Allen Lane Posts

The art of biography, with Diarmaid MacCulloch and Ken Krimstein

Earlier this year I read two brilliant books. Both happened to be biographies. One is the long, detailed biography of Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch which took the better part of a decade to put together. In it he has scoured empirical evidence, mostly documents, scattered in different libraries and collections to create a magnificent biography of a man who rose from being the son of a blacksmith in Putney to the chief minister of Henry VIII in London. It is detailed and rich and yet not tedious to read.

The second one is a graphic novel written and illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth was more than three years in the making but is one of the better introductions to Hannah Arendt that has been ever written. While the images and story frames continue to keep the plot moving in a straightforward narrative style, it is the layout consisting of footnotes and slowly increasing shades of green, till the last frame is soaked in the colour, that makes this a layered and textured reading.

Months after having read these two magnificent biographies, I came across the Guardian podcast where amazingly enough these two authors were speaking in quick succession. Have a listen:

8 November 2019

Interview with Henry Eliot, Creative Editor of Penguin Classics in the UK, regarding “The Penguin Classics Book”

I interviewed Henry Eliot, Creative Editor of Penguin Classics in the UK after reading the marvellous The Penguin Classics Book he has authoredIt is a beautiful historical documentation of the Penguin Classics list. This book spans world literature from the 21st century BCE to the First World War. The list was launched by the legendary translator and scholar Prof. E. V. Rieu at the invitation of the founder of Penguin Books, Sir Allen Lane. The sales of 130 titles Prof E V Rieu launched sold more than a million copies a year. This impressive book sales record is more or less unsurpassed even now.  ( Scroll re-published the interview on their website on 9 Dec 2018. Here is the link. )

Henry Eliot has also written Follow This Thread and Curiocity: An Alternative A-Z of London(with Matt Lloyd-Rose).

The Penguin Classics Book comes across as a pure labour of love. It also fulfils a very essential task of being a rich historical documentation of a sterling list while being a repository of world literature translated in to English. Henry Eliot’s comments in the book about Dr Rieu’s vision and his intention of housing only the well-known texts as translations on this list is a good reference point for many of the ongoing discussions in the literary world about translations. In fact Dr Rieu’s classic translation of Homer’s The Odyssey  has been prescribed for decades by universities around the world. Dr. Rieu favoured prose but this was (thankfully!) reviewed by his successor, Betty Radice. While reading The Penguin Classics Book I came across a fabulous discussion between Dr E.V. Rieu and Rev. J. B. Phillips on translating the Gospels, recorded on 3 Dec 1953. Dr Rieu is very clear on what he deems to be a good translation — the principle of ‘equivalent effect’ and that it holds well when read aloud. A principle that Henry Eliot confirmed is still in place!
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
1. How was this project conceptualised?  How long did it take to execute from start to finish?

When I joined Penguin Classics nearly three years ago, one of the first things that struck me was the size of the list. Over the last 70 years it has grown so huge – it now has over 1,200 Penguin Classics and 1,000 Penguin Modern Classics – and it is difficult now for a reader to get a handle on this vast list. We began talking about ways to help readers to navigate the list, to assist them in making sense of it: we imagined a classics ‘museum’ with some big galleries and some hidden corners through which readers could wander and explore and make discoveries. In the end we didn’t build a physical museum but we created a book, which allows the reader to hold the entire list in their hands: now you can get the measure of the entire list and I hope this will give readers the confidence to explore the series and discover wonderful new titles and authors to read.

We began these discussions about two and a half years ago and decided to make the book a few months later. It took me about a year to write and then another year for the design to come together for printing.

2. In your opinion what are the key characteristics of Penguin Classics? How has it evolved over the years?

Penguin Classics has always aimed to present the best books from literatures across the world and to make them accessible to a general readership. It has always prided itself on high quality design and production values. These things have remained unchanged; some things have changed, however:

  • For the first forty years the list was a translation list only: there were no English-language Penguin Classics. These were published in a parallel sister series called Penguin English Classics, which was eventually absorbed into Penguin Classics in 1985.
  • The first series editor, E. V. Rieu, had a preference for prose translations of verse and he insisted on minimal critical ‘apparatus’ other than a short introduction; his successor, Betty Radice, however, preferred verse translations and she responded to an increased interest from US students by including more scholarly appendices.
  • The list’s horizons have also expanded over the years. Rieu had a prejudice against German literature, for example, and Radice made a concerted effort to introduce more Chinese literature. The job of the editors today is to identify the many gaps on the list and attempt to fill them.

