In a turbulent, uncertain year filled with terrible news all around, books have been a great source of comfort for me. They were the escape from the reality of lockdowns and persistent pandemic news cycle.
Readers of this blog know that I lean mostly towards non-fiction and this has been the case with 2020 as well. One habit that I picked up in 2020 is to not feel guilty to quit a book midway if I didn’t find it interesting. There are so many good books out there that the opportunity cost of reading a terrible book is far higher than the actual cost of the book. (Not applicable to UPSC books that aspirants have to read 🙂)
The following are my favourite reads of 2020. I loved these books for their writing, wit and insight.
10. Food Rules — Michael Pollan
The book that had the biggest impact on my eating habits. Food science is one of the most controversial and complicated branches of science. But for many of us who just want to eat healthy, complicated jargon such as Keto, Trans-Fat, Paleo, gluten-free and so on is just off-putting. The book makes the case that food advice need not be complicated. In fact, the author summarises the whole book in a short phrase of 7 words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Another rule that has stayed with me: If the food comes wrapped in a package with list of words that you don’t understand, or it makes health claims like ‘zero-fat’, ‘zero-sugar’, ‘lite’ and so on, most likely it’s bad for you. I lost the count of number of times this rule helped me decide what to avoid in my diet. The book is a series of such simple instructions to help you make informed decisions on what to consume. You will love it for its brevity and simplicity.
“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Imagine your great-grandmother at your side as you roll down the aisles of the supermarket. There are now thousands of foodish products in the supermarket that our ancestors simply wouldn’t recognize as food. The reasons to avoid eating such complicated food products are many, and go beyond the various chemical additives and corn and soy derivatives they contain, or the plastics in which they are typically packaged, some of which are probably toxic. Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed to get us to buy and eat more by pushing our “evolutionary buttons—our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt. These tastes are difficult to find in nature but cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy, with the result that food processing induces us to consume much more of these rarities than is good for us. The great-grandma rule will help keep most of these items out of your cart.”
9. Of Counsel — Arvind Subramanian
I loved this book both for Subramanian’s writing style and the interesting insights that he shares on the Indian economy. It’s less of a memoir and more of an intellectual discussion on the pressing economic issues facing the country. Nevertheless, it gives a glimpse on the workings of the Finance Ministry, how policies are made, negotiated and implemented. It’s one thing to propose a policy for your PhD and entirely another proposing it to a politician and getting it ratified through a democratic set-up. The protests we are witnessing against the farm laws is a case in point to show how bitter, difficult and rancorous policy making really is. Read it to get an insider perspective.
Indian development experience, certainly in the last thirty to thirty-five years, has been driven by services, and that’s special. We have specialized in IT-related services that are highly skill-intensive, and even Korea and Taiwan today—at much higher levels of income—have not done this. The other way of understanding this precocious model is that in some ways, India is trying to grow and develop not by worshipping or deifying its comparative advantage but by defying it. We have a lot of unskilled labour but we are not using it; we are using much more of our skilled labour.
8. Americana — Bhu Srinivasan
I picked up this book during the American Presidential elections to get an understanding of the country and how it came to be what it is today. Unlike traditional history books which are organised chronologically, this book takes the reader through the American capitalism by talking about specific economic goods. From cotton to canals, automobiles to mobile phones, Vanderbilt to Bill Gates, the book is a masterful storytelling of American economic history from its foundations to the current day. And from that history of innovation and industry, there is a lot India could learn.
“Without Venture Capital, the Silicon Valley of the US wouldn’t exist. Just as ventures to the New World needed more than ships and sailors, the financing mechanism of start-ups is central to their formation. As most new businesses fail, saying start-ups have a very high rate of failure is by itself not particularly revelatory. But a start-up is not a small business. A start-up is designed from the beginning to either become very big or completely fail—the modern-day equivalent of an uncertain, cross-ocean voyage to the New World as opposed to, say, a predictable, moderately profitable seventeenth-century trading voyage from London to Amsterdam. Stakeholders in a start-up are more interested in increasing the potential magnitude of a spectacular outcome than in bettering the probability of modest returns. Thus, the financial ecosystem’s willingness to accept a high risk of capital loss made venture capital accessible to outliers and eccentrics.”
7. Bad Money — Vivek Kaul
On a dreary and dense topic like banking and credit, Vivek Kaul manages to write an engaging book that touches on a diverse set of topics: history of Indian banking, the political-business nexus, the economic reforms, its aftermath and the like. It’s part history and part economy— all told in simple language without jargon. The book really drives home the importance of competent, independent regulation and what happens when oversight fails.
“… the ideal debt to equity ratio (i.e., the ratio of the money borrowed by the promoter to the promoter’s money invested in the business) should not be over 2:1. This means that for every one rupee that a promoter puts into the business, he shouldn’t borrow more than two rupees. The promoter putting money into the business is important because it ensures some ‘skin in the game’ from his end … In some cases, the promoters barely had any equity in the project. Let’s consider a project, X, in which the promoter was supposed to invest his fair share. He does that. The trouble was that the money he put into project X as equity was money borrowed from another bank for another project, Y. The banks financing projects X and Y did not know about this and the promoter ended up putting very little of his own money into the project. Hence, if any of these projects got delayed or lost money in any other way….the banks were on the line almost immediately.”
6. The Body — Bill Bryson
Expansive, thoughtful and entertaining. Bryson infuses science writing with his traditional humour making it such fun to read. The book made me realise how much I take my body and health for granted. With interesting stories and startling statistics, this book made me marvel at the incredible evolutionary machine we all have. The chapters on brain, breath, sleep, and disease are fascinating. In the year that global health was at its most precarious, I found this book to be a wonderful reminder to cherish health as the most incredible gift we have been endowed with.
“The body is often likened to a machine, but it is so much more than that. It works twenty-four hours a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze. How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder. But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm. And how do we celebrate the glory of our existence? Well, for most of us by eating maximally and exercising minimally. Think of all the junk you throw down your throat and how much of your life is spent sprawled in a near-vegetative state in front of a glowing screen. Yet in some kind and miraculous way our bodies look after us, extract nutrients from the miscellaneous foodstuffs we push into our faces, and somehow hold us together, generally at a pretty high level, for decades. Suicide by lifestyle takes ages.”
5. The Psychology of Money — Morgan Housel
Far from the realm of theory and equations, real world economic decisions are human decisions and humans are flawed. We have been hardwired for many evolutionary bugs— biases, fears, and emotional decision making that impacts how we save, invest and spend our money. Housel’s argument is simple: unlike any other industry, the world of finance and money has more to do with human behaviour than with economic laws. He talks about 20 important lessons that financial history has taught us on wealth, greed and happiness. It’s a breezy read for even for those without any back ground in finance. It also makes us aware of our emotions so that we can take informed financial decisions.
“You might think you want an expensive car, a fancy watch, and a huge house. But I’m telling you, you don’t. What you want is respect and admiration from other people, and you think having expensive stuff will bring it. It almost never does—especially from the people you want to respect and admire you.”
4. Lying — Sam Harris
Short, compelling and profound. The following lines from the opening chapter really hit me.
“Few of us are murderers or thieves, but we have all been liars. And many of us will be unable to get safely into our beds tonight without having told several lies over the course of the day.”
We all tell lies to varying degrees. Perhaps it can be about giving a false reason for coming late to a meeting, or a false praise you shower on someone so as just to not offend them. The book is about the convenient, little lies we tell everyday: to our siblings, our friends, our spouses, and our parents. Sam Harris argues that lies— even the innocuous, subtle ones— erode trust and harms our relationships. There is a far more fulfilling, richer life we can all lead if only we commit ourselves to complete honesty even at the expense of occasional short-term discomfort.
The book can be read in one day, but its arguments stay with you for a long, long time.
3. Indian Summer — Alex von Tunzelmann
Absolute thriller of a book. This is the most interesting book I’ve read on the subject of partition and Indian independence. The amount of detail with which the author describes important personalities and events is stunning.
Reading it made me wonder how much of our history is shaped by a handful of actors. We tend to attribute grand motives and inevitable forces as reasons behind historical events, but in equal measure, history is nothing but a tale heavily influenced by rare co-incidences, quirks and flaws of a few individuals. This book is a refreshing take on the end of British empire in India.
“In the beginning, there were two nations. One was vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.”
2. Range — David Epstein
I love books that make provocative arguments and challenge commonly held opinions. Take the notion that to become good at something one should pursue it early to get the beginner’s advantage. We routinely give up on taking new projects, learning new things because we feel we are too late. The book argues that it is nonsense. Studies have shown that learning to practise a skill early doesn’t necessarily confer a person an advantage over others who might have started late. In fact, it’s the other way. Surveying a wide range of skills before going deep into one is a very good way to excel at something.
Another core idea from the book is about the necessity for more Rangers – generalists with diverse set of skills. Specialisation is good when you are solving narrow problems. But the world is a complex, ‘wicked environment’ and it needs a combination of diverse skills to thrive in it. I came away convinced that the IAS should remain a generalist service.
I had underlined almost every alternate paragraph from the book because it had so many fantastic insights. An essential read for everyone.
“In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.”
1. Make it Stick — Peter Brown
If there is one book I wish I had read earlier, it’s this. This is a book every skilled professional— teacher, consultant, doctor, student, programmer, lawyer, engineer, academic, scientist, researcher, bureaucrat— should read because it teaches a core meta skill: how to learn effectively. Learning is at the core of every profession, yet it’s astonishing that no one ever teaches us how to learn. This book draws from scores of scientific studies and gives actionable advice on how to learn, memorise and comprehend concepts effectively.
Some captivating ideas I came across from reading it: we learn better when we mix subjects together, and memorise longer when we let some forgetfulness set in before revising a topic. We learn best not by stuffing things into mind through repeated, rote revisions, but by forcing your brain to express the concept out loud. These are counter-intuitive, but scientifically proven tactics. The book will will transform the way you learn and the way you teach others.
“Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer. It’s widely believed by teachers, trainers, and coaches that the most effective way to master a new skill is to give it dogged, single-minded focus, practicing over and over until you’ve got it down. Our faith in this runs deep, because most of us see fast gains during the learning phase of massed practice. What’s apparent from the research is that gains achieved during massed practice are transitory and melt away quickly.”
That’s my list for 2020. What are your favourite reads of 2020?
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