Nothing fires my imagination quite as much as a brilliant work of nonfiction. I tend to be drawn to creative, informative and, many times, fairly serious nonfiction, works that offer a glimpse into the lives of others and, in many cases, the opportunity to understand ourselves better. With summertime winding down (I know, I know—it’s going by fast isn’t it?) why not delve into a great book about someone you’ve never met, a country you’ve always wanted to visit or a time in history that you’ve always been fascinated by?
In considering which books to discuss in this post there is one book that tops the list: a fascinating and thoroughly engaging book called India Becoming: A Portrait of Life In Modern India by Akash Kapur. Kapur, an Indian living in America since he was 16, returns to the country of his birth to explore the opportunities and challenges of 21st century India. His journey takes him far and wide—from bustling vibrant cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai to small towns and villages Tindivanam and Molasur—across the nation. Along the way Kapur introduces us to folks of all walks of Indian life including young Hari, a call center worker excited about the prospects of the new global economy,Veena, a 30-something careerwoman trying to strike a balance between her professional ambitions and her desire for family life and Sathy, a rural zamindar whose wealth and status is diminishing in the wake of New India’s shifting economy. Kapur is an incredible writer but also an exceptional listener, allowing the truths of his characters (for lack of a better word) to come forth, offering a compelling glimpse into New Millenium India.
Another intriguing and challenging nonfiction work that I have read a few times is Poor People by William T. Vollmann. The title, and indeed the subject matter, strikes an initially uninviting chord but I highly recommend this book. Poor People shines a light onto the lives of people from around the world subsisting in various states of poverty. The crux of this book lies within the author’s question to all of his interviewees: “Why are you poor?” The answers to this question range from simple (“Because I don’t have a job”) to philosophical (“I think I am rich,” says Wan, a young, emaciated beggar-girl in Bangkok) to fatalistic (“Money just goes where it goes”). Vollmann’s work is insightful in his discussion of the nature of poverty. His writing is vivid, expressive and journalistic in his presentation of his subjects’ lives. Vollmann makes no pretense of owning the solution to the blight of poverty but perhaps this book and others like it brings its readers a step closer to understanding our fellow man.