Books read

How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell. One part explanation of how Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and most recently, China have modernised since the end of WW2 — and one part caustic polemic about why Southeast Asia hasn’t matched up. The discussion of East Asia is consistent (to the best of my understanding) with the literature on the ‘export-oriented industrialisation’ pursued by those countries, but Studwell brings the topic to vivid life. Consider this description of Chung Ju Yung, the founder of Hyundai:

Chung himself lived not far away [from Park Chung Hee, South Korean president] at a second site of interest: a relatively modest, seven-room house built on a hill near what is left of the imperial Kyongbok Palace. The house, which Chung always said was built on the cheap with surplus materials that his construction firm had to hand, was completed in 1958, three years before Park’s coup. Chung never traded up when he became a billionaire.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of Studwell’s Southeast Asian or broader economic discussion, but nonetheless I found the book both very readable and very eye-opening. Niche title, but recommended if you are interested in that niche.


Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century, by Jeffry A Frieden – The beauty of this book is that it’s more than an economic history; it places the last >100 years of the global economy (dating all the way back to the late 1800s) in their political, social, and ideological context. Which interest groups in a given country favour free trade versus protectionism, and why? What was the context behind the social democratic consensus that emerged in the twentieth century? Why did socialism appeal to developing countries during the Cold War? This is the stuff that underpinned flashier topics. A specialist rather than a popular book, but it is very good at what it does. Recommended not just to economic history wonks, but to those looking to supplement broader readings in modern history.


The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis – Intended as a “short, comprehensive, and accessible” overview by its author, a leading Cold War historian, it does provide interesting background insights into/theses about key moments of the Cold War, such as the Kremlin secretly deciding as early as 1981 that it would not intervene in Poland as it had in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; or Khrushchev’s motivations in the Cuban Missile Crisis having as much to do with ‘ideological romanticism’ as the prosaic desire to counterbalance American superiority in ICBMs. Ultimately, though, I found the book too short and insufficiently comprehensive — the Martin Walker book I read several months ago would probably be a better introduction to the Cold War, while I may look to other Gaddis books for more detailed arguments.


Kim, by Rudyard Kipling – A delightful picaresque novel about the adventures of Kim, an urchin of Irish descent who grows up in colonial India. Despite having little in the way of plot, the book is a cracking good read, a brilliant evocation of its setting, and a celebration of inter-cultural mingling — starting with Kim himself, who flits between identities as easily as he changes clothes. Highly recommended.

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