Richard Holmes Posts

David J. Garrow “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”

Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014,  )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”

Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).  But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies.  In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence it is easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the  “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.

The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.

Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.

David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799

28 June 2017

Vinay Sitapati “Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao transformed India”

Narasimhudu1Ramu Damodaran remembers the moment of change. ‘The first time I got a sense of how self-assured he was becoming was when he started referring to himself in third person. He would say, “This is a situation where the prime minister has to act.” That’s when I knew.’ ( p.198)

Vinay Sitapati’s Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao transformed India is a biography of the former prime minister of India. In order to write it the author interviewed many people (some who wished to remain anonymous) and was given access to the private papers of Mr Rao by his family. In the acknowledgements he is grateful to the politician’s family for helping him access the papers “without expecting a hagiography”. In some senses Half-Lion is a straightforward biography documenting the birth-to-death life of a prominent politician despite its overly dramatic opening chapter entitled “Half-burnt body”. Vinay Sitapati meticulously ( at times tediously) records moments in Mr Rao’s life from a landowner-turned-politician of Andhra Pradesh to a powerful politician in Delhi including the few occasions when he was sidelined in politics. Yet it is a fact that Mr Rao was the home minister in 1984 when India ( particularly Delhi) experienced horrendous communal riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later when he himself became prime minister, the Babri Masjid was destroyed leading to widespread communal clashes across India. It was a significant moment in the history of independent India since it marked the rise of the right wing Hindutva forces. Despite this horrendous track record that forever changed the secular fabric of the country there is an undeniable whiff of admiration in Vinay Sitapati’s account of the former prime minister’s role in ushering in liberalisation and transforming the country from a mixed economy and its socialist values of self-reliance to that of free trade. The fact is Mr Rao had no other option except to bring in economic reforms with Manmohan Singh as his finance minister. As journalist Mihir Sharma points out in his column:

…look at his great supposed achievement: the liberalisations of 1991.

The truth is this: in 1991, India had no choice but to reform. Rajiv Gandhi’s over-spending and the oil price crisis pushed India into a corner. Our autarkic industrial and economic policies were unsustainable. Any prime minister with a horizon of more than a few months in office, unlike Rao’s predecessor Chandra Shekhar, would have had to begin the process of opening up India.

What is particularly shameful, however, about calling Rao the “architect of reform” is that Rao did not just do the least he could – but he did it in a craven and dishonourable manner that has doomed the reform process in the decades since.

But did he not provide “political cover” to his team of reformers? No. The centrepoint of the first reform Budget, in 1991, was reform of fertiliser subsidies, which had grown tenfold in cost over the previous decade. The Budget speech quite bluntly reads: “with effect from this evening… there will be an increase of 40 per cent, on an average, in price” of fertiliser. It’s said Manmohan Singh even got Rao’s consent to this particularly difficult reform – the only part of the original 1991 reform process that was actually politically tough – in writing! Naturally, the moment that his Congress MPs raised their eyebrows at this, Rao abandoned his commitment, and it was rolled back. So much for the myth of “political cover”. It has little or no basis in reality.

( Mihir S. Sharma “Don’t praise Rao” Business Standard, 24 June 2016.  http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/don-t-praise-rao-116062400651_1.html )

The purpose of a biography is to not only record the life of its subject but place it within context. More often than not a biography serves another purpose — that of presenting a period in history as being continuous and particularly in the history of a nation to be stable. As Michael Holroyd points out the golden period of writing literary biographies in Great Britain began in the 1950s and continued till the late 1990s. ( Paris Review, Summer 2013, No. 205 http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6223/the-art-of-biography-no-3-michael-holroyd).  It is no coincidence that the art of writing biographies that required considerable scholarship and research began in UK soon after the end of World War II. It was a period of reconstruction and establishing the image of united Britain, one nation. Biographies of eminent people helped bolster this image considerably by seeping into the collective consciousness of people. In addition the scope of these biographies allowed exploration and understanding of contemporary historical, socio-political and economic events too. Similarly it is to be hoped that this was part of Vinay Sitapati’s intention with his Half-Lion since the life of Rao coincides with the birth of independent India, a geo-political entity and a significant player in international politics. Also for the many centuries of its existence India till 1947 had never existed like this as one nation state, a united entity, and certainly not for so long — nearly seven decades. So the significance of biographies particularly of politicians takes on a completely new dimension. In fact “in Telenagana, the TRS has adopted Rao as a local icon in a newly formed state looking for regional heroes. Starting in 2014, the Telengana state government has chosen to officially celebrate his birth anniversary in Hyderabad every year. It has announced that Rao’s life will be taught to schoolchildren, and a district and university renamed after him. In 2015, the new BJP Central government built a memorial ghat for Rao in Delhi.” (p.7)

