Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.
George Friedman: Having completed the first draft of my upcoming book, “The American Era,” and having not yet been inundated by the ruthless and joyful criticism of friends, colleagues and editors, I have decided to refresh my mind by rereading the great books that I still cherish only by dulled memory. Naturally, I began with “History of the Peloponnesian War” (“The Landmark Thucydides” edition because it comes with fine notes). I am at the beginning where two cities, Corinth and Corcyra, are at war and representatives visit Athens, a superpower, to plead their case. What struck me about this reading was that neither side made its case by primarily moral pleadings. Both sides made their case by pointing out the benefits that would accrue to Athens if it aligned with them.
We think of antiquity as the time in which ruthless reason was absent and moral sentiment ruled, while we think of modernity as the world that Machiavelli shaped. Yet, when I read the speeches made to the Athenians, I realized how devoid of moral sentiment antiquity was, and how filled with moralism modernity is. Neither state tried to demonize the other. They were simply adversaries, and Athens would side with whichever benefited it. Few conflicts since the 19th century are acknowledged to be simply a matter of interest. They are portrayed as moral projects. We talk about modern secularism, but within that secularism is a moralism that challenges acts of pure self-interest.
It strikes me that my impression of the Greeks as searching for an ethical excellence is completely missing as I begin my trek through Thucydides. Yet, I cannot read a contemporary newspaper, or even text, without encountering a world populated by demons and angels. So the first few pages of a book I considered a well-known guide throw me a curve ball. I will be spending a long time relearning this book and will report with some regularity as I come up for air.
Cole Altom: There’s a line in the forward to “Splendor in the Short Grass” that made me want to quit reading almost as soon as I had begun, so pretentious did it seem in its assertion: “Grover was, after all, the most stone wonderful writer that nobody ever heard of,” art critic Dave Hickey writes. It’s a classic this-thing-is-better-than-your-thing-only-because-you’ve-never-heard-of-this-thing line that well-read people love to trot out, and I’d hold anyone as fair who was put off by it.
The thing is, Grover Lewis may well be the best writer I’d never heard of. A pioneer of the New Journalism movement and an early name on the masthead of an upstart magazine called Rolling Stone, he was exceptionally gifted, with a particularly attuned ear for transliterated dialogue. He was Hunter S. Thompson without the manic psychedelia. He was Tom Wolfe without the urban affectations. He was a Texas boy through and through, having grown up in San Antonio, and then in the metroplex, before drinking and cheating death in college with the likes of Larry McMurtry, a most stone wonderful writer that most of us have heard of.
I mention his Texas heritage because it welds a rustic sensibility to the prose of this reader, not a coherent book but a collection of works, many of which are chosen from his time spent on the arts and entertainment beat at Rolling Stone. In fact, “Splendor in the Short Grass” gets its name from Lewis’ account of the filming of “The Last Picture Show,” a movie based on the McMurtry novel about the hopelessness of youth in small-town Texas. Other essays bring him toe-to-toe – and, frequently, drink-for-drink – with Hollywood icons like John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle and Slim Pickens. And though he had a soft spot for the unwashed and unsung, he wrote with a caustic honesty that didn’t always endear him to his higher-stationed subjects. (Gregg Allman reportedly never forgave Lewis for his portrayal of the Allman Brothers Band in a piece that published shortly after Duane Allman’s untimely death.)
Scattered throughout the text, however, are more serious, more sincere stories, not to mention selected poems and excerpts from novels he would never publish. The most affecting is an autobiographical essay, titled “Cracker Eden,” in which he explores the tragic circumstances of his early life – after his father stalked and murdered his mother, he was sent to live with various relatives, adding only to his disaffection. It’s this disaffection that imbued his writing with the loneliness and the anger and the sobriety that, for me, bears the hallmark of his eloquence and his honesty.
“Splendor in the Short Grass” is not geopolitical, but if we are to write well at Geopolitical Futures, we need to read good writers. Grover Lewis isn’t good; he’s stone wonderful.
Antonia Colibasanu: I first read his book when I was a student and treated it as a novel that taught me about China before communism, as it spoke about the early days of the Chinese Revolution and the failed communist rebellion in Shanghai. In many ways, Malraux’s writing has a geopolitical context – between the lines of his novels set in Asia, this one included, he critiques the lack of progress for European humanism after the end of World War I. I decided to read his work again, this novel in particular, because I want to better understand the forces driving revolutionary movements.
In “Man’s Fate,” Malraux examines the individual as much as he examines society: He discusses what makes life meaningful and the mechanics behind a certain destiny “being chosen,” to the extent to which a person can choose his or her destiny. The book also touches on how conspiracies are formed, how people can get caught up in a clash of ideologies, and how free will shapes events. “Man’s Fate” is a book about politics, society and individual revolutionary impulse.
Xander Snyder: I’ve given myself a reading assignment: The next several books I read are going to be about South Africa. It’s not a place that I’m very familiar with, and I thought it’d be an enriching exercise to learn about a country from the ground up – historical context, contemporary politics, everything. Before diving into a comprehensive history, I wanted something that would provide a brief sketch so that I could first develop a degree of familiarity that would prime me to absorb detail and understand greater nuance in my next read. This book did just that. It does not by any means go into depth, but it does hit important events over a wide swath of South African history, starting in precolonial times and working its way up nearly to the present day. The book can easily be finished in two hours, although I’m sure someone with quicker eyeballs than mine could read it in closer to an hour as the title suggests. This was a handy overview, and I will seek out this series again when I need a quick introduction to a relatively new topic.