Thursday, June 6, 2024

short book and more and then some

The Economist

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JUNE 6TH 2024


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The Economist reads

Six non-fiction books you can read in a day

Resolved to read more? There may be no more rewarding genre than the short book

More from “The Economist reads” 

→ How many books will you read before you die?

→ Eight books you are forbidden from reading

→ Six books you didn’t know were propaganda

 The Economist reads

Six non-fiction books you can read in a day

Resolved to read more? There may be no more rewarding genre than the short book

photograph: getty images

The short book, long underestimated, has a lot going for it. To start with the prosaic: if you want to get through more volumes, short is shrewd. Slender books can be slipped into a bag or coat pocket and plucked out again in an idle moment, so you’ll be more likely to finish them. For adventurous readers the format allows for casual experimentation with new styles, topics and authors. For indecisive ones it can make a bookshop’s universe of possibilities feel less daunting: just scour the shelves for slim spines. Most of all, there is a rare satisfaction in reaching the final pages of a book while still holding the full sweep of its story in your mind. Taut prose is intense and immersive, like a distilled fragrance. These books offer that, too. They must; they don’t have long to make their point. In an era of many distractions, that is a great virtue.

These six non-fiction books include memoir, journalism, essays and pictorial essays. They take you into the bedroom of a grieving husband in imperial China; into the courtroom where a sensational murder trial split New York’s Bukharan Jewish community in the late 2000s; and, classically, into a room of one’s own. In short, they get plenty done in just 150 pages.

Six books you didn’t know were propaganda

Governments influence a surprising amount of literature. Some of it pretty good

image: landmark media

“All art is propaganda”, wrote George Orwell in 1940, “but not all propaganda is art.” Few people would argue with the second part of that aphorism. There is nothing artistic about the dreadful ramblings of “Mein Kampf”. But the first seems true only if you are using a broad definition of propaganda. These days great works of art rarely set out to serve the purposes of a government. They may promote causes, but that is not normally why people esteem them. The books on this list, however, partially vindicate the first part of Orwell’s assertion. Governments or ideological groups either encouraged their authors to write them or promoted their writings for political ends. During the cold war Western intelligence agencies subsidised authors, sometimes very good ones. The cia set up literary magazines in France, Japan and Africa. One purpose was to counter censorship by autocrats. Another was to make global culture friendlier to Western aims. British intelligence services commissioned works of fiction that supported empire. Some writers consciously offered their pens to the state; others did not realise that governments or groups would promote their work. Here are six books, all by authors of merit, that are works of propaganda in one way or another.

Rudyard Kipling’s role as a propagandist for the British empire is often forgotten. British intelligence recruited the author during the first world war to write fiction that sought to undermine Indian nationalism. In 1916 James Dunlop Smith, a British official, sent Kipling the private letters of Indian soldiers fighting in France. Smith asked Kipling to rewrite them to erase any pro-Indian or revolutionary sentiment. The Saturday Evening Post, an American magazine, published four between May and June 1917. (Three appeared in the London Morning Post.) Kipling put his name to them only when he packaged them together in a book, “The Eyes of Asia”. The author told Dunlop Smith that in rewriting the letters he had “somewhat amplified the spirit [he] thought [he] saw behind” them. In fact, his revisions were more inventive than that. In turning the soldiers’ epistles into fiction he sanitised them. He excised complaints like “we are like goats tied to a butcher’s stake”, and inserted admiring descriptions of Britain as filled with “gilt furniture, marble, silks, mirrors”. British intelligence liked what it read. Kipling asked Dunlop Smith whether he found any “error in caste or mental outlook in the characters”. It appears he did not. Many readers have admired what one critic (writing about the novel “Kim”) called Kipling’s “positive, detailed and non-stereotypic portrait” of Indian people. His role as a propagandist clouded his vision.

The Economist reads | Banned books

Eight books you are forbidden from reading

In some places, at least. A brief world tour of book bans in the 21st century

image: alamy

Ovid was exiled by Augustus Caesar to a bleak village on the Black Sea. His satirical guide to seduction, “The Art of Love”, was banished from Roman libraries. In 1121 Peter Abelard, known for his writings on logic and his passion for Héloïse, was forced by the Catholic church to burn his own book. And in perhaps the most famous modern example of hostility to literature, Iran called for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses”, in 1989. For its perceived blasphemy, the novel remains banned in at least a dozen countries from Senegal to Singapore. Book-banning remains a favourite tool of the autocrat and the fundamentalist, who are both genuinely threatened by the wayward ideas that literature can contain. In democracies books can provoke a different sort of panic. Armies, prisons, prim parents and progressive zealots all seek to censor literature they fear could overthrow their values. Bans on books that shock, mock or titillate reveal much about a time and place. They invariably attract legions of curious readers, too. Here are eight books you shouldn’t read.

very stupid!!!

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