How I picked my next book has always been a matter of impulse or accident.
Sometimes I’d find myself at an airport with time to kill, so I buy a book. At times I see a lady at a coffee shop deeply engrossed in a novel and her accidental smile while reading it compels me to read it.
Or sometimes, I’m in a conversation with a friend and he casually mentions a book to argue a point. If I buy his argument, I buy the book too. Or it can be a random Reddit post that instinctively forces me to pick up a book.
I believe that unless you are preparing for an exam or any particular assignment, your reading should not be caged by rules. A friend once put it succinctly: the best book you should read next, irrespective of genre, is the one you can’t put down.
When 2018 began, I had an ambitious target of reading at least three books a month.
I was doing fine with my goal in the initial months. But when UPSC declared the results in April, my reading routine got completely upended. The immediate price I had to pay was my privacy.
Since then, for reasons beyond my control or comprehension, I couldn’t find as much solitude or reading time as I’d have liked. I was burdened with tasks I didn’t like or was engaged in public settings I didn’t enjoy. My time wasn’t mine anymore.
Though the number of books I had read this year is few, I’m glad that the limited number of books I had read were of remarkable quality.
In 2019, I plan to guard my time more assiduously: less of social gatherings and more of solitude; less of social media and more of reading and writing; less of doing things I don’t like and more of saying ‘No’ to people.
Anyway, here’s the list of my favourite books of 2018.
10. The Entrepreneurial State – Mariana Mazzucato
Mariana challenges a widely held myth that holds government as an impediment to innovation. Through fascinating examples from history, she argues how the state held the mantle as a lead innovator in bringing out path-breaking technologies such as the internet, GPS and the touch screen— all of which make an iPhone for what it is. Apple rightfully gets the credit for building an innovative product, but the government rarely gets any recognition. This book seeks to correct that bias. It is an essential read for those who see government expenditure on risky technologies as a zero sum game in conflict with social welfare. If you believe India shouldn’t send space missions to Mars because we are a poor country, this book makes you rethink.
“Arguably, there is not a single key technology behind the iPhone that has not been State-funded.”
9. The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker
I’ve had this intuition that the most violent period in human history must be the 20th century that saw unimaginable human suffering in two brutal world wars. Turns out I’m wrong.
Our ancestors lived amidst incomparable violence, barbarism, and bloodshed. As a percentage of population, the number of deaths in all of 20th century are fewer compared to previous eras. What accounts for this steady decline in violence and what can we learn from it?
This 800-page opus from Steven Pinker narrates the history of violence in humanity. Starting with hunter-gatherers to modern societies, through extensive data in page after page, Pinker forwards one core argument: There is a continuous decline in violence and this is not a coincidence.
Delving deep into human nature and combining research from genetics, criminology and psychology Pinker puts forth his thesis on what drives us to be violent, what caused its decline, why we turned empathetic over time, and how do we make our peace enduring. The book is a long read, but an essential one.
“As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister.”
8. Billionaire Raj – James Crabtree
India witnessed searing growth rates during the mid-2000s, thanks to low interest rates, a generous inflow of foreign capital and huge private investment. Crabtree argues that this period also led to a rapid rise of a billionaire class, concentrating wealth and entrenching corporate power.
When the 2G and Coal scam unravelled, it was evident that some of this corporate wealth was built not because they added true value to the economy, but because some crony capitalists could bend the rules and strike dodgy deals. Crabtree writes eloquently on the rise of such crony capitalists, and their link to political corruption.
The book made me think that perhaps it’s the illegitimate funding that drives much of the political corruption and criminalisation. State funding of elections is an option we should seriously consider.
Crabtree’s writing is brilliant as he weaves interesting anecdotes seamlessly into the larger narrative. Especially the chapter on Ambani and his residence Antilia is incredibly fascinating.
“Measured relative to gross domestic product, India came second only to Russia for the proportion of national wealth held by its very richest people.”
7. Deep Work – Cal Newport
None of us can stand in a queue for 10 seconds without pulling out our phones from pockets. When we speak to the person in front of us, our peripheral vision is always on our mobiles, ruminating at the back of our mind about a random instagram notification.
In this book, Cal Newport argues that in such an ever-distracted world drowning in irrelevant information, what is becoming increasingly rare is deep work: the ability to focus on a mentally demanding task for a sustained period of time. Deep work’s benefits in a knowledge economy is priceless.
I loved the fact that he doesn’t preach cliches, but meticulously teaches concrete strategies to make deep work as part of our daily routine. Irrespective of our professions, I believe ability to work with focus is an important meta skill we can cultivate to improve our productivity and creativity.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Scientist Csikszentmihalyi calls this mental state “flow”. Most people assume that relaxation makes them happy. We want to work less and spend more time in the hammock. But the results from scientific studies reveal that most people have this wrong. When measured empirically, people were happier at work and less happy relaxing than they suspected. The more the number of ‘flow’ experiences in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction. Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.”
6. Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
Humans have long dreamt of conquering cancer, often declaring victory, only to see the disease rise again in more virulent forms. It’s only with recent advances in genetics and immunotherapy that we are coming to grips with its complexity. Siddhartha Mukherjee brilliantly documents this long journey of cancer from being a disease that perplexed humans to now, where we have a measure of control over it.
I love when experts in a specific field explain complex topics in simple words, shorn of jargon, in a way accessible to the general public. Mukherjee does this job remarkably well. His writing is lucid, precise and punctuated with many moving, and harrowing real life stories.
Books like these kill my hunger for fiction. You get to savour great writing, and reap knowledge— both at once.
“If we seek immortality, then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.”
5. Enlightenment Now – Steven Pinker
For much of human history, our species has been afflicted with war, famine and pestilence. People routinely killed each other, died of hunger and the lives of masses were crushed under drudgery and tyranny.
But it’s only in the past four centuries that we see a remarkable improvement in the quality of life. Pinker attributes it to three factors— science, reason, and humanism. Science helped us discover our ignorance, the ability to reason made us question religious authority as the source of truth, and humanism filled us with empathy and respect toward other human beings (subsequently including other sentient species too).
He asserts that progress is not a vague concept as many social scientists have us believe. Progress is something we can measure objectively to prove that the world is getting better.
Of course there is much suffering still, and much work yet to be done to build fair and just societies. But our incredible journey from primitives apes to civilisation builders and the attributes that helped us being here should serve as our guiding lights.
“What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.”
4. The Origin of Species- Charles Darwin
Once I saw this video of David Attenborough describing Charles Darwin, I had to buy this book. As you read it, you see what an eloquent writer Darwin was. To put a discovery of such magnitude in clear language and familiar terms is no mean task.
And here’s my favourite passage from the book:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
3. Bad Blood – John Carreyrou
Narrative nonfiction doesn’t get better than this. It’s a startup story, but reads like a thriller. Carreyrou documents the rise and fall of Theranos, a silicon valley startup founded to build portable blood testing machines. During its heyday, the company attracted venture capitalists in droves, valuing the company at $9B. The media covered its founder Elizabeth Holmes with adulation, calling her the female Steve Jobs.
But the truth was, for more than a decade, the company just lied— to the investors, government and the public. The company operated in a climate of secrecy and intimidation, its founder Elizabeth Holmes at the forefront of such fraud. All it took to expose this huge scandal was one journalist with integrity. The unraveling of Theranos holds a larger lesson for us: To be skeptical about the rapid rise of startup unicorns, especially in tech.
Apart from the story, the best thing about the book is Carreyrou’s writing style. It’s sharp, precise and always racing at a breathless pace. A joy to read.
“The way Theranos is operating is like trying to build a bus while you’re driving the bus. Someone is going to get killed.”
2. The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker
Are we a product of our genes or environment? There’s little doubt that both play a part. But the question on which of these play a major role is fiercely contested in science. The nature – nurture debate has always been marked by rancour, misunderstanding and deep political bias.
In this astonishing work, Pinker takes on political hot buttons and discusses the role of nature in race and gender, IQ and parenting, art and violence. Reasoned and persuasive, this book has changed many of my strong beliefs. The research he cites to support his arguments, especially the identical twin studies is absolutely riveting.
The book is humbling in the way it compels us to acknowledge our primal nature, and from that realisation that we are not blank slates, it pushes us to find solutions.
“Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.”
1. A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
This is the first book I read this year and also the best. It tells the story of an ill-tempered, grumpy old man. Ove is honest, likes rules and routines. He is generally unimpressed by people, because he thinks they are too lazy or plain stupid.
We are taken on Ove’s personal journey filled with love, loss, humor and grief. One of those books that makes you smile gleefully even when you are in a public setting. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Just read this wonderful description of Ove and his wife.
“Ove understood things he could see and touch. Cement and concrete. Glass and steel. Tools. Things one could figure out. He understood right angles and clear instruction manuals. Assembly models and drawings. Things one could draw on paper. He was a man of black and white. And she was colour. All the colour he had.”
What have been your favorite books? What books did you enjoy reading and what made you like them? List those books in the comments, and maybe I’ll pick up a couple of them.