3. Even though over the years the list was brought in-house rather than work with remote editors, do the team of editorial directors supervising this list have language specialists advising them on developing the literature in other languages and assessing the final translation?

Yes – the editors have expert contacts in the worlds of academia and publishing, whom they consult.

[ JBR: This is fascinating because this is the manner in which academic and journal publishing happens – to have external advisors, readers and experts guiding the publishing programme. It is a brilliant way in which to test the strength of a list and/or establish a new one.]

4. What is truly remarkable is that The Penguin Classics Book is as up-to-date as possible. For instance, the new Japanese stories (ed. Jay Rubin) edition with an introduction by Haruki Murakami is included. How did this inclusion happen?

Thank you! We have included every Penguin Classic that is in print now – the book is up-to-date to the end of 2018 (and even further in a couple of cases – the publication of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was delayed to 2019, but we still decided to keep it in the book). The book is roughly organised chronologically and covers literature written before the end of the First World War, but of course this poses a problem in the case of anthologies. We decided to include anthologies at the point in the book that coincides with their earliest work. The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories makes it in on these criteria – it was published in June 2018 and the first story was written in the late 19th-century.

5. Would it be correct to assume that the digital age with its stress on visual images created an opportunity to publish in print the rich history of such a magnificent archive?

I’m not sure — in a way the process was quite old-fashioned. There are over 3,000 images in the book and we got them by photographing all the covers individually. I spent two solid weeks in the Penguin archive working with two photographers in order to capture them all. Now that we have the images, however, I’m sure there will be lots of further uses for them, many of which will no doubt be digital.

[ JBR: Perhaps I did not make myself very well clear in the questioning. I meant if the visual world of the digital space has not impacted the decision to create a visually beautiful edition in print? The previous volumes of Penguin covers have always been paperbacks, in four colour, but nowhere near as beautiful as this edition is.

HE: Thank you — much appreciated! Maybe . . . I think we’re all frustrated by the rigid way in which Amazon displays its book covers – so maybe this was a subconscious reaction to that.]

6. Which titles that have become extinct in the backlist would you recommend resurrecting for a modern reader? Do you think titles showcased in “The Vaults” section may have a future life as digital editions rather than in print?

About ten years ago the editors tried resurrecting a few Penguin Classics titles which had gone out of print and the experiment wasn’t a huge success. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems that when something goes out of print, it goes out of print for a reason: there just isn’t the demand from readers.

It might be possible to offer digital editions of these titles, but there might also be an argument for ‘weeding out’ the titles that don’t sell so well, so that the quality and relevance of the whole list remains strong.

7. The book cover designs are always distinctive. For years the Penguin Classics were defined by the deep black, then a deep black with a photograph and a coloured border etc. Why and how did these cover designs change or does it depend entirely upon the whimsical fancies of the editor in charge?

Penguin Classics has had four different designs over the years. The first, designed by John Overton in 1946 and refined by Jan Tschichold in 1949, had a border that was colour-coded by language and an illustrative woodcut in the centre. The second, introduced in 1963 by Germano Facetti, had a black spine for the first time and a very simple cover filled with a photographic artwork, overlaid with the author’s name and book’s title. The third design by Steve Kent appeared in 1985: it combined elements of the previous two by keeping the black spine and the photographic artwork, but reinstating a border on the cover and a small colour-coded system at the top of the spine. The final iteration took place in 2003: now Penguin Classics all have a black panel at the bottom with the author’s name in orange and the book’s title in white, a slim white band with the series name, and a full-bleed image in the space above.

As the list has expanded and become increasingly international, it has become more and more difficult to make a change to the cover design. Logistically it involves rejacketing a huge number of titles and coordinating new templates across all the different offices around the world, so it is certainly not a whimsical decision. If the design were to change again it would need a coordinated strategy behind it.

8. Penguin Classics is the trademark list of the publishing firm. It has existed for so many decades. Are there any titles that are perennial bestsellers or do some titles on the list exist because of their seminal value to a literary canon?

The graph of Penguin Classics sales is L-shaped: there are many titles that sell a few copies a year and a few titles that sell many copies. Some of the perennial bestsellers include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

9. Dr Rieu’s impressive track record of selling at least a million copies a year of the 130 titles on his list would be the envy of many publishers even today. What are the combined digital and print sales figures of the Penguin Classics now?  Titles on this sell better in digital or print or are the sales in equal measure?

I’m afraid I don’t have the data, but I believe print sales are still higher than digital. The early sales figures are very impressive, even for mid-20th century book sales, but these were all very impressive – much higher than figures today.

10. Has your passion for Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and the many iterations it has undergone over the centuries in any way influenced your fascination for the evolution of the Penguin Classic list & book covers?

I do love Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and the Arthurian legends. (In fact I am currently reading A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys, as I travel around India, which is intimately wrapped up with the legends of King Arthur.) Perhaps there is something quixotic about the quest to gather all the Penguin Classics into a single place. If so, I’d better be careful: we know from the legend that those who achieve the Holy Grail do not return: they’re spirited away to a different plain . . .

11. What are the decision-making elements to include a title on this list that you feel a commissioning editor working today in a firm would benefit from knowing? Would these principles of identifying a good book work across genres?

I am one of many editors of Penguin Classics around the world – and a relatively new addition to the team – so I do not have an authoritative answer, but for me, I do have a few criteria that I use for identifying a classic: it must have literary quality (i.e. it must be written well), it should be historically significant (i.e. it was a bestseller at the time, or it influenced other writers, or it changed the world in some way, or it invented a new literary form etc) and it should have an enduring reputation (i.e. it should still be read, studied or discussed somewhere in the world). Above all it must still be ‘alive’ — it needs to be able to speak to us across time and space and expand our experience of what it means to be human.

12. Do you have any back stories to share about putting this book together that made you pause and think about the resilience of this list or the vision of the founding team — Allen Lane and Dr Rieu?

Allen Lane liked the Penguin logo because he thought it had ‘a certain dignified flippancy’ and I think that combination of serious good humour pervades the Classics list to this day. It is very moving to read E. V. Rieu’s retirement speech, when he stepped down from running the list in 1964. At one point he admits that he had initially been uncertain whether Goncharov had written Oblomov or vice versa. ‘Now, of course, I know that Oblomov was the author,’ he quipped. ‘Or am I wrong?’ And he finishes his speech with some inspiring words: ‘The Penguin Classics, though I designed them to give pleasure even more than instruction, have been hailed as the greatest educative force of the twentieth century. And far be it for me to quarrel with that encomium, for there is no one whom they have educated more than myself.’

26 November 2018 

Jordan B. Peterson “12 Rules for Life”

[bwwpp_book sku=’97803458160230000000′]

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos lays down rules for a better living in a noisy modern world. There is an authoritarian tone to the rules as listed in the table of contents.  The arguments laid out in the book stem from his online discussions on the popular platform Quora.

Every chapter is preceded by an alarmingly disturbing ink illustration involving children. “Alarming” because every single image rather than being hopeful and a cofidence building measure inevitably has a tone which hints that it is best where you are, do not try and have dreams. Take for instance Rule 3 which  states “Make friends wtih people who want the best for you” is accompanied by an illustration of the statue of David by Michelangelo with a very tiny figure of a child looking up at this enormous statue. It looks positively monstrous in the illustration. It is a matter of perspective possibly but to have such distressing illustrations will serve the sole purpose of terrifying people, forcing them to remain where they are and to accept institutional systems and their social conditions as is, instead of questioning or being ambitious and hopeful. These forms of intellectual arguments are detrimental to the growth of an individual and for society at large but most people will know no better for undoubtedly Jordan Peterson is fairly persuasive in his arguments.

