Some time during my lifelong love affair with books, I learned to NOT take the CliffsNotes
approach to reading: no need to read the book; just skim someone else’s version of the book’s truth. I never did buy into the company’s tagline: “Fast. Trusted. Proven.” Even though in college I was tempted to succumb to the pamphlet-sized yellow and black summaries, over time, I’ve amended the tagline with a bias toward reading the books in whole, as written by their authors:
•These yellow and black summaries are the fastest way to not ever get around to reading a book—akin to always taking a taxi and never learning to drive;
•Like a used car salesman who says, “Trust me, the car’s not a lemon,” CliffsNotes’ value proposition is merely trusted to stunt my intellectual growth; and
•In the same “tweety” way that 140 characters constrain my passion for writing prose, these shortcuts would prove to limit my passion for reading books.
So why such a snarky confessional to open this review? Because, with no small guilt, I confess that I have only read the first 49 pages (and skimmed some 20 pages on Rabindranath Tagore in the second half) of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire. Since this book “seeks to open up multiple perspectives on the past and present, convinced that the assumption of Western power —increasingly untenable—are no longer a reliable vantage point and may even be dangerously misleading” one can assume that it is wide-ranging and worthy. And yet, I have not made it to page 50.
I’ve had this well-regarded book in my possession for several months, so time really is not an excuse for my plodding effort. Even though I’ve had the luxury of several long-distance flights during which to read, and I’ve had holiday breaks from work, and I’ve even had downtime due to illness, I just haven’t been able to plow through the snowy pages. Stubbornly, I’ve tried to not let this book defeat me. The only other book that I was unable to finish was Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost; and the ghost of that tome from 1991 still haunts me, still taunts me two decades later as someone who couldn’t finish reading its 1,310 pages.
Recently when I was to review the book for India Currents, I broke one of my cardinal rules and read another critic’s assessment of Mishra’s book before writing my own review.
Actually, I read several reviews. They all suggested that From the Ruins of Empire is an important book. But still this reader’s plow remained stuck in the snow pile of Mishra’s dense words. So rather than neglect my duties as a book reviewer, I have collected a few quotes that a student of imperial history might cut and paste for an essay structured around the two core questions that Mishra asks: “Who were the main thinkers and doers in this long remaking of modern Asia? How did they prefigure the world we live in and the one that future generations will inhabit?”
What follows are responses to these questions from the book review pages of what some might call the intellectual versions of CliffsNotes: The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.
Ben Shephard (Guardian): “What gives From the Ruins of Empire its charm and richness of texture … is that its main focus is not on major players such as Gandhi and Mao, but on … little-known and seemingly ineffectual intellectuals whose writings would inspire later generations.”
Amitav Ghosh (Wall Street Journal—Asia): “History is sometimes a contest of narratives. In this book Pankaj Mishra looks back on the 19th and 20th centuries through the work of three Asian thinkers: Jamal al-Din Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore. The story that emerges is quite different from that which most Western readers have come to accept. Enormously ambitious but thoroughly readable, this book is essential reading for everyone who is interested in the processes of change that have led to the emergence of today’s Asia.”
Hari Kunzru (New York Times): “Mishra’s astute and entertaining synthesis of these neglected histories goes a long way to substantiating his claim that ‘the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia.’”
So, what’s the key takeaway from this pastiche of a review? Trust neither Cliff’s notes nor Rajesh’s reviews. For unlike Shephard, Ghosh, and Kunzru, I found Mishra’s book neither charming, nor readable, nor entertaining. We all have our own lens through which we see the world; we all have our own biases with which we read a text; we all construct our own realities. Simply put, gentle reader, please develop your own worldview and read. Read as if history is not only a “contest of narratives,” but also a powerful contest for readership. Read as if freedom from imperialism ends with your decision about whom to read. Read as if your life depends on the simple act of turning pages until the end of the book.
Of course, sometimes, with some books, one just can’t make it to the last page. Don’t be too hard on yourself or on the book. It just isn’t meant to be. Not all books are for all people. I know that in not finishing Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire, I’m missing thoughtful ideas like this one that closes the book:
“The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth—that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans—is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots—the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.”
So it’s time to admit defeat and not let this book haunt me. It’s time to stop “shoulding on myself” (as in “I really should read this book”). It’s time to say hello to my next book and say, “Goodbye ghost.”
For all those high school teachers and college professors who insisted that I actually read the books they assigned. And for the editors and readers who had read my reviews in good faith that I actually do read the reviewed book.n
Rajesh C. Oza is a Change Management consultant, who also facilitates the interpersonal development of MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.