The second decade of the 21st century was at least as eventful as the first, if not more. Not surprisingly then, many of these events had a bearing on the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies that came to be published over the past nine years.
But it isn’t just globally consequential events that contributed to the steady trickle of first person accounts in various forms this decade. A wide variety of truly engaging biographies and memoirs were published as well, an assorted selection of which is shared here. This selection includes titles that captured the zeitgeist effectively as well as those which are unique personal stories in their own way.
1. Permanent Record by Edward Snowden (2019)
This memoir by the world’s best known dissident-in-exile tells such an important story that it is hard to overstate its importance. “I used to work for the government, but now I work for the public. It took me nearly three decades to recognize that there was a distinction, and when I did, it got me into a bit of trouble at the office.” This is the deceptively simple manner in which the young dissident and former spy distills his experience of working for the Central Intelligence Agency and National Intelligence Agency–the world’s two most powerful intelligence agencies. Snowden is a coherent and effective communicator, and his brilliance in communicating his story in a very accessible manner is on full display in this book.
2. Gauri Lankesh And The Age Of Unreason by Chidanand Rajghatta (2018)
It is not very often that the murder of a journalist comes to symbolise the extreme dangers of resisiting an ideological project that seeks to redefine a nation-state’s identity. Gauri Lankesh’s murder is that rare instance. She resisted Hindutva in a bold and relentless manner and paid the price for it. This book by a veteran journalist and Gauri’s former husband is not only about their personal relationship and the martyred editor’s personality, but also about the reality of New India.
3. Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible by Alan Rusbridger (2013)
In the early years of this decade, the Guardian led and published investigative journalism of a kind that set an example, reinforcing its position among the best newspapers in the English-speaking world. Whether it is the Wikileaks cables story or the investigation into the blatantly unethical, even criminal, practises employed for news gathering by the News Of The World, Guardian’s journalism under the stewardship of Alan Rusbridger spoke the truth about power, forced deep introspection within the British media and started a long overdue conversation about reforming media regulation. This memoir, which is really the diary of an eventful year, captures in some detail how Rusbridger led the paper while working on these stories. But at the heart of this rather unusual memoir is also a unique, if ill timed, challenge that Rusbridger gave himself: to learn, within one year, pianist Fredric Chopin’s Ballade No.1. So musical references are spread generously across the book.
4. An End To Suffering: The Buddha In The World by Pankaj Mishra (2013)
American writer Isaac Asimov once said, “The true delight is in the finding out, rather than in the knowing.” For any person with a mind of their own, Asimov’s observation will perhaps ring true. Mishra, consciously or otherwise, appears to have imbibed the spirit of Asimov’s observation. In this memoir, which is also part travelogue and part intellectual history, the writer describes how and why he became keenly interested in the Buddha and the past and present of Buddhism. Nuanced, introspective, layered and fascinating, this intellectual memoir is possibly among this decade’s most underrated books and deserves to be read, especially by all those who find the history of ideas fascinating.
5. Adults In The Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment by Yanis Varoufakis (2017)
It is not often that a left-wing economist contests and wins election to the parliament of a significant European country; is made its finance minister; and furthermore, is appointed to negotiate with some of the most conservative yet influential group of creditors and heads of state a financial aid package for his country. And when he refuses to toe the line, is eased out by the global creditors and heads of state as well as his colleagues in government and his party—and despite all these challenges, manages to make a comeback into the parliament by launching his own party.
This eventful political journey is what makes the story of former Finance Minister of Greece and economist Yanis Varoufakis so interesting.
6. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
This memoir is rare for any decade. Neurosurgeon and author Paul Kalanithi wrote this book when he had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and was not many days away from death.
A calm, frank tone lends a certain poignancy to this rare piece of fine writing. The only other book with similarities to this is the one Cristopher Hitchens wrote about his unsuccessful battle with Esophageal cancer—mortality. Published in 2012, that book, similarly poignant and coherently narrated, was a compilation of his essays in the Vogue magazine that Hitchens wrote from his hospital bed. Kalanithi’s memoir was not a collection of columns turned into a book but a book with his recollections written for posterity.
7. House Of Stone by Anthony Shahid (2012)
For several years, among the best known and well-regarded journalists writing about the middle east/west asia was the New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid. The Lebanese-American reported some of the biggest stories that define perceptions about the region to the outside world. The Arab Spring, for instance. This poignant memoir is about many things, but at the heart of it is the desire for a home in a region where you really belong but is embroiled in intractable disputes.
8. Shadow Armies by Dhirendra K Jha
It is a widely held belief that only a handful of organisations are consequential for the implementation of the controversial Hindutva project, which is about turning the secular Indian nation-state into a Hindu supremacist one. These are the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
But Dhirendra K Jha’s collection of short biographies of eight relatively lesser known organisations that pledge allegiance to the Hindutva project reveals the potency and relevance of smaller organisations to the politics of Hindu supremacy across India. This book is an essential read to understand the past and future of the New India.
9. Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by A S Dulat and Aditya Sinha (2015)
Seldom have memoirs written by retired Indian spies—the few that exist—attained the kind of mainstream popularity that this book by former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing A S Dulat did. While part of the reason for this is the revelations made in the book—thanks to co-author and long standing journalist Aditya Sinha’s cajoling of the principal author—what is also true is that the memoir discusses the Indian state’s mishandling of Kashmir. This is a topic of conversation that has remained relevant for at least three decades now. And a candid memoir by a man who was at the centre of the Indian state’s handling of Kashmir, an act virtually without precedent, proved to be an ideal contribution to that conversation.
10. The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermayer (2017)
Taxation matters are boring and tedious. That much is true. But when there is suspense, high-level intrigue and the names of some top players in global politics, finance and organised crime involved, the issue of tax avoidance suddenly gets the sex appeal that is hard to rival.
This book, though not a memoir in the typical sense, tells the story of how the globally renowned team of investigative reporters who are now called ‘Obermayer Brothers’, though they are not actually related, broke one of the biggest stories of this past decade. A story that shed light like never before into the activities of one law firm in Panama that was used by some globally renowned figures to park their money in tax havens and avoid paying taxes in countries where they make that money. This is the most coherent and updated story of how the world works in late capitalism.