Pankaj Mishra in a justifiably scathing attack of Jordan Peterson’s book in the NYRB ( Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism, 19 March 2018) has this to say:


In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts.
The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.
Peterson, however, seems to have modelled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell.
Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailedVladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.
Meanwhile the book continues to sell and has climbed the bestseller charts worldwide although it never made it to the New York Times Bestseller list. So much so that Jordan Peterson was moved sufficiently to write a “Thank you note to booksellers” commending them for their good work. In the letter circulated he lists the 12 books which influenced his 12 rules. These are:
BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL by Friedrich Nietzsche
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
ORDINARY MEN by Christopher Browning
THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The fact is that Jordan Peterson like conservative intellectuals who through their tub thumping articles persuade individuals to focus on themselves increasingly and not necessarily look at the world in a broader context do far more damage to society. Writing such “self-help” books that explicitly encourage an individual to narrow their landscapes considerably to the microcosm create more havoc than be an “antidote to chaos”. An illustrative example is that he offers of a rape survivor to illustrate his Rule 9 “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t” is a a very messed up argument. There are pages and pages of his analysis and reporting his conversation with the victim but this particular passage stands out for its misogyny.
She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped and neither did I. Life is very complicated.
Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something. “Was I raped?” can be a very complicated question. The mere fact that the question would present itself in that form indicates the existence of infinite layers of complexity — to say nothing of “five times.” There are a myriad of questions hidden inside “Was I raped?: What is rape? What is consent? What constitutes appropriate sexual caution? How should a person defend herself? Where does the fault lie? “Was I raped?” is a hydra. If you cut off the head of a hydra, seven more grow. That’s life. Miss S would have had to talk for twenty years to figure out whether she had been raped.
As Pankaj Mishra points out:
Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.
Writer Matt Haig in a different context had this to say on Twitter about feminism and patriarchal mindsets. It is applicable in the context of this book:

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is a book that will be discussed for years to come. Read it if you must while bearing in mind the larger picture of intellectual discourse.
Jordan Peterson 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, London, 2018. Pb. pp.410 Rs 699
21 March 2018 

Sunil Khilnani’s “Incarnations”

Even the terms used to describe the famous Indian uprising against the British in 1857 are political positions. Was it a mutiny, or India’s First War of Independence? Rebellion or uprising? A nationalist movement or a string of local protests?

p.243, “Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi: Bad-ass Queen (1828-1858)”

‘A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself,’ the American public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued regarding mythic constructions of liberation all over the world. ‘[C]hapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals.’ In modern India’s myth of finally, formally confronting its brutal history of case, Bhimrao Ambedkar is that exceptional individual. But every Great Man story is also a story of circumstance. Had India not been devastated by Partition, the formidable lawyer and scholar who led the untouchables might not have become the founding father most meaningful to ordinary Indians today.

p.468 “Ambedkar: Building Palaces on Dung Heaps (1891-1956)”

Sikri’s battlements, palaces, shrines proclaim imperial grandeur. But its airy pavilions and halls share little in common with the heavy monumentalism of Versaille or the Habsburg seats of power. Parts of the city have the feeling of a tent encampment, except that the animal skins and wood frames have been replaced by stone and marble, carved with great skill by local craftsmen. Walking through this now desolate cityscape in the dry heat, you might feel, at certain turns, as if you were in one of M.C. Escher’s drawing, reworked with the stark surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. It’s like touring the physical manifestation of a mind — the expansive, syncretic mind of its creator: Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors. 

p. 165 “Akbar: The World and the Bridge ( 1542-1605)

Sunil Khilnani’s magnificent Incarnations: India in 50 Lives gives a bird’s-eye view of history via the short account of people through their ages. The fifty people profiled are those who left a significant stamp in the socio-cultural-political and economic make-up of this land evident in modern India –a nation state that is very complicated, multi-layered. These biographical accounts written like “non-fiction short stories” detail the life and achievements of the person being profiled while placing them neatly in their historical and contemporary context. Incarnations has been published to coincide with the BBC Radio 4 series The principle of arrangement of this book is probably borrowed from another extremely popular BBC Radio 4 series + sumptiously produced book by Neil MacGregor, then director of the British Museum, on A History of the World in 100 Objects  ( ).

