Today and next week we offer Lowy research staff selections for the book of the year.
Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu & James A Robinson. Selected by Mark Thirlwell, Director, International Economy Program.
It's far from an original choice, but this year I enjoyed Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail. I've also appreciated the discussion its provoked. See for example this review asking why the authors' arguments fail to adequately account for the development stories of China and India, prompting this response (entertaining in a rather different way is this review and response.)
Elsewhere, for thought-provoking fiction, I had great fun with Chris Beckett's Dark Eden and David Brin's Existence.
Salisbury: Victorian Titan, by Andrew Roberts. Selected by Hugh White, Visiting Fellow.
It's been a depressing year for those interested in political leadership, and my best antidote has been this massive and marvellous biography of Queen Victoria's last Prime Minster, Lord Salisbury. A few pages a day have sufficed to remind me what we are missing, to teach me a lot about the late 19th century when so much of today's world was shaped, and to test strategic ideas against Salisbury's powerful precepts and practice.
Salisbury took policy very seriously, but despised the whole business of politics, and for that reason perhaps played it with remarkable grace, complete ruthlessness and effortless success. Roberts is an outstanding writer, offering the agreeable illusion of spending time in his subject's company. Full of great quotes, too, such as his complaint that the Army would like to 'garrison the moon against an invasion from Mars'.
Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia by Thant Myint-U. Selected by Milton Osborne, Visiting Fellow.
After publishing his excellent book on Burmese history, Rivers of Time, in 2006, Thant Myint-U has made a notable contribution to the sparsely available writing on contemporary Burma (Myanmar) that goes beyond instant analysis and gushing travelogue. His new book, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, is a thoughtful yet highly personal account of Burma's closest neighbours, informed by the author's own travel in China's far south and India's far east.
There is little question as to which of these two countries has developed the closest links with Burma, at least until recently. In part this is because of the capacity of those living in southern China to assume not just two, but even three personal identities — Chinese and both Chinese and Burmese minority identities. Published at the end of 2011, the book does not traverse the most recent and striking changes that have occurred in Burma, but it provides a fascinating introduction to them.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie. Selected by Danielle Rajendram, Research Associate, International Security Program.
Salman Rushdie's long-awaited memoir centres upon the nine years he lived in hiding following the publication of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses. Sentenced to death as a result of the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the memoir is a touching portrayal of Rushdie's attempts to maintain normality in his professional life and personal relationships under extreme circumstances.
For me, the most fascinating sections of the memoir were Rushdie's accounts of the tensions between his public campaign and the sensitive behind-the-scenes diplomacy that eventually resulted in the fatwa being revoked. But you don't need to be a Rushdie fan to enjoy Joseph Anton, and the book's timely release in September amid the global controversy surrounding a crude YouTube video depicting the life of the Prophet Mohammed reinforced its broader themes about artistic freedom and freedom of speech. There's an excerpt of the novel available here.