By Vikas Datta
With a microscopic organism upending life as we know it, the realm of books was among the few which held its own, operating near normally in this tumultuous year. The flow of new titles, across all genres, continued unabated and provided readers a safe haven for a troubled psyche. For avid readers, confined to homes and deprived of opportunities of external sources of leisure, it was a dream opportunity to work through pending piles and acquire fresh material.
But amid the host of autobiographies and biographies, examinations of political partisanship – and their social effects, new looks at history and more as well as a wide array of fiction for all tastes and moods, the worst health crisis the world faced in over a century found its own niche.
While there is no shortage of books on coronavirus, some representative ones could include physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan’s “Virusphere: Ebola, AIDS, Influenza and the Hidden World of the Virus”, which explains why epidemics are inevitable and their benefits, science journalist Sonia Shah’s “Pandemic” about the interplay of history, politics and science in tackling the scourge of disease, and John Barry’s “The Great Influenza : The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History”, which not only chronicles how the Spanish flu of 1918-20 devastated a world already laid low by years of war, revolutions and other upheavals, but also shows how the political handling is as important as the medical measures.
A contemporary look at this aspect can be found in legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s “Rage”, his second book on the maverick presidency of Donald Trump.
An Indian perspective is provided by “The Coronavirus: What you Need to Know about the Global Pandemic” by Dr Swapneil Parikh and Maherra Desai, and “Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The Covid-19 Pandemic” by by Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, Dr Gagandeep Kang, and AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria.
But with the virus mutating into new variations and universal vaccination still a long way off, the last word on coronavirus is still to be said. But some signposts can be found in Fareed Zakaria’s “10 Lessons for the Post-Pandemic World” and the prolific Kiran Manral’s “Raising Kids with Hope and Wonder in Times of a Pandemic and Climate Change”
The coveted Nobel Prize for Literature was won by American poet Louise Gluck, who draws on classical mythology, family life and nature in her precise and spare rendition of certain traumatic facets of the human conditions such as pain and loss — both personal and public — but also longing and self-realisation, while the Booker went to debutant Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain”, a semi-autobiographical story of a young boy maintaining a fraught relationship with his alcoholic mother.
The world of literature was also left poorer with a galaxy of veterans bidding adieu including controversial English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton, 75, British academician Christopher Tolkien, 95, the son of the great fantasy novelist J.R.R. Tolkien and the one who drew the maps for “The Lord of the Rings”, American “Queen of Suspense” Mary Higgins Clark, 92, Clive Cussler, 88, known for the “Dirk Pitt” series of marine adventures, Urdu poet Rahat Indori, 70, Hindi poet Manglesh Dabral, 72, Soviet/Russian writer and satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky, 86, British spy novelist John le Carre, 89, and Urdu author and literary critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, 85, known for his penetrating analysis of the poetry of Mir Taqi Mir.
Some of the year’s notable offerings included former US President Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land”, an account of his eventful first term, J.K. Rowling’s non-Harry Potter world “The Ickabog”, a cautionary fairy tale about inept leadership and demonisation of the ‘enemy’, Hari Kunzuru’s “The Red Pill” and the irrepressible Moni Mohsin’s “The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R”, but there was much more.
While it is virtually impossible to make a list of books that could even approach a representative section let satisfy each palate, some suggestions/recommendations in various genres can be attempted.
In non-fiction, there is astrophysicist Janna Levin’s “Black Hole Survival Guide”, which not only seeks to demystify one of most perplexing celestial objects, but also shows the unflattering role of humans in the cosmos, Tim Harford’s “How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers”, an engaging guide to avoid getting bamboozled by statistics, and Michiko Kakutani’s “Ex Libris”, a personalised introduction to 100 key books, old and new, for those without inclination/opportunity to read the originals in full.
On the humanities side, Richard Eaton’s “India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765” seeks to show how the country’s pre-colonial history was not a binary construct as long politically propagated, Anne Appelbaum’s self-explanatory but disturbing “Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends”, and the very vital “Bad News: Why We Fall for Fake News” by Rob Brotherton, who’s earlier “Suspicious Minds” explained why conspiracy theories have a receptive audience.
In fiction, consider Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Rodham: What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?” exploring this tantalising premise, Mieko Kawakami’s “Breasts and Eggs”, an account of the female life experience (and commodification thereof) , and former ISI chief Lt Gen Asad Durrani’s “Honour Among Spies”, about the dangers of asking inconvenient questions about issues the establishment would prefer to be forgotten.
For aficionados of whodunnits, two authors take them to places which were long ripe for the genre – Mark McCrum in “The Festival Murders” (literary festivals) and Kiran Manral in “The Kitty Party Murder”. For a rarely-invoked locale, there is Sujata C. Sabnis’ “Blood on the Sands”, set in Kutch.
If Rick Riordan, whose finale to “Trials of Apollo” series came out or even Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah series (third out now) are not to your taste, Anuja Chandramouli, who has a penchant for a lyrical but contemporary refashioning of Indian mythology, had “Mohini:The Enchantress”.
We can only hope that 2021 is as abundant.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])