Vinay Sitapati does what a classical biographer would do — “footstepping” in the wake of his subject to determine and recreate a life. But he lacks the craftsmanship of a true biographer in being unable to journey in to the interior life of his subject while being wholly aware of the historical and geographic. Nor is there any moment of self-awareness presumably because the biographer is too much in awe of his subject. Unfortunately despite the magnificent revelations about the internal workings of the Congress party or that of the tenuous relationship between Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rao, Half-Lion blurs the very fine line between a biography and a hagiography. This is a book that will continue to create the ripples it has caused with its publication in late June 2016 and it will be no surprise if this book is optioned for a film.

I interviewed Vinay Sitapati on 4 July 2016 via email. Here is the interview:

  1. Why Rao? Even after reading your book I am curious to know why this politician? The connect between you and him is missing in Half-Lion and a book of this magnitude requires that pivotal link to keep you going through such a humungous project. 

I am a Bandra boy, and have memories growing up through the changes of liberalisation. But I wanted this book to not be about me. The word “I” is not used in the book, and I wanted it to be an honest, objective book, undiluted by the personal impressions I had of the man. I am not a Telugu-speaker, nor did I know Rao. I am just like millions of Indians who were affected by his policies. The power of the book is in this neutrality. I only relied on evidence gleaned from documentary research and interviews, without having any personal opinions or biases. But if you ask me one emotion that kept me going, it was anger: anger that a man as consequential as Rao has been completely ignored by history.

  1. How many drafts did it take to write Half-Lion?

I completed research and writing of this book in a year. I began in April 2015. After 5 months of research, I began writing. Ramachandra Guha had told me that it takes him about 10-12 days to write a 30-page chapter, once all the research is there. It took me the same. I then circulated the draft of each chapter to about 11 people – from writers and MBA-types to hard-core academics. Their varied feedback both enriched the book and made it accessible to a wide range of readers.

  1. Before embarking on this project did you research the debates revolving around biographies? 

I read about 20 political biographies before I began. I was especially influenced by the book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by the Harvard historian Ezra Vogel. There were two big debates on biography writing that I learnt from. One: what is the balance between scholarship and accessiblity. This is an academic book, with more than 1100 footnotes. But I’ve also tried to make it fun and simple to read. The second debate was between policy and personality. How much of the book should be about political and policy changes, how much about Rao’s personal life and quirks. Again, I’ve aimed for a balance.

4.Would you want this book turned to a biopic? Or has the book already been optioned for a film? 

I have not yet got an offer, but Rao’s life is ripe for a movie. Imagine: in April 1991 he is closing his bank accounts to become a Hindu monk. Two months later, he is the leader of the world’s largest democracy. You can’t make that script up.

  1. What do you intend to do with the archive you have created while researching this book especially the innumerable interviews you did? 

I have done more than 110 interviews. But more than that, it is Rao’s personal archives which are a national treasure. I’m working with his family to put everything online. That way, can access every single thing Rao wrote – public and private – from anywhere in the world. I feel I owe it to my country.

Vinay Sitapati Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao transformed India Viking, Penguin Random House, 2016. Hb. pp.390 Rs 699 

17 July 2016

 

Andrew Hodges, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”

Alan Turing, The EnigmaNowadays it is perhaps taken rather for granted that computers can replace other machines, whether for record-keeping, photography, graphic design, printing, mail, telephony, or music, by virtue of appropriate software being written and executed. No one seems surprised that industrialised China can use the same computer as does America. Yet that such universality is possible is far from obvious, and it was obvious to no one in the 1930s. That the technology is digital is not enough: to be all-purpose computers must allow for the storage and decoding of a program. That needs a certain irreducible degree of logical complexity, which can only be made to be of practical value if implemented in very fast and reliable electronics. That logic, first worked out by Alan Turing in 1936 implemented electronically in the 1940s, and nowadays embodied in microchips, is the mathematical idea of the universal machine. 

In the 1930s only a very small club of mathematical logicians could appreciate Turing’s ideas. But amongst these, only Turing himself had the practical urge as well, capable of turning his hand from the 1936 purity of definition to the software engineering of 1946: ‘every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form…’ ( p.409). Donald Davies, one of Turing called programs) for ‘packet switching’ and these grew into the Internet protocols. Giants of the computer industry did not see the Internet coming, but they were saved by Turing’s universality: the computers of the 1980s did not need to be reinvented to handle these new tasks. They needed new software and peripheral devices, they needed greater speed and storage, but the fundamental principle remained. That principle might be described as the law of information technology: all mechanical processes, however ridiculous, evil, petty, wasteful or pointless, can be put on a computer. As such, it goes back to Alan Turing in 1936. 

