Best non-fiction books of the decade

How the decade stacked up in books on politics, economy, society, sport

If the first decade of the 2000s was about global terrorism after Al-Qaeda’s audacious attack on the twin towers in New York in 2001 and the wars that followed, the second grappled with the rise of the right across the world and the strain on liberalism and democracy as a result. Books reflected the uncertainty and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President in 2016 led to a host of writers trying to make sense of a chaotic administration with Watergate journalist Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White Houseone of the most damaging.

At home, the government of Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 and cemented its presence with an even bigger win in 2019, but its policies particularly on Kashmir, the economy and the social, religious fabric of the country made many writers anxious. In The RSS: A Menace to India(2019), leading constitutional expert and political analyst A.G. Noorani argued that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was beyond a doubt “the most powerful organisation in India today” and that its “pracharak (active preacher) Narendra Modi is now Prime Minister of India. Its stamp is evident in very many fields of national life.” When Noorani wrote the book, the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir was yet to happen, neither was the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill passed, yet he presciently foretold matters in the introduction, “What is at stake is the soul of India.”

In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty shook the world with Capital in the Twenty-First Century in which he tried to answer two key questions: Do the dynamics of private capital accumulation inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, as Karl Marx believed in the 19th century? Or do the balancing forces of growth, competition and technological progress lead to reduced inequalities, as Simon Kuznets thought in the 20th century? Earlier in 2011, Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo focused on the world’s poorest in Poor Economics, arguing that “very rich economics emerges from understanding the economic lives of the poor.” Historian Ramachandra Guha updated his 2007 treatise, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, in 2017, taking into account the changes in the republic, the fall of the Congress and the rise of Narendra Modi.

The decade saw a profusion of writing on science and nature, environment and climate change, medicine and sport. As end of 2019 — and another decade — nears, we take a look at the top 10 books, the list by no means the last word on the subject.

India After Gandhi – Ramachandra Guha

Best non-fiction books of the decade

“Because they are so many, and so various, the people of India are also divided.” Historian Ramachandra Guha’s history of the world’s largest democracy, India After Gandhi, was first published in 2007. But he updated it in 2017, because in the 10 years since the first book appeared, the Republic had witnessed two general elections; “the fall of the Congress and the rise of Narendra Modi; a major anti-corruption movement; more violence against women, Dalits, and minorities…; a wave of prosperity for some states, regions and classes but the persistence of poverty for others…; comparative peace in Nagaland but more discontent in Kashmir.” The manner of the story’s telling, he says in the prologue, was driven by two fundamental ambitions: to pay proper respect to the social and political diversity of India, and to unravel the puzzle that has for so long confronted scholar and citizen, foreigner as well as native — namely, why is there an India at all?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty

Best non-fiction books of the decade

The publication of French economist Thomas Piketty’s book, first in French (2013) and then in English (2014), created waves across the world. After a decade of research and data-crunching, Piketty offered an outlook on global inequality — and conclusions on the relationship between income and wealth. He argues that as a rule, wealth grows faster than economic growth, explaining it with a simple formula r > g, where r stands for the average rate of return on capital and g stands for the rate of economic growth. According to Piketty, when the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. He ends the book by suggesting that governments should levy a global tax on wealth.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer – Siddhartha Mukherjee

Best non-fiction books of the decade

In 2003, Siddhartha Mukherjee began advanced training in cancer medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He wanted to initially write a journal, but soon he was on to a book on the biography of cancer. Using the past to explain the present, he delved into the history of the disease to understand the ‘shape-shifting’ illness; Mukherjee wanted to know why a disease caused by the uncontrolled growth of a single cell was so difficult to battle. Published in the U.S. in 2010, it bagged the Pulitzer Prize the next year, for attempting to answer questions about the larger story of the ‘emperor of all maladies’: How old is cancer? What are the roots of our battle against this disease? Where are we in the ‘war’ on cancer? How did we get here? Is there an end? Can this war even be won?

Early Indians – Tony Joseph

Best non-fiction books of the decade

The decade saw the science of population genetics advance rapidly and DNA sequencing of ancient remains told us a lot more about where we came from. If David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018) explained about ancient DNA and the new science of the human past and what we are learning with its help, Beyond Stones and More Stones, edited by Ravi Korisettar, (2017) brought our understanding of early human occupation of South Asia up to date. Tony Joseph’s Early Indians, published in December 2018, makes the point that there was large-scale migration of Indo-European-language speakers to south Asia in the second millennium BCE, and that “it is also true that all of today’s population groups in India draw their genes from several migrations to India: there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ group, race or caste that has existed since ‘time immemorial’.”

Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste – Diane Coffey and Dean Spears

Best non-fiction books of the decade

In his foreword to Diane Coffey and Dean Spears’ 2017 book, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton writes, “It is hard to think of anything more important than how we treat our children… we have come to understand that what happens to children ricochets through their lives and that many of society’s ills could be addressed if we were to take more care of the youngest among us. Nowhere is this more true than in India.” Millions of children are stunted; as per National Family Health Survey-4, published in 2015-16, 38.4% of young children in India are stunted. One of the questions they raise is why economic progress is so incompletely reflected in India’s poor infant health. In search of answers they zero in on two — poor sanitation and the reason why it persists in rural India due to unique social forces like caste.

Second-Hand Time – Svetlana Alexievich

Best non-fiction books of the decade

Second-Hand Time (2016) is Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history, the life stories of housewives, party workers, artists, students, soldiers and traders who lived through the fall of the Soviet Union and the two decades that followed it. Awarding her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, the Swedish Academy said her polyphonic words were a monument to suffering and courage. Her books have taken into account the consequences of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, and the lives of ‘Homo sovieticus, who isn’t just Russian, he’s Belorussian, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Kazakh.’ As she records snatches of conversations in kitchens and the streets (1991-2001), we hear one voice saying, “…we finally got the stuff we’d always dreamed of: blue jeans, winter coats, lingerie, decent crockery…. We chose the beautiful life. No one wanted to die beautifully anymore, everyone wanted to live beautifully instead. The only problem was there wasn’t really enough to go around…”

Caste Matters – Suraj Yengde

Best non-fiction books of the decade

In 2017, Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants was published, which pulled apart the Indian state for failing to stop the inhumanity its poor and wretched had to endure. Two years later, journalist Yashica Dutt wrote her memoir, a personal story (Coming out as Dalit), which was also a powerful social commentary against everyday casteism that often goes unchallenged. Both books talked about “the invisible arm that turns the gears in nearly every system in our country.” In July, 2019, Suraj Yengde’s Caste Matters took the argument forward, wondering when India’s progressive Brahmins will take up anti-caste work on a war footing, “for caste in India is an absolute sanction – of the dominant class over the dominated.” He writes that despite the academic credentials he had carefully honed — Yengde is with the Harvard Kennedy School in New York — after growing up poor, he was still treated as an “uneducated labourer… vulnerable and unprotected.”


Directorate S – Steve Coll

Best non-fiction books of the decade

Journalist Steve Coll gave a first-hand account of America’s secret history in Afghanistan (Ghost Wars) in 2004. Accessing government files and interviewing senior U.S. officials, he wrote about the CIA’s covert funding of a jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, sowing the seeds of Osama bin Laden’s rise. In devastating detail, he lay bare the American intelligence’s failure to understand the threat from Laden in the years leading up to 9/11. Coll won a Pulitzer, and wrote more books, including a biography of the Bin Laden family. In 2018, he wrote Directorate S, the sequel to Ghost Wars, picking up the story from two days before 9/11 when the Afghan warlord and commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance Ahmed Shah Masood was assassinated, and detailing the CIA and America’s secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan during 2001-2016. Coll highlights Pakistan’s strategy for Afghanistan — join the U.S. war against terror, while also covertly supporting the Taliban, through a highly secretive wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence, known as ‘Directorate S.’


Cricket Country: The Untold Story of the First All India Team – Prashant Kidambi

Best non-fiction books of the decade

Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field wove biography with history to chronicle the lives of famous and forgotten cricketers including in the list India’s first great slow bowler, Palwankar Baloo, a Dalit who fought against caste discrimination. In Prashant Kidambi’s well-researched account of the formation of the first representative Indian team and its tour of England in 1911, two Dalits including Baloo feature. In Cricket Country (2019), Kidambi gathers the first all-India team, ‘a diverse coalition comprising Indian businessmen, princes and publicists, working in tandem with British governors, officials, journalists, soldiers and professional coaches.’ When the side departs to England, it is ‘an improbable case of characters,’ chosen from several regions on the basis of their religion: six Parsis, three Muslims and five Hindus, including the two Dalits. “The book charts how the idea of India took shape on the cricket pitch,” Kidambi writes in the preface.


A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

Best non-fiction books of the decade

On a long flight across the Pacific, as he stared at the moonlight on the ocean, Bill Bryson (known for his travel books Notes from a Small IslandA Walk in the Woods, and so forth ) felt he knew nothing ‘about the only planet’ he was ever going to live on. He spent three years researching and finding ‘patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions.’ The result was A Short History of Nearly Everything which is his quest to understand everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation. In his quirky, self-deprecating humour, he tackles the tiniest, ‘spatially unassuming’ proton, and intimidating subjects like particle physics. He tries to explain how we got from there, being nothing at all, to here, being us. Best known for his travelogues, he makes this a marvellous journey across the universe through science. First published in 2003, it was updated 10 years later in 2013, taking in the major scientific developments of the second decade.


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