Monday, August 18, 2008

Shelf Life: A Bit of History

It's about time for this fucking book "review", which I've postponed for quite some time now due to more pressing and relevant posts about faggotry. Let's go somewhere more cerebral this time, shall we?

The last non-fiction book I read was The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes (1999). I stumbled into it while at Kinokuniya, and the title itself captured my interest right away; so there, I whisked it out of the shelf in a second, afterall, one of the bigger puzzles we have around is the same question the book asks.

I thought it was going to thresh out contemporary causes of economic development or the lack thereof in some societies. Instead, the book discusses the origins of the wealth and poverty of nations.

To answer this, Landes opened the vaults of history, economics, sociology, and the patterns of technological and scientific progress. The book suggests that despite the plethora of factors, culture it seems is the underlying force behind the disparities in early economic development among nations.

While at certain periods in history some societies were more economically advanced than others, the tide has changed considerably over the centuries mainly because of the cultural environment that breed technological innovation and trade, which Landes sees is the main driver for growth.

For instance, Landes notes that "from 750 to 111, Islamic science and technology far surpassed those of Europe... Islam was Europe's teacher". Sadly, Islamic science was branded heresy by religious zealots and "bent under theological pressures for spiritual conformity".

The Chinese, on the other hand, had the potential to surpass Europe, however, China simply failed to realize that potential because of the absence of a free market and institutionalized property rights, as well as the high totalitarian structure of Chinese societies that did not encourage private initiative. These two main factors contributed to how the Chinese repeatedly lost whatever technological gains they achieved (i.e. maritime technology).

Europe (Britain in particular) on the other hand gave birth to the Industrial Revolution as a result of the continuing accumulation of technological advances. This was bred primarily by: "(1) the growing autonomy of intellectual inquiry; (2) the powerful combination perception and measurement, verification, and mathematized deduction; and (3) the routinization of research and its diffusion".

The book is courageously Eurocentric, a label that the author acknowledges in the opening pages.

In fact, he goes at length to explain the patterns in technological superiority of European societies and delved further into how European powers competed fiercely during the height of Europe's colonial pursuits (apparently some colonial masters, for lack of a better term, are better than others, i.e. compare South America with North America).

Interestingly, a chapter was also devoted to explain the success of Japan, which rode on its thriving mercantile class, the adoption and maximization of European technology, and their disposition towards a rigid work ethic.

On an economic perspective, Landes, like Adam Smith, from whom he obviously adopted the title of the book, is a staunch advocate of unrestricted trade and had shown various examples in which those who took the path of protectionism failed to accumulate wealth.

Certainly, his assertions have valuable lessons on economic policies (ay parang Econ 11 ito na muntik ko nang binagsak!).

The coverage of the book is quite broad, as such, despite the wealth of specific evidence to support his claims, the author could not come up with a definite answer to his primary question. The problem, I think, is that he chose not to forward a strong, singular thesis to explain the poverty and wealth of nations, instead, he relied on an excess of explanations - borrowing from various disciplines - that he could not really discuss in detail or with depth.

At the end of the book, I was still wondering what the author really wanted to say.

Despite this, the book has some brilliant moments, such as the one on colonialism, that are worth reflecting. If ever, this book only whets your appetite to explore further the topics it touches.

The next book I read was of course a novel, having resolved to intersperse fiction and non-fiction. I found Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through The Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (Andrew X. Pham, 1999) in Saigon among the photocopied books that one can find in nearly every corner of the city.

I chose the book because I wanted to read more Southeast Asian authors (I'm failing miserably in that plan, by the way).

The book is based on Pham's experiences as a boy growing up on the last days before of the fall of Saigon. He and his family are one of the boat people that courageously cross the South China Sea to Indonesia, afterwhich they find they themselves in the US.

Instead of enjoying heaven in their new home, they go through the classic tale of the immigrant experience, that of coming to terms with two clashing cultures, deeply dividing the family and with tragic consequences.

As a grown-up man, he revisits his past by cycling through the US Pacific coast, all the way to Japan, until he finds himself back in Saigon. He then pedals through Vietnam from the south to Hanoi where he is confronted by the changes (or sometimes lack of it) that has swept Vietnam since he left: capitalism versus traditions versus socialism.

Repeatedly, he is treated as a stranger, and sometimes even loathed for having left the country while the rest of his countrymen languished in post-war Vietnam.

The language is quite simple and direct but does not fail to give richness to his experiences, which are laden with irony, humor, and powerful insight.

In one of his introspection, he quotes a Vietnamese saying: "A thousand years of Chinese rule, a hundred years of French subjugation, and ten years of American domination, but we survived, unified".

While talking with a Vietnamese professor, the latter, in reference to a popular character in Vietnamese literature, reveals that the national literary heroine is a prostitute. The professor explains: "It says everything about the Vietnamese, understand, no? She [Vietnam] is a prostitute. The things she has done are not commendable, great deeds. But don't you see, it is the reasons why she does these things. They are selfless acts. Sacrifices".

Despite all these reflections, the author avoids romanticizing his homeland, rather, he sweeps through it with openness, unfolding his love-hate relationship with a country that is oddly familiar but strange at the same time.

He does not seek forgiveness, instead, it is a journey of self-discovery.

I still wonder how much of the book is based on the author's actual experiences and which are not (I don't think that is important anymore). Its worth lies in the fact that it covers a wide swath of Vietnamese life - during and after the war.

For those who are interested in knowing Vietnamese culture and their psyche (at least from the author's perspective), it deserves a thorough read.

Photo Credit: (1) CampusI, (2) The Savvy Traveller


jericho said...

ang seriousness naman ng post na itetch! hmpf! yeys ... social, political and economic theories abound on why the world is so divided. as for me i subscribe to the theory that it all started when Moses divided the red sea. charot lang! i do subscribe to a certain analysis ;)

fuchsiaboy said...

who's in vietnam that you're so interested about it?

too, bad that book didn't really explain anything. I was hoping we could use it to come up with plans to sustain our designer addiction.

meredel said...

parang magaganda yan a. sana mahiram ko.. =)

Gibo said...

"culture it seems is the underlying force behind the disparities in early economic development among nations"

kakaibang take ito sa isyu...mabalikan nga si marx at engels.

kawadjan said...

jericho: biblical naman ang analysis ng lola. echoz! oh, speaking of biblical, i read a brilliant book lately. wait for the "review".

donita: walang nangyari sa vietnam... walaaaaahhh...

del: mahal ang dhl. hahaha.

gibo: ay eto na, bumunot ka rin ng sarili mong armas.


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