Yet Incarnations is very much in the tradition of books written trying to make history accessible to the lay reader. To document history in this fashion probably began with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History to many accounts at chronicling this fascinating sub-continent by authors like Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze, Shashi Tharoor, Ramachandra Guha, Patrick French, Bipin Chandra, Romila Thapar, Percival Spear, Narayani Gupta, Subhadra Sen Gupta ( for children) et al. There were many volumes that were published to coincide with the fiftieth year of Independence but it is for the first time that a historian like Sunil Khilnani has put together an account that incorporates even lesser known individuals such as Malik Ambar the African slave who become powerful political force to contend with.

We live in a noisy, reactionary and surprisingly ahistorical world where lies and misinterpretations get amplified rapidly using social media platforms. So to have a book recount landmark moments in history through well-written biographies is a crucial and much appreciated contribution to social discourse. The style of writing is wonderfully catchy beginning with the chapter headings. For instance, Rani Lakshmi Bai, the queen who is almost revered for her resistance to the British colonial rulers in the nineteenth century with Indian school children even today being taught to memorise poems extolling her heroism; she is simply referred to as the “Bad-Ass Queen”. The list of contents is a delight to read. Similarly are the introductory paragraphs to every chapter –packed with facts, information and incorporating the broad spectrum of views on how the moment in history being discussed in the chapter has been perceived. It is a remarkable example of immense scholarship with a fine sensibility of being able to communicate with a non-academic audience. Peppered in the book are cross-references to other chapters illustrated by the names being marked in bold, a neat technique taken from academic publications and inserted into a trade title.

Outlook magazine’s 19 February 2016 issue focussed on Sunil Khilnani’s book with generous extracts from the book along with an in-depth interview by Satish Padmanabhan. Here is a link to the special issue and interview: and .

For all the stupendous historical detailing in each biography there are some disturbingly jallianwala-baghpuzzling glossing over historical facts. For instance not referring to General Dyer by name instead saying “the officer” ( p.437) or referring to the campaign of installing Gandhi’s statue in London ( 2015) led by Lord Meghnad Desai and his wife, Lady Kishwar Desai but once again not pinning it in history by taking any names. Baffling since General Dyer is well-remembered in India and the 14 March 2015topiary at Jallianwala Bagh nevers allows anyone to forget the dastardly massacre. Similarly, the campaign to instal Gandhi’s statue was a very political and public event splashed across worldwide media with David Cameron PM, UK and Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister, India, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan,  Lord Meghnad Desai and Lady Kishwar Desai attending the unveiling of the statue. So it does leaves a tiny lingering of doubt about the other bits of history that may have been silenced. Even so, this is is a splendid book and must be read.

Sunil Khilnani Incarnations: India in 50 Lives Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, UK, 2016. Hb. pp. 636 Rs. 999

9 March 2016


On business books

On business books

Malcolm GladwellBusiness books are useful, at least those meant for the lay reader. These spell out complicated business methodologies and strategies simply, usually anecdotal. For instance, Malcolm Gladwell’s basic premise that it is the attitude that matters on how you tackle a problem. He uses the Biblical analogy of David & Goliath but the examples he cites to illustrate his point are of ordinary people in ordinary settings, who later went on to make a change. It could be in their personal lives or impacting others.

Subroto Bagchi, Inked, MBA at 16Subroto Bagchi’s premise in The Elephant Catchers is much the same. To net the big clients for business, a lot of it depends upon your strategy, confidence and attitude. Some of the ideas that he hopes to inculcate in the students he interacts with in MBA at 16. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Timble are a little technical and create models to explain the different stages of a business evolving. Theories that are useful to know and understand.


Dave TrottBut it is Dave Trott, advertising guru, uses plenty of stories to explain different, but pertinent, aspects of promoting a service/product. Yet reading his book, Predatory Thinking, along with the others on how to be effective in business, one realises that the best way to learn and grow a business is to be confident, honest about your deliverables to the client, passionate about your work, build your brand image slowly and steadily, word-of-mouth publicity is still the strongest mode of promotion, and always be sharp, creative, think out-of-the box and never get dull. Learn, learn and learn. Beyond the Idea



Malcolm Gladwell David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2013. Hb. pp. 310.

Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Timble Beyond the Idea: Simple, powerful rules for successful innovation St Martin’s Press, Macmillan, London, 2013. Hb. pp. 178

Dave Trott Predatory Thinking: A Masterclass in out-thinking the competition Macmillan, London, 2013. Hb. pp. 270

Subroto Bagchi The Elephant Catchers: Key Lessons for Breakthrough Growth Hachette India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 240.

