Why Amartya Sen recommends ‘King Lear’

Why the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen recommends ‘King Lear’

Sympathy and solidarity are qualities that people do need, Sen says

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Credit: DH.File Photo

The Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, whose forthcoming memoir is ‘Home in the World,’ would like the President to read ‘King Lear’; sympathy and solidarity are qualities that people do need, he says

What books are on your night stand?

I am afraid the pile of books is very unsystematic. It includes some Bengali poetry — rather well-known selections from Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. There are various books on history of different places, in different times. Perhaps the most interesting reading in the cluster is the third-century Indian writer Shudraka’s revolutionary play “Mricchakatika” — translatable as “The Little Clay Cart” — a moving story of tyrannical rule, which is ultimately overthrown by a popular uprising, bringing in a more democratic regime, but also the airing of some radically new ideas of justice that remain relevant even today (as I discuss in my new memoir).

What’s the last great book you read?

I am hesitant to make firm judgments on the greatness of books, but the recently published biography of Mary Wollstonecraft by Sylvana Tomaselli (called “Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics”) is such a splendid achievement that it is not very difficult to call it great.

Are there economists whose writing you especially admire?

There are, happily, many. I would not know where to begin — or end! But since Adam Smith’s influence is particularly noted in my memoir, and since I argue that Smith has to be interpreted quite differently from the way he is standardly seen (in particular we have to pay more attention to his exceptional pro-poor commitment), I should mention him here.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

I would not like the president to be a one-book person. But if I am forced to choose only one book for the president, it would be hard to leave out “King Lear.” I won’t go into an elaborate explanation here, but sympathy and solidarity are qualities that people do need.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Suraj Yengde’s recent book (“Caste Matters”) on the devastating effects of the severe practice of caste distinctions in some parts of India has made us appreciate more fully how pernicious this type of inequality is. Along with that comes the need for closeness with Dalits, who were relegated as untouchables until recently, and also the moral requirement to question those who have been enjoying — and still do — unequal political privileges.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

This is a question for the very brave. Can we really rank superb writers against one another, and — to add to the difficulty — can we do that to people specializing in very different things? I can’t answer these questions with confidence, but that need not stop us from the fun of being brave. Since I greatly enjoyed the company, when I could get it, of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (aside from loving his poetry), I could express my admiration for him. He died, alas, in 2013, but despite those eight years, he is still a very contemporary writer:

And here is lovelike a tinsmith’s scoopsunk past its gleamin the meal-bin.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

I don’t think there is a shared object that moves me in every case. Rather, it is how a book develops and makes room for interesting ideas. In one way or another, we should be able to accommodate “Hamlet” and the sonnets, Goethe’s “Faust” and the fifth-century Sanskrit poet and playwright Kalidasa’s “Meghaduta.” The memory of Kalidasa’s writings led E.M. Forster to a long train journey to the ruins of Ujjain, the town in which Kalidasa lived. As Forster describes it in “Abinger Harvest,” he took a small dip in Kalidasa’s favorite river, Shipra. Fondly evocative as it was, Forster kept wondering whether his clothes would dry by the time he was back on the train.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

A: This is a hard distinction to make, but I don’t think I would be happy with only one without the other. If I am forced to choose, I may opt for intellectuality. However, I would hope that some of the attraction of emotions will be smuggled into that intellectual world.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

A: A hard game, this one. But I could have a try. A Princeton book published a few years ago can enter the competition. It is called “A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta.” It is seriously unknown, but a wonderfully interesting book — and a very easy read — written by a hugely talented young Bangladeshi writer named Tariq Omar Ali. I recommend it strongly.

Your work as an economist has focused on welfare and social justice. What writers would you recommend for a lay audience on those topics?

There are many writers who offer insights on these subjects. From Condorcet in the 18th century (a translation would be needed, if — like me — you don’t read French) to Kenneth Arrow in our time (some mathematics, or mathematical logic, would be useful here). But there is another approach. It is not a bad idea to choose a serious problem and look for good writers on that. For example on the terrible problem of homelessness, it would be absorbing to read Matthew Desmond’s definitive book, “Evicted.”

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

A: I would describe myself as an indiscriminate reader. This was particularly so when I was young. As I grew up, my interest in reading — particularly of nonfiction — became more specialized. I read a whole lot of books to pretend to be a mini-expert on one subject or another (like the settlements in ancient times in the Calcutta area, two and a half thousand years ago). Sometimes I did learn a thing or two, and bored everyone by telling them what I knew. But the books I remember most were very entertaining — often quite funny. Like joyful tales, both in verse and in prose, by Sukumar Ray (the father of the great film director Satyajit Ray). I was determined to be amused.

How do you organize your books?

A: I fear the answer has to be that I do not organize my books — or more explicitly, I do not succeed in organizing them. I try to, of course, often quite hard — as long as my patience lasts. To borrow from Chinua Achebe, things fall apart. The result may be terrible. It is maddening when I cannot lay my hands on George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” though I know very well that I do have a copy. There can, however, be unexpected pleasures too. Looking unenthusiastically for a novel I have been instructed I “must” read, I may instead run into an old favorite I have not seen for a long while (like Erich Maria Remarque’s “Three Comrades”). I may then have reason to thank what is best described as “disorganization.”

Watch latest videos by DH here: