FEW PLACES MAKE ME HAPPIER than a bookshop. I could spend hours each week—and I often have—lingering in the aisles, looking for new writers or thumbing through old favourites. I tend to hover near the shelves devoted to non-fiction, where I am often struck by the growing number of “country books”—those titles, often written by journalists or novelists, that aim to describe and explain an entire nation to a popular audience.
If you’re standing in a bookstore in New York or London, most of these books will be about foreign countries. (In a bookshop here, most are about India, but we’ll come to that in a moment.) Zones of conflict are always big business, especially if the country in question is home to contingents of American and British soldiers, so one finds innumerable books about the countries of the Middle East, alongside a growing tally of reports from the world’s rising economies, like India, Russia and China.
In American bookshops, the so-called ‘China book’ is in a category all its own—thanks, perhaps, to the size and complexity of the subject and the growing sense that Beijing presents the only remaining rival to Washington. But the challenge facing a non-fiction writer whose subject is “China”—or “India,” for that matter—is a tall one. How do you capture the reality of such enormous countries? How do you write about politics, society, economics, ambition, justice and all the other major questions that any writer wants to tackle, without leaving anything out? And how do you fit the results in a single book?