Reading around the world

In an effort to keep track of my own reading and research I’ve created a map using Google Maps Engine with categories for country-specific work, both fiction and non-fiction, from academic literature to long-form journalism. The map is pretty sparse at the moment, but I’ll keep updating it. Please send along your own reading recommendations by country (or region). Click here to view the map in detail.

“VIPs” a public nuisance

Sometimes you imagine your problems are yours alone. Writing is at its best when giving voice to observations you never thought to say aloud, or drawing parallels you didn’t know existed. So I’m constantly fascinated while reading an account of Indian politics and society by Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India. To give a small example, the following passage will be immediately recognizable to any of Kampala’s road users.

I once had a long conversation with the head of police for New Delhi about the number of cars that evaded normal traffic restrictions by putting a red or blue light on the roof. New Delhi suffers from a permanent epidemic of VIPs. He told me that a majority of car owners were not authorized to use VIP flashing lights. But his police, who are invariably junior in social status to the occupants of the car, felt unable to prevent it. The same discrimination can be observed at the dozens of road security checkpoints surrounding the capital. It is always the rickshaws, motorbikes, and freight trucks that get stopped by police. The expensive cars are waved through.

The abuse of hazards, lights, sirens, and even government number plates to forge a path through nerve-fraying traffic is a constant public nuisance in Kampala, and on the road to Entebbe. But all I can do is mutter to myself.

The similarities between the workings and paralysis of government in India and Uganda is striking, although India seems more extreme in both its successes and failures. Definitely worth a read.

Reading in 2014

Last year I kept track of all the (non-dissertation related) books I read, in an effort to return to the voracious reading-for-fun habits of my younger years. It worked.

Having achieved my goal, I wasn’t going to continue the list this year (hence the May posting), but realized I like having a record, and have found others’ lists useful in deciding which books are worth my time. So here we are again, with the star-based review, as in 2013.

Key:
* Don’t bother
** If you have some free time, I guess
*** Fun, interesting, and/or worthwhile
**** Outstanding or an important read
***** Read this book!!/This will change the way you think about your life

Fiction
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt ***
Every Day Is for the Thief, Teju Cole ****
Animal Farm, George Orwell *****
All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu **
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes ***
In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar ***
Family Life: A Novel, Akhil Sharma***
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: A Novel, Gabrielle Zevin***
Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel, Helen Oyeyemi***
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler***

Non-Fiction
Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink ****
Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala *****
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, John M. Barry ****
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg Mckeown *****
In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, Edward Luce****
A Thousand Hills to Heaven, Josh Ruxin**
 Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie***
The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, Nathan Wolfe****
Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakanomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner***
Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, Martin J. Blaser*****
Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation, Elizabeth Pisani****
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs****

Ambitiously bought/currently reading
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, William Easterly
Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science, Johanna Tayloe Crane
Africa Must Be Modern: A Manifesto, Olúfémi Táíwò
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty
Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

The Academy in the time of Influenza: American medicine and the Great Pandemic

American medicine up until the twentieth century was an unmitigated disaster. Or so argues (quite convincingly) John Barry in his fascinating book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. The first two sections of the book cover a brief history of American medicine and medical research, and I’ve only just gotten to the outbreak of the pandemic that killed between 20 and 50 million people, according to the best estimates. For comparison’s sake, WWI claimed 16 million lives, and AIDS an estimated 33 million.

Barry highlights a strong link between war and disease, namely, the emergence of epidemics or even pandemics. I’ll return to a discussion of this thesis when I’ve finished the book, but for now, what has been most striking is the utter catastrophe that was American medicine up until relatively recently. While scientists and physicians in Europe, including Robert Koch, Pierre Louis, Louis Pasteur, and John Snow were pioneers in epidemiology, germ theory, and more, the study of medicine in America was stagnant, suggesting the importance of healthy academic and scientific competition on the European continent.

Evidence of the United States’ relative backwardness is abundant. Charles Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, wrote in his first report as president that, “The ignorance and general incompetency of the average graduate of the American medical Schools, at a time when he receives his degree which turns him loose upon the community, is something horrible to contemplate.” When Eliot proposed reforms within Harvard, including examinations (of all things), Professor of Surgery Henry Bigelow, had this to say:

Charles Eliot, Harvard President 1869-1909

“[Eliot] actually proposes to have written examinations for the degree of doctor of medicine. I had to tell him that he knew nothing of the quality of Harvard medical students. More than half of them can hardly write. Of course they can’t pass written examinations…No medical school has thought it proper to risk large existing classes and large receipts by introducing more rigorous standards.”

At the end of the 19th century, Barry reports that American universities had “nearly two hundred endowed chairs of theology and fewer than five in medicine…” showing where both the money and the power lay.  It was ultimately the initiative of a few individuals, combined with big money from illustrious families such as the Hopkins and Rockefellers, that turned the ship around.

The Great Influenza is an excellent read, and fodder for thought not only for those interested in medicine, epidemiology, and virology (guilty as charged), but also for those interested in the academy as an institution – how it evolves or stagnates, and the factors that generate innovation and massive leaps forward in our understanding of the world.

Endangered books

IMG_2094
Jinja archives, Jinja, Uganda (2013)

My research of late has explored the responses of Muslim elites and communities to the arrival of missionaries and colonial administrators across Uganda. Sources primarily comprise of missionary accounts, official documents of the colonial administration, manuscripts and books by Ugandan intellectuals and scholars, and work by non-Ugandan anthropologists, most of whom were most active between the 1960s and 1980s.

The best and most detailed accounts tend to be authored by Ugandans, often those who played active roles in shaping the course of the country’s history. Unfortunately, these works are also the most difficult to find. Makerere University Libraries are perhaps the best resource, but you must have university affiliation to use the libraries and you cannot check out or, understandably, copy the books. Thus, many of Uganda’s most precious historical works are quietly locked away from the public.

I’ve identified a class of what I will call “endangered books”. These are books (or theses, etc.) that are now out of print or have never been published, and are virtually impossible to access or acquire without affiliation to a university with a very good library. Many of the authors have passed on, and are not able to lobby for the protection of their hard work. I don’t imagine there is a huge market for many of these books, yet unless steps are taken to republish them, a fire or two is capable of wiping out their existence.

I’m keeping a running list of these works below as I come across them. Hopefully I can convince a publisher to take interest in making sure these treasures do not fall victim to the decay currently facing many archives across Africa (see Jinja archives above). Please feel free to submit your own.

Endangered books:

UGANDA

Y.K. Lubogo. 1960. The History of Busoga. Jinja, Uganda: East Africa Literature Bureau.
Dan Mudoola. 1974. Chiefs and Political Action, The Case of Busoga: 1900-1968. PhD thesis, Makerere University

NIGERIA

Wahab Oladejo Adigun Nasiru. 1977. Islamic Learning Among the Yoruba, 1896-1963. PhD Thesis in the department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Ibadan

2013: A year of reading

Happy belated 2013! I hope your year is off to a productive start. I rang in the new year with friends and family in Kampala, where I’ll be based for the next nine months or so, during which time I hope to become active again in this space. I’m currently conducting dissertation research on the history and politics of Muslim education of sub-Saharan Africa, among other collaborations with colleagues and friends here in Uganda. More on that to come.

In the meantime, and in my downtime, I have determined to make 2013 a year of reading. I think this is my one and only new year’s resolution; the gym has failed me time and again. For a long time I felt guilty spending time reading things that did not directly apply to my coursework or research, a terrible way to go through life (and grad school). You can find inspiration anywhere, and the joy of reading is something that is easy to forget when you have thousands of pages of required reading.

So, I’m posting below all the books I read this year for my own records and as encouragement (I’m very much a list person. Makes me more productive). I’m more than happy to hear your suggestions on books you love, whatever the topic. The Economist has a great list of best of 2012 books here.

Last update: December 30, 2013

Key:
* Don’t bother
** If you have some free time, I guess
*** Fun, interesting, and/or worthwhile
**** Outstanding or an important read
***** Read this book!!

Fiction:
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova ***
The Round House, Louise Erdich ***
Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel, Isabel Allende ***
Sweet Tooth: A Novel, Ian Mcewan **
The Cutting Season: A Novel, Attica Locke ***
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng ***
Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi ****
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie *****
And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini *****
The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling, yes I bought it right after I found out) ***
Beautiful Ruins: A Novel, Jess Walter ***
The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel, Adam Johnson ***
We Need New Names: A Novel, NoViolent Bulawayo ****
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri ****
Hard Times, Charles Dickens ***

Non-Fiction:
There Was  A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Chinua Achebe ****
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David Quammen *****
Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg ****
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman ***
What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World, Tina Seelig ****
The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood, Helene Cooper ****
More Than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm, Learn, and Stay Healthy, Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel ***
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant ***
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely ****
Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser *****

Currently reading:
Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehardt
One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir, Binyavanga Wainaina
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski

2012 SFAS conference, “Mobile Africa”

This year’s annual conference of the Stanford Forum for African Studies will be held October 26-27, 2012 at the Stanford Humanities Center. All are invited to attend. Guest speakers include Francis Nyamnjoh (University of Cape Town) and Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop, best known for his book, Murambi.

The full conference program can be found on the SFAS website.

books on my reading list

At the beginning of every school year I am invariably overly ambitious about what I can realistically accomplish, including the number of books that can reasonably be read in a day week. Nevertheless, let me begin a list here of the books I hope to tackle (required reading not included) in the next couple of months.

  • The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100, by Robert Fogel.                                                                                                                       “Technophysio evolution and its implications are the central themes of this volume. The term describes the complex interaction between advances in the technology of production and improvements in human physiology. The interaction is synergistic, which means that the total effect is greater than the sum of its parts. This interaction between technological and physiological improvements has produced a form of evolution that is not only unique to humankind but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.” This book sounds remarkably like the dissertation I hope to write. Only that I almost surely will never win a Nobel Prize in economics …details, details.
  • African Development: Making Sense of the Issues and Actors, by Todd J. Moss (@moss_dc)                                                                                                  “This book aims for a simple, but hopefully not simplistic, introduction to the main themes, trends, and players in contemporary African development.” This book seems to be doing the rounds in development circles and is probably a good resource for both teachers and students of African politics and development.
  • The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow                                                                                                               “Offering readers not only a tour of randomness, chance and probability but also a new way of looking at the world, this original, unexpected journey reminds us that much in our lives is about as predictable as the steps of a stumbling man fresh from a night at the bar.” Recommended by a brilliant and enterprising friend whose reading recommendations can only be totally worthwhile. And it has a great title!
  • Decentralization in Uganda: Explaining Successes and Failures in Local Governance, by Gina M.S. Lambright.                                                                  Just discovered this one in a political science “new books” publication.
  • Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime, by Aili Tripp       Also recently discovered this one, has anyone read it?
  • Decision Points, George W. Bush                                                                        Because political autobiographies are fascinating.

More to be added as we go along. What are you reading?

UPDATE:

See, I’m already getting ahead of myself. So far I have read 1.1 of the above books (specifically Fogel, and a bit of Bush and Moss), and I’ve already added more. Recent additions:

I also recently read Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination and Common Knowledge, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, which I recommend and hope to write about soon.