Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What I'm Reading - September 2008

I mentioned previously that this "What I'm reading" entry was going to be a periodic feature of my blog, if only for me to keep track of my reading journeys. So if you're not really into books, feel free to skip this entry.

Ever since mid-August, I've been switching between three non-fiction books (shown in the picture), while skimming through a beautiful "coffeetable" volume on old maps, but more about that later.

* "The City: A Global History" - by Joel Kotkin (Phoenix, 2006) - examines the evolution of urban life through the millennia and attempts to answer the age-old question: what makes a city great? Illustrating with examples from all over the world - from Baghdad to London, Chang'an to New York, Egypt to Rome, Knossos to Sydney - the reader is taken on a journey through space and time. Two central themes inform this history of cities. First is the universality of the urban experience, despite vast differences in race, climate and location. The second generalisation is that since the earliest times, urban areas have performed three functions - the creation of sacred space, the provision of basic security, and the host for a commercial market.

I'm interested in the concepts espoused in this book because in my role as government consultant, I sometimes engage with national or city leaders who need to manage the complexities of cities. Understanding the evolution of cities and urban living is useful in setting the context and reminding of the rationale for what infrastructure, services and rules we try to introduce in modern city environments. It is important to know where we came from before deciding where we want to go.

* "Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy & Everyday Life"
- by Robert Reich (Vintage, 2008) - analyses the triumph of capitalism and the corresponding decline of democracy. Reich, who was former labor secretary in Clinton's administration, urges us to rebalance the roles of business and government. He observes that power has shifted away from us in our capacities as citizens and toward us as consumers and investors. While praising the spread of global capitalism, he laments that supercapitalism has brought with it alienation from politics and community. The solution: to separate capitalism from democracy, and guard the border between them. The book urges new and strengthened laws and regulations to restore authority to the citizens in us. Some intriguing proposals include the abolishment of corporate income tax, and defocus on the corporate social responsibility movement, which he describes as distracting and even counterproductive. Provocatively argued, this book could help begin a necessary national conversation.

* "On Democracy" - by Robert A. Dahl (Yale Nota Bene, 2000) - presents a complex topic in a thorough, concise and easy-to-read manner, which makes it an excellent introduction for novices, as well as a trusty handbook for the more expert. The author addresses such questions as: What is really meant by the term "democracy"? How did democracy come about? What is the relationship between capitalism and democracy? What are some challenges facing democracies in the 21st century?

Yale professor Dahl discusses the tension between citizen participation and system effectiveness, the relative strengths and weaknesses of presidential versus parliamentary systems. Some of the best sections address the tension that exists in societies (e.g., the US) where a democratic system based on political equality coexists with market capitalism, which yields economic inequality. The work is peppered with historical references to such advocates and critics of democracy as Plato, John Stuart Mill and James Madison.

Finally the coffeetable book I mentioned is entitled "Early Mapping of Southeast Asia" by Thomas Suarez. I've had a long time fascination with cartography, especially of Asian geographies. I think it might have started from those history lessons I had in my early school years. I remember daydreaming about those intrepid Western adventurers who braved storms and pirates to sail across various oceans and seas to reach the "Spice Islands" (actually the Moluccan and Banda Islands), or explorers who went overland (eg. Marco Polo), others who circumnavigated the globe (eg. Magellan), or naval officers who "discovered" new lands (eg. Columbus, Zheng He) ...

Of course, Southeast Asia is of special interest to me as this is the part of the world I live. An excerpt from the inside book cover adds to the mystique, "From the time of Herodotus and Alexander the Great to the medieval cosmologies of the Christian Fathers, Southeast Asia was as much a place of myth and legend in Western thought as it was a geographical reality."

If antique maps weren't so expensive, I might actually start collecting some and framing them up in my home ... but they can cost quite a bit, so I'll just have to be content admiring them from books such as these.

I also see these ancient maps as metaphors for man's limits of knowledge. It is fascinating to compare the earlier maps, with their grossly inaccurate depictions, with the increasingly detailed renditions that more closely reflect "the reality". This is akin to the world of science where in trying to explain various natural phenomena, scientists put forward hypotheses and then rigorously test them, thereby validating or invalidating the hypotheses. Hypotheses that are supported by data from experiments generally become theories. Those that are not are discarded or amended.


Anonymous said...

You might be interested in these books. Check website

Anonymous said...

This antique map site is also useful.

Anonymous said...

Does Supercapitalism explain what is happening with the US financial institutional collapses & the government intention to bail out some of them?

Anonymous said...

Ach, James. What happened to you? Don't you read anything entertaining? What happened to some good old fashion novels to escape from the real world for a short while? Or some comics? Sheesh ... the books you read - just reading the titles makes me sleepy!

James Yong said...

Ah Georgie boy, one has to compensate for those errant years of youth where practically the only reading one did was of Marvel comics - go Spidey, Conan the Barbarian, Fantastic Four, etc etc.