“The Story of Art” by E. H. Gombrich is a classic and popular book that charts the evolution of art through the ages. Using a plain language and written in a non-condescending style (sadly quite rare for the art books that I have seen in my life), it is a book that I wish I had read much earlier in my life. It would make a great gift for a teenager to gently initiate them into the wonderful world of art.
|Science and Technology|
“On Beauty” is a lavishly-illustrated book by Umberto Eco and Girolamo de Michele (translated from the original Italian into English by Alastair McEwen) that explores the depiction of beauty in western art through the ages. It uses the art of a period as a reflection of the standards of beauty in that period and shows how these standards have evolved over time. The discussion excludes beauty in nature or literature as well as the depiction of beauty in the art produced by the eastern cultures.
If you travel to Norway or become familiar with Norse mythology, you will come across these kind-of-scary, kind-of-cute beings called “Trolls” and their tales. It is therefore natural to be curious about these tales and that is why I picked up “Troll”, though in somewhat of a hurry. That turned out to be a mistake.
Walter Isaacson's “Steve Jobs” is the authorized biography of Steve Jobs, finished just before his death and released shortly afterwards. Steve was the creator of some of the most iconic (and best-selling) products of our times, as well as the person who rescued Apple from near-death upon his return there and built it into the biggest company in the world by market-capitalization. It is natural for us to look for insights from this book on just how he managed such feats. While the book succeeds in showing us his human side, revealing aspects of his personal life that were otