. Writing about the time when Mother Teresa was asked what poor people without money or power can do to make the world a better place and she answered: “Smile More”,  Hitchens writes that it is a “…fortune cookie maxim of such cretinous condescension”. Reminds me of a certain Be Best campaign, if one can even call it a campaign. That is just one line that jumped out in a brilliant work. The book (or pamphlet rather) has been called at various times by various people a vicious attack on Mother Teresa, a polemic and a screed. All it is is an honest questioning of why she chose to associate with authoritarians and where exactly did the millions raised by The Sisters of Charity go? Why the affectation of poverty? And the questioning of faux naif as Hitchens puts it and what the real motives were.

When my ten year old and I visited the holocaust museum (which is where I picked up this next book incidentally)  in Washington DC earlier this summer I saw NEVER AGAIN plastered on the walls so many places that I remarked remarked: “Yet it still happens.” My ten year old asked:  “You mean like in Syria?”I told him not quite but he was partly right I suppose. A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is a powerful, if sad read. The story of genocide in the twentieth century and America’s inaction in the face of it. Starting with Turkey’s genocide of ethnic Armenians it traces America’s response (or lack of it) through the twentieth century; the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. Learned a lot about a man named Raphael Lemkin who coined the word genocide and several other United States lawmakers that were crusaders for American intervention in cases of genocide. A great read I would recommend to anyone trying to understand genocide.

In addition I read some of Tom Paine’s works, The Age of Reason and Rights of Man. It helped that I read Christopher Hitchens’ interpretation of Paine’s Rights of Man  before diving into the actual works. I’m working on a separate post, if it ever sees the light of day, on Paine, Rights of Man, the contrasting viewpoints of his and Edmund Burke’s and their pamphlet wars. According to the author Yuval Levin in his book (another summer read) The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Left and Right” what we call in American politics as Conservative and Liberal originated here. Along the same lines, an interesting tidbit I did not know was where the terms left and right as applied to our politics originated. During the French Revolution it seems. Hitchens writes: “It is from this period that we derive our most common as well as our most crude political metaphor. The Jacobin faction began to sit to the left of the president’s chair in the assembly and the Girondin faction to his right.”

Another read, Lincoln On Race and Slavery edited by Henry Louise Gates Jr. deserves its own separate post.

Now a couple of final thoughts on the Orwellian works I had referred to earlier.

Take this exchange between O’Brien and the protagonist Winston in Nineteen Eighty Four:

“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

What is sometimes five and sometimes three and sometimes all at once is two plus two. Because the Party insists that two plus two is not four. Earlier in the novel Winston writes in his diary: “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two is four. If that is guaranteed all else follows.”

Now, consider this tweet from the President of the United States and assure me with a straight face we’re not headed toward some Orwellian nightmare.

Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Or his counsel’s statement that “Truth is not truth”.

Animal Farm of course reminded me of characters from the twentieth century, mostly from the former Soviet Union. Here are the analogies I could draw
Major — Lenin.
Napoleon — Stalin
Snowball — Trotsky
Squealer — Molotov, Beria, Goebbels..take your pick.

That has been the list so far for the summer of ’18.

Thanks for indulging me.

Lakshman Hariharan

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