( Preface, p.xvi-xvii)

Alan Turing: The Enigma a biography of the eminent mathematician by another mathematician, Andrew Hodges was first published in 1983. As with good biographies, it balances the personal, plotting the professional landmarks, with a balanced socio-historical perspective, giving excellent insight in the period Alan Turing lived. Whether it is the history of physics branching off into this particular field of mathematics, Alan Turing’s significant contribution to it, becoming a part of the team at Bletchley Park as a code breaker, and of course his personal life — the bullying he experienced at school, his homosexuality, the friends he made and his relationship with his family, especially his mother.

This biography is so much in the style of biographies written in the 1960s to 1980s — packed with detail. This is the major difference from the twenty-first biographies which are more in the style of bio-fiction than biographies. Yet it is fascinating to see how Alan Turing in a sense has been “resurrected” by twenty-first century concerns such as importance of the Internet, computers available 24×7 and of course his homosexuality, his struggles and his suicide. Then there is Turing’s genius. His gift for fiddling with maths and science. Decoding the Nazi messages. A great deal of credit goes to Andrew Hodges for keeping Turing’s memory alive and updating the information regularly especially at a time when bio-fic is fashionable. This is an old-fashioned biography where details about the life of the person with dates, snippets of correspondence, plenty of research ( constantly updating it as official files were declassified), minutely recording events and visits to places that may have relevance to the book. The book is fascinating for its detailed history of the evolution of mathematics as an independent discipline, the differences between science and maths and explaining how Turing broke away from the shackles of eighteenth and nineteenth century thought where maths was considered to be an integral part of the sciences. Turing’s biggest achievement was the original applications in maths relying upon the principles he learned in physics, especially experiments in quantum mechanics. The book  has footnotes and a preface that has been updated for this special film tie-in edition, to coincide with the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This biography has been in print for more than 30 years. It was last revised in 1992, but this special paperback edition has been reprinted with a new preface by Andrew Hodges, updated in 2014. In fact Newsweek carried an excerpt from it: ( Andrew Hodges, “The Private Anguish of Alan Turing”, 13 Dec 2014 http://www.newsweek.com/private-anguish-alan-turing-291653 ). Graham Moore who adapted the book for the film won an Oscar for his efforts, but as this post from Melville House makes it clear, this script was always meant to win awards. ( http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-imitation-game-and-the-complicated-byproducts-of-adaptation/ ) L. V. Anderson of Slate points out that that the biopic is riddled with inaccuracies. “I read the masterful biography that the screenplay is based on, Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, to find out. I discovered that The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. At the same time, the film might paint Turing as being more unlovable than he actually was. ( L. V. Anderson, “How  accurate is The Imitation Game?”. 3 dec 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/03/the_imitation_game_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_the_new_movie_is_to_alan_turing.html )

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”, ( 18 Dec 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/18/quest-real-coleridge/?pagination=false )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.” This is exactly what Andrew Hodges achieves in this stupendous biography of Alan Turing. Sure there are moments when the technical descriptions about mathematics become difficult to comprehend, yet it is a readable account. The author bio in the book says “Andrew Hodges is Tutor in Mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford University. His classic text of 1983 since translated into several languages, created a new kind of biography, with mathematics, science, computing, war history, philosophy and gay liberation woven into a single personal narrative. Since 1983 his main work has been in the mathematics of fundamental physics, as a colleague of Roger Penrose. But he has continued to involve himself with Alan Turing’s story, through dramatisation, television documentaries and scholarly articles. Since 1995 he has maintained a website at www.turing.org.uk to enhance and support his original work.”

It takes a while to read this nearly 700 page biography, but it is time well spent. Certainly at a time when issues such as net neutrality are extremely important. In fact, yesterday the Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) in USA “voted on Thursday to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, a milestone in regulating high-speed Internet service into American homes. …The new rules, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the Internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for Internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else. Those prohibitions are hallmarks of the net neutrality concept.” This ruling will have repercussions worldwide.  (“F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility”, 26 Feb 2015.  http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet-utility.html?_r=0 )

Alan Turing and his contribution to modern day technology continues to be relevant even 60+ years after his death.

Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma Vintage Books, London, 1983, rev 1992, with rev preface, 2014. Pb. pp.750. £ 8.99

27 February 2015