Subroto Bagchi MBA at 16: A Teenagers Guide to the World of Business Inked, the Young Adult imprint of Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2012. Pb.


“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

Fractured Times

Fractured Times is a series of lectures delivered by Eric Hobsbawm at the annual Salzburg Festival. Those published in this book, were written between 1964-2012. (He died on 1 Oct 2012.) This is a book of reflections, thoughts and comments about what happened to culture and society, especially after 1914, a society and a time that was never to return. These lectures document the tectonic shifts that occurred in the cultural fabric of society. The devastating impact that the two world wars had on society was fundamental. Hobsbawm’s basic premise is that the art and cultural fabric of a society are inextricably linked to politics. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. ( “For enjoyment of art is not purely a private experience, but a social one, sometimes even a political one, especially in the case of planned public performances i purpose-built settings and theatres.”) So post-1914 the society (at least in Europe and UK) was transformed in that the women’s movements flourished ( ironically a country that had two powerful women on its throne, did not give its women citizen’s even the basic rights. The suffragettes had to demand it), the publishing of books developed into an industry with the establishment of some of the biggest trade publishers such as Allen Lane’s Penguin Books, the first oral history societies were founded in the late 1960s ( “Studies of historical memory are essentially not about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present.”) and education. His views on the publishing industry are fascinating — “The book, revolutionised in the 1930s by Penguin and Gollancz, was almost certainly the most effective form of intellectual diffusion: not to the mass of the manual working class for whom the word ‘book’ still meant ‘magazine’, but to the old educated and the rapidly growing body of the aspiring and politically conscious self-educated.”. Or earlier in the book, he says “Even a good deal of literature, especially the classics, remains in print, and much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.”

There are plenty of nuggets of wisdom that have been distilled and delivered in these lectures. Here is a man who thought, analysed and presented with confidence. Every single book of his is a treasure trove. The ease with which he presents history, complex ideas without their seeming to be so, and his analysis is always a delight to read. For instance his reflection upon how the fashion industry more or less predicts the trends for the following season accurately, but the book trade bumbles its way through. And yet both are heavily dependent upon markets that formed by subjectivity and at times irrational sensibilities. So why does one industry get it right over and over again and not the other? Hobsbawm’s comments on the relationship between the market and culture are sharp and precise. “From the point of view of the market, the only interesting culture is the product or service that makes money.” In his opinion, post-1970s the wealth available for nurturing the arts has grown explosively, all though it does come with a lot of provisos. But he also cautions the rapid transformation that the cyber-age has wrought. It is “so fast, so dramatic, and so unforseeable”. The chapter on “Why hold festivals in the twenty-first century?” has to be read. Hobsbawm is convinced that festivals are multiplying like rabbits. According to him, “festivals have become a firm component of the economically ever more important complex of the entertainment industry, and particularly of cultural tourism, which is rapidly expanding, at least in the prosperous societies of the so-called ‘developed’ world…there is a great deal of money to be made these days in the culture business.” For him “the genealogy of today’s festivals begins with the discovery of the stage as the cultural-political and social expression of a new elite that is self-assured and bourgeois, or rather recruited according to education and ability instead of birth.”

In a similar fashion “in the post-industrial age of information, the school — that is, secondary an tertiary education and beyond — is more decisive than every before, and forms, both nationally and worldwide, a unifying element, not only in technology, but also in the formation of classes….What is needed is a usable educational programme aimed at the community of educable youth, not only within a country or a cultural circle, but also worldwide. This guarantees, at least within a particular area of intellectual cultures, a certain universalism both of information and of cultural values, a sort of basic stock of things that an ‘educated person’ should know.”

Eric Hobsbawm was a thinker. As Julia Hobsbawm says about her father in the FT — “Food he could do without; ideas not.” ( Financial Times, April 2013. ) A man like him will be sorely missed. Fractured Times, his last book to be published is like the others before it, worth reading over and over again. Every time there is something new to be discovered in the lectures.

Eric Hobsbawm Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette India, 2013. Hb. pg 320. Rs. 699

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