The Best International Relations Books of 2013

As some of you may recall, I hold a B.A. in International Relations and Political Science, and remain very passionate about both subjects. That’s why I’m happy to share information on the best academic and nonfiction books published in 2013, courtesy of Foreign Affairs, one of the leading journals on the subject. 

An esteemed coterie of ten scholars were asked to pick their top three tomes for a variety of IR subjects, including law and politics, economics and the environment, military and science, and Africa, to name a few. Browse through the list and see if anything piques your interest. Sadly, I’ve only read or owned a handful of what’s listed, so I look forward to expanding my collection and seeing if these merit their selection. 

If you’re familiar with any of the books listed, please feel free to share your thoughts. Happy reading fellow IR nerds! 

You Are What You Read

According to an article in Medical Dailya study conducted last year found that readers will unknowingly be influenced by, or even adopt, certain characteristics of the fictional characters they’re reading about.

Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.

Researcher from the Ohio State University conducted a series of six different experiments on about 500 participants, reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in the right situations, ‘experience-taking,’ may lead to temporary real world changes in the lives of readers.

They found that stories written in the first-person can temporarily transform the way readers view the world, themselves and other social groups.

Experience-taking differs from perspective-taking in that you immerse yourself in the character you’re reading about, rather than simply try to comprehend what the character is experiencing.

For example, people who had strongly identified with a fictional character that overcame obstacles to vote were also significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days than participants who read a different story. But it gets more interesting:

Psychologists also found that it was critical for the story to reveal characteristics shared by the reader earlier rather than later for ‘experience-taking’ to take effect.

“The early revelation of the group membership seemed to highlight the difference between readers and the character, and made it more difficult for readers to step into the character’s shoes,” researchers wrote in the report.

In an experiment consisting of 70 heterosexual males, who were asked to read a story about a homosexual undergraduate student revealed extraordinarily different results depending on when in the narrative the character’s sexuality was exposed.

Participants who had found out about the protagonist being gay later in the narrative reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than participants who read that the protagonist was gay early on or read that the protagonist was heterosexual.

“Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story,” researchers wrote.

Notably, there were similar results with white students who read about a black student who was either identified as black early or late in the story.

So in essence, these stories prime our ability to empathize, which coincides with similar research I discussed months ago that found literature to have a positive effect on one’s level of compassion. Yet another post had explored the important role that fiction in particular plays in shaping our growth and development as a species.

Of course, this isn’t a surefire effect, as certain parameters are required:

The environment also played a major role in determining whether participants will engage in ‘experience-taking,’ according to the researcher.

In an experiment which required participants to read in front of a mirror, researchers reported that fewer readers were able to undergo ‘experience-taking’ because they were constantly reminded of their own self-concept and self-identity.

Researchers said that ‘experience-taking’ can only happen when readers are able to in a way forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity when reading.

“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” Kaufman said in a news release. “You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity.”

Notably, this effect only seems to occur with reading — film and television narratives, by contrast, delegate viewers to the role of spectator, which limits their ability to put themselves in the shoes of fictional characters.

“Experience-taking can be very powerful because people don’t even realize it is happening to them. It is an unconscious process,” Libby said, adding that the phenomenon could have powerful, if not lasting, effects. 

“If you can get people to relate to characters in this way, you might really open up their horizons, getting them to relate to social groups that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Libby told the Edmonton Journal.

Fascinating stuff. What do you guys think? Can anyone relate with this experience?

Reading Literature Makes You More Empathetic

So not only does reading the classics enrich you culturally, but it may very well better your capacity to understand people.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the journal Science that gave tests of social perception to people who were randomly assigned to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction or nonfiction.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, folks who were assigned to read highbrow literary works did better on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and decide what emotion the actors were expressing.

This is the first time scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has investigated the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

“I think it’s a really interesting paper,” says Mar. “It seems to be largely consistent with this growing body of work showing that what we read and our exposure to narrative has a very interesting impact on our social abilities and our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.”

Pretty interesting stuff. But where exactly do we draw the line between literary fiction and everything else? Well, the answer to that question explains why there seems to be a correlation between reading literature and being more attuned to other people.

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather stereotypical. “You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters, he says. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.

“This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people’s thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life,” says Castano.

This reminds me of my previous post about the evolutionary importance of art and literature. Not only do they serve as venues for sharing ideas, values, and even practical advice, but they apparently help build up the sort of empathy that is vital to human survival (since empathy in turn furthers cooperation and psychological well-being, which are vital to any high-functioning social species).

Castano says he doesn’t want people to think this study is a criticism of popular fiction, because there are lots of good reasons to read that, too. “But it’s unlikely that it’s going to train you to read other people’s minds.”

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence how we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who coauthored the study with Castano.

“We’re having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities,” Kidd says. “Municipalities are facing budget cuts and there are questions about why are we supporting these libraries. And one thing that’s noticeably absent from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence.”

And there’s the upshot: even if the evidence thus far is scant, it’s vital that we take into account the importance of art to societal well-being. Culture exists for a reason: to transmit ideas, prevent boredom, comfort us, and — ultimately — to make us human.

Book Recommendation: “The Great Siege: Malta 1565” by Ernle Bradford

This 260-page tome is tells the amazing story of one of the most decisive but understated military battles in the history of Europe — pitting the ascendent Ottoman Empire, the region’s greatest power, against the declining Knights of St. John, Europe’s finest but most beleaguered warriors.

At stake was the tiny and dusty speck of an island known as Malta, which not only allowed control over much of the trade-rich Mediterranean, but could be used to invade Italy and from there the rest Europe. Arguably, the fate of these seemingly insignificant islands thus influenced the destiny of an entire continent, if not Western Civilization.

Even if you don’t buy the hype, the 1565 siege of Malta was nonetheless an amazing conflict with a cinema-worthy cast of characters and events. Like any good historian, Bradford provides a detailed and comprehensive account of the background of this conflict, giving fair weight to each side’s motivation’s and perspectives (although the Knights are clearly the main focus, perhaps due to there being more information on them).

Overall, I found it to be an informative, balanced, and engaging book, and it will no doubt appeal to those who particularly enjoy military and Medieval history.

A Tale of Two Humanitarian Educators

Interestingly, one of these stories takes place in India, and the other in Pakistan, each being reported on within months of each other. Regardless of their location, selfless and innovative ideas like these help give me hope in humanity. I’m short on time, so I’ll let the pictures and their captions speak for themselves. Click the images to link to their original sources (Washington Post and NPR, respectively).

School in India

A makeshift school set up under a bridge in New Delhi, India. Run by shop owner Rajesh Kumar, the over 50 students, ages 4 to 14, study everything from basic reading and writing to mathematical concepts like the Pythagorean Theorem. The students sit on foam mats just yards away from an excrement pit, and are taught for over 2 hours.


After decades abroad Saeed Malik (left) returned to his native Pakistan to rectify the poor education system. He remembered talking to a group of boys, 9 to 16 years old, and finding that the majority wanted to be freedom fighters and die as martyrs, because they had nothing else to live for. “And I felt, in what way can we bring these kids back to the beauty of life, to the beauty of future, to be of value to fellow mankind and to themselves and to the country,” he says. “And I started thinking in what way can we help the children.” Malik felt books were the way to broaden children’s minds, to introduce them to a whole world of subjects, and to help build tolerance for others. But he discovered that virtually none of the public schools in and around Islamabad had libraries. Through donations from the UN and private individuals, he founded the Bright Star Mobile Library, which now serves about 2,500 children, providing a range of books in Urdu and English.

We need more stories like this to be known, especially to balance out all the cynicism and negativity that typically captures our attention (and subsequently make up the bulk of our news). Even a flicker of light in the darkness is something to be cherished.

What a beautiful collection. I’d love to see it for myself some day.

Why Evolution Is True

by Matthew Cobb

There is a community of medievalists on Twitter who re-tweet their latest finds in their studies of illustrated manuscripts. I follow some of them, and this popped up in my Twitter stream today. It is a stupendous 112 page 13th century Sicilian manuscript from the Vatican Library, dealing with birds and falconry (De Artes Venandi Cum Avibus, Pal. lat. 1071). [SEE EDIT AT END FOR MORE INFO]

Here are just some of the examples of the illustrations. Birders who think they can ID the beasts, chip in below. Better still, go to the Vatican site (not often you’ll read those words here) and then come back to tell us what you’ve found – please give the page number, which will be a number followed by r (recto) or v (verso).

All the illustrations here are taken from there, and are obviously their copyright.


This first…

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King Leopold’s Ghost

I just finished reading “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” by Adam Hochschild, and I highly recommend it. The book tells the horrific but little-known story of one of the most brutal colonial regimes in history: King Leopold of Belgium’s rule of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the efforts of some of the world’s first international activists to stop it.

It’s excellently written, providing a detailed background of African civilization, the colonial era, and Western-African interactions and relations. It also introduces a wide variety of true larger-than-life villains and heroes, who are nonetheless treated with nuance and realism. The book is a great balance of scholarly analysis and gripping narrative. Needless to say, however, the subject matter is disturbing and heavy. However, it’s vital for understanding the wider reasons why the Congo, and much of Africa, remain blighted to this day.

Gratitude to My Shunning Peers

To all peers that ostracized me throughout my youth: thank you. Because I was alienated for being weird, awkward, and overweight – and in all fairness, I was and still am, the first two – I had no choice but to seek solace by escaping into books, art, and my own mind. In doing so, I got to explore new and exciting worlds that I would have otherwise never known, built up the knowledge-base for pursuing my career, and developed an active imagination as a substitute for an abrasive reality. I couldn’t have asked for a better deal.

Interview with an Entomologist

For all the fellow “bug” enthusiasts out there, I present a very illuminating interview with a prominent entomologist, May Berenbaum. Not only is she a phenomenal expert, but like most good scientists, she has an admirable passion for her work. She also recommends five books for anyone with even a modicum of interest in insects (listed in a box on the right of the page). Based on the interview, and my further research on them, I’m quite certain she knows what she’s talking about.

