Inspired by Barack Obama’s book list, here are my top 10 books that I have read during the past decade, in no particular order.

This is quite a hard list to compile because there are so many books. And if such a list is possible, then ten is such an arbitrary number. Nevermind that this assumes the decade began with 2010, and not 2011. Nevertheless, let us not get such debate in our way.

So, what would be the criterion for listing a book? I think mine would be the book’s influence on my understanding of the world.

There is no order to the list. Listing only 10 is hard enough and I do not want to complicate it. Be warned though as there might be recency biased. I cannot remember all of the books I have read earlier during the decade.

Here we go.

  1. Orientalism by Edward Said. This makes the list because of several things but the one thing I appreciate the most is not about orientalism — though it was enlightening — but on how history is textual: we understand history based on what has been written, not on what happened per se. That is such a revelation to me despite it being so obvious. Orientalism is also in the list because of its influence other books that I have read. The Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas for instance clearly adapted Said’s ideas within Southeast Asian context.
  2. The Malays by Anthony Milner. This should be read together with Kerajaan by the same author. The book describes and proposes the definition of Malayness and its justification will make you question the meaning of becoming a Malay. Bangsa Melayu by Ariffin Omar and Leaves of the Same Tree by Leonard Andaya are probably useful further reading.
  3. The Malay Dilemma by Mahathir Mohamad. This is an important book to read in order to  understand Malay politics. You can disagree with the content of the book, but you cannot deny its relevance in this age of heightened ethnonationalism (and during the administration of Mahathir II).
  4. Ownership and Control in the Malayan Economy by James Puthucheary. The book highlights the fact that the debate between Malay and non-Malay wealth distribution in the early days of Malaya and Malaysia totally ignored European control over the Malayan economy. The book also created a whole new research line in Malaysia.
  5. The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya by Timothy Harper. What I love about the book is its tracing of pre-independence Malayan history that sheds light on the Chinese Malaysian community’s dynamics, particularly the pre-war rivalry between the Kuomintang and the Communists, as well as the origin of Sino-Malay rivalries deep during the Japanese occcupation. The citation here is massive. In some ways, this book compresses classics like Willam Roff’s The Origins of Malay Nationalism and Boon Kheng Cheah’s Red Star Over Malaya.
  6. Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson explains the creation of national identity. I think the book is particularly interesting when read together with Milner’s work. The two authors do offers competing explanations, but I think together both explain the creation of the old (classical?) and modern Malay identities, and in doing so,outline the full evolution of the Malay identity.
  7. A History of God by Karen Armstrong. The book traces the history of the Abrahamic religions, and it will make you realize how smooth the evolution of beliefs from the earliest of Judaism to Islam. I recommend reading Heirs to the Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell for a view of what happened to all the heterodox Abrahamic beliefs, and other pre-Abrahamic religions as a minor companion to Armstrong’s excellent work.
  8. The Theory of The Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. It is all about signalling!
  9. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. Essentially, the Reformation in Europe had removed the Church as a means of salvation. This led to the evolution of values, which suggested that work was the new means of salvation. This led to capital accumulation among individuals.
  10. The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. A great broadbrush take about western philopshy. Durant’s work really feels like an brief encyclopedia to help you decide which work do you want to read first. Additionally, it also traces multiple ideas and how it evolved across time, from ancient Greece to industrial Europe and early 20th century. This book might be fun to read together with the fiction Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

Other notable mentions include:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is about racism in America. Some profound observations made by the author here.
  • Empire by Niall Ferguson. An apologist for the British Empire.
  • Identity by Francis Fukuyama. He describes the rise of communalism/nationalism in the 21st century and the reasons behind it, with plenty of references to Plato’s The Republic.
  • Capitalism by Juergen Kocka. This is a history of capitalism and a little bit about capital accumulation.
  • Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism by Benedikt Koehler. Self-describing.
  • The Opium War by Julia Lovell. This is a great retelling of the Opium War, critical of both Imperial China and the British Empire.
  • A Sudden Rampage by Nicholas Tarlings. A great work detailing the Japanese decisions that led to its invasion of Southeast Asia during World War II. Be ready to revise your assumptions about the war.

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