After loving The Warmth of Other Suns, I rushed out to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much. The problem is a familiar one with non-fiction: It feels like a great magazine essay (or in this case maybe 2-3 great magazine essays) padded out to fill book length.
But maybe part of the problem is just that this isn’t the book I expected to be. As the book starts out, it’s talking about how the three big caste systems are India’s famous one; the one that the Nazis instituted in Germany; and America’s racial caste system. And so what I was hoping for was an analytical history of those three systems, how they developed, their parallels and differences, and so forth.
Wilkerson does do some of that—the part about how the Nazis explicitly looked to Jim Crow laws as inspiration when writing their own laws (and how they rejected some American provisions as too harsh) is chilling—but to a large extent, it’s just not the book she’s writing. Wilkerson has done some research on India, clearly, but she’s not fundamentally writing about India’s system, and reading this book will only give you the shallowest understanding of it; she’s writing about America’s, and only really references India and Germany as they relate to the American experience.
Really, beyond wanting the scope of the book to be larger, I think my disappointment is mostly just that this isn’t a history so much as it is a work of journalism. The first person anecdotes in The Warmth of Other Suns read as carrying the oral history of her subjects through to a more recent period, but here they don’t have that function, so just feel more like typical first-person magazine essays.
But so my criticism only goes so far, because this was also a breezy read, and there is good stuff in here. If it feels occasionally repetitive or with some bits of less-essential anecdote as filler, it’s not in any sense bad; it’s just not essential like Warmth was. Lightly recommended.