I love seeing scientific passion at work. It can be so inspirational.

Lost In Translation

Earlier today I was reflecting on two articles,  one located hereconcerning publications in America and the woeful lack of international literature among them.

Only 2% to 5% of all books published in the United States come from a non-English language source. I always knew American society is insular with regards to international culture, but this low figure still surprised me. While some non-Anglophobe authors publish their works in English, most of them don’t, which leaves us completely unexposed to the overwhelming majority of  the world’s writings.

Imagine having no knowledge of most of humanity’s works – the different styles, stories, mythologies, wisdoms, and perspectives. It’s disheartening to think of all the knowledge I’m deprived of due to my geographic location (though I fault myself for not being as diligent with learning other languages). What of our society as a whole? The most powerful nation in the world, with a culture so ubiquitous across the globe, scarcely has any literary and academic contact with all but a handful of English-speaking countries. It’s a very one-sided affair for a country that almost singularly dominates the global media market. As the author of a book on the subject, Why Translation Matters, noted:

The free exchange of literary ideas, insights, and intuitions — a basic reciprocity of thought facilitated by the translation of works from other cultures — is central to a free society.

For all this, American publishers certainly bear some blame. They generally claim that translations would cost too much, and since most Americans aren’t interested in international literature, they’d lose a lot of money. But this raises a question of causality: is the lack of interest on the part of American readers the reason why publishers don’t bother translating and publishing such works? Or is it the lack of such publishing on part of the publishers leads to or facilitates of our disinterest?

Personally, I think it is a bit of both. Americans have always maintained a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism, and we view our society and its values as inherently superior, such that we have little inclination to look elsewhere for any other idea or alternative point of view. Why supply the viewpoints of another civilization if we don’t view them as worthy of our time? I’m not asserting that Americans are unique in this perception, or intentionally close-minded; isolationism simply has a strong and historical presence in our society (which is something best left to be discussed in another post).  While I wish publishers could be enlightened and illuminate us with world literature anyway, I know that is not their job, and the demand that beckons them simply isn’t there in any profitable degree (though this does inspire to someday found a publishing company geared specifically for this purpose).

To be clear, I’m well aware that I am coming from a bias towards cosmopolitanism and world culture. But even factoring that in, I think it’s safe to say that this deficiency of  world literature is a serious concern. Not only are we denied a variety of unique and enlightening perspectives, but we retain – if not worsen – a disconnection from the rest of the world we proclaim to be leading; a world we’re constantly involved in despite a considerable lack of understanding. From the article linked above:

The dearth of translated literature in the English-speaking world represents a new kind of iron curtain we have constructed around ourselves. We are choosing to block off access to the writing of a large and significant portion of the world, including movements and societies whose potentially dreadful political impact on us is made even more menacing by our general lack of familiarity with them. Our stubborn and willful ignorance could have — and arguably, already has had — dangerous consequences. The problem starts in the Anglophone publishing industry, where translated books are not only avoided but actively discouraged…

This will come to no surprise to long-established readers or friends of mine, but I’ve always held strongly to the notion that knowledge, dialogue, and empathy- as would be provided by transcultural literature – is a necessary prerequisite to peace, cooperation, and progress. If we expose ourselves to the cultural products of other countries and civilizations, we create a bond with them. We see their depth and their humanity, and we sympathize with them better. When we read and learn about the views, thoughts, and experiences of ‘foreigners,’ they become less alien to us and far easier to relate with. Jingoism, parochialism, and bigotry become eroded and marginalized.

It can be  argued that America’s status as the world’s foremost immigration hub does similarly create a diverse, dialectical, and progressive society. But other cultures generally become Americanized within a few generations, and American society is largely geared towards assimilation. Interactions with immigrants within our own cultural context is no substitute for delving into their deeper ideals and perceptions as provided by their media and literature. While our wonderfully multicultural society bridges many divides, it’s not as effective as connecting to other cultures on their own terms.

Feeling a connection with an author who’s subject matter or narrative is completely alien to you is a wonderful experience, for it breaches barriers in favor of transcendent human-wide values. It is the ability to transcend cultural, religious, ethnic, national, and  numerous other differences in order to establish a personal connection. It’s something I’ve had the joy of experiencing for years as both an international relations major and someone who simply enjoys other cultures. Being able to discover all that we share, in spite of what we don’t, is an enlightening, touching, and even sobering exercise.

To read of how other societies struggle with the same needs, ambitions, and conflicts brings us a closer to them and their interests, facilitating cooperation towards pursuing similar interests (for example, all societies are concerned about education, job growth, the erosion of moral values, and so on). Discovering alternative policies, explanations, and theories for various subjects  introduces us to solutions we may never have otherwise realized. There is literally a world of ideas out there that we’re completely oblivious to.

I am in no way claiming that reading stuff from around the world will usher in world peace and prosperity. My sole point  is that we would stand to benefit tremendously from reversing this entrenched cultural isolation. There is a lot beyond our borders that we’re completely missing out on. Even setting aside my bleeding-heart rhetoric on the matter, one can certainly argue that, at the very least, it would make for interesting reading.