Peter Sillem is Editor-in-Chief Non-Fiction at S. Fischer Verlag, a German publishing house founded in 1886. He is the author of a book on melancholia in Early Modern Europe and lives in Frankfurt with his wife and two young children.
To see which titles Peter has chosen as his Books of the Decade, click below.
A history book which couldn’t be more topical and which shows us that yes, we can learn from the past. Jared Diamond explores the patterns which lead to either failure or survival of societies as diverse as the Vikings, the Maya and the Anasazi in the past and Rwanda, China and Australia in the present.
Diamond also shows that the end always starts with the exploitation of the environment, with the rapid growth of populations, and by making political mistakes. Having read the book one can’t help thinking that planet Earth has become a giant Easter Island – with one difference: We have sufficient knowledge for a complete turnaround.
This is not only a book of a decade but of a century. What a cast of characters, what a wealth of fates and life stories: there is Amos’s bookish father who speaks eleven and reads 17 languages, his gentle and depressed mother who commits suicide when Amos is 12 years old, his grandparents and their lives in Odessa and Rovno in 19th-century Ukraine (which may well make for the most beautiful chapters in this books), Amos’s liberation from being a pale, flat-chested boy living in a dark, book-crammed basement flat to becoming a strong, armed and tanned young man living in the Kibbutz. This is like Chekhov with a cast taken from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky set in the Jerusalem of the 40’s and 50’s.
A grave robber, a leper, a prostitute, a professional mourner, a former red guard, a self-anointed peasant emperor, a public restroom manager – Liao Yiwu’s interviews with people from the bottom rung of Chinese society are banned in China because he gives them back their individual names, fates, and voices which they are not supposed to have as members of the revolutionary masses.
In their harrowing stories, ancient traditions and superstitions are still alive and clash with the political, technological, and economic revolutions which have taken place in China over the past decades. Liao who has been imprisoned himself for writing a poem on the Tiananmen massacre treats his subjects with empathy, respect — and a unique sense of humour.