In a week in which Mumbai was badly shaken up by a series of heinous bomb blasts (I got off a train on the Western line just half an hour before the blasts, and thus narrowly avoided being sent up to that special enclosure in hell for the souls of departed literary bloggers, bereft of any books but full of copies of the Times of India and the Hindu), here is a set of not bombs but books that shook the world - works that have served for hundreds of years to open people's minds and fruitfully complicate their worldviews. This month Atlantic Books brings out a series of short "biographies" of some of the most influential books in history, each written by a distinguished writer. The first few volumes include Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, Francis Wheen on Marx's Das Kapital, Simon Blackburn on Plato's Republic, and Bruce Lawrence on The Qur'an. A slightly later release is the American satirist P.J. O'Rourke on Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.
Already some bits and pieces of work found in these books is available online: Wheen's excellent essay on Das Kapital in the Guardian last weekend argues that we should look at Marx's opus not as a work in the tradition of classical economics but more as a piece of literature, and O'Rourke argues in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard that Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which almost nobody has ever read, is a vital to an understanding of The Wealth of Nations. People hold very different opinions of who was the greater thinker, Marx or Smith, according to temperament or political persuasion, but a piece in the Economist from 2002 notes that "titles in print about Marx outnumber books about Adam Smith by a factor of between five and ten". And certainly, while our universities and large swathes of India have a great many people who call themselves Marxists, I've never in my life come across a Smithist, which suggests paradoxically that Smith may have been the harder man to emulate. An edited extract from Hitchens's book on Tom Paine appears here.
About the blasts: they were a nasty shock, but not particularly a surprise. We live in what history may later call the age of terrorism, and Mumbai's trains are easy and tempting targets. We need much better security systems for our train coaches (which are really not much more than boxes on wheels), and perhaps a special vigilance force, to man entrances and exits of stations and to travel on trains themselves. Multiple entrances and exits to stations, often created by people breaking down walls and jumping over fences, must be sealed off, and walking on the tracks made a punishable offence. (This would also root out an almost daily tragedy of the city, that of people being run over while crossing the tracks. The yearly toll of this - 3500 by this estimate - far outstrips the toll of Tuesday's dead.) Thus, the one positive of this disaster is that it may enforce a long-needed modernisation of our creaking systems, as also a better enforcement of the rules already in existence but blithely ignored by both the public and the authorities.
Clearly all this will not be cheap, but life should not be so cheap either. I can think of a simple measure to raise the money. Mumbai's citizens would gladly pay a safety surcharge of 50 paise on every local train ticket bought, and perhaps an extra Rs.5-10 on their season tickets. At about 60 lakh passengers a day, that should raise the necessary funds simply enough, and soon enough, for our 2000-odd trains going up and down every day. The world has changed for good, and the enemies of our open society lurk within our ranks - it is possible we pass them every day on the street. It is hard to pull out such threats by the roots. We need to take all the steps needed just to survive in these new uncertain times, before Tuesday's disaster is revisited upon us.