As we approach Christmas, we offer selections from Lowy Institute staff and board members, and from Interpreter contributors, for the best book they have read this year. Part 1 here.
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin. Selected by Mark Ryan, Lowy Institute Board member.
I've just finished re-reading Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Claire Tomalin's account of the crowded life of one of literary history's most fascinating characters. Pepys has lessons aplenty on politics, religion, marriage, how to live the good life and how to survive and prosper in treacherous times.
Pepys was the consummate civil servant and parliamentarian who, among other things, built the foundations of the Royal Navy and through his famous diary gave posterity a ringside seat at the biggest events of his day, from the Great Fire of London to the early triumphs and setbacks that characterised England's emergence as a superpower.
Just as interesting is how Tomalin brings the diary to life for the modern reader, full of Pepys' critical self-examination, personal tragedy, humour and philosophical musings. A bonus is the rich detail of mid-17th century London life, the back alleys and pubs, mistresses and gambling houses, all of which Pepys revelled in and regarded as being as indispensable to the good life as the motto on his bookplate: Mind Makes the Man.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. Selected by Nick Bryant, author of the Rise and Fall of Australia and the New York and UN correspondent for the BBC.
There was a definite charge in the air when Richard Flanagan launched The Narrow Road to the Deep North in New York. The venue for the party, a book-lined apartment on the Upper East Side, was packed. Literary luminaries such as Robert B Silvers, the founder of the New York Review of Books, made sure to attend. Even though Flanagan was then considered a long shot, the novel was generating Booker buzz. A review in the New York Times the previous weekend had described it as 'magnificent.' As soon as I read the novel, it became my book of the year, maybe even of the decade.
It is also an important work for readers of the Interpreter, thinkers who ponder Australia's place in the region and the world. Aside from its literary brilliance and narrative power – has anyone penned a more disturbing account of life as a prisoner of war? – The Narrow Road to the Deep North is totemic. At a time when Australia is enjoying more cultural influence than ever before, it is a reminder both of the global resonance of Australian stories and also the worldwide appreciation of Australian storytellers. Just as significantly, at a time when Australians are trying to plot an Asian future, it confronts the Asian past. It thus becomes part of the ongoing quest for regional understanding. Not only does Flanagan put us in the disintegrating shoes of Dorrigo Evans and his fellow prisoners of war, but also of the Japanese guards who inflicted such misery. As a result, he has not only produced one of the great Australian novels but also a great Asian novel.
Democratic Militarism: Voting, Wealth and War, by Jonathan D Caverley. Selected by Mathew Hill, a PhD candidate at the Department of Government, Cornell University, and a regular Interpreter contributor.
After a decade dominated by military misadventures abroad, democratic states face some hard strategic questions. Why have governments elected by citizen-taxpayers engaged in expensive military interventions for uncertain stakes? Further, why have they frequently performed so poorly?
Caverley's explanation is equal parts intriguing and unsettling. Democracies spread political power more evenly than wealth. As a result, rather than risk their skins in battle, voters draft the capital of the wealthy. However, in reducing their exposure to harm, citizens become less discriminating in their support for war, encouraging strategic over-extension.
Backed with rigorous research, this is required reading for those concerned with the strategic consequences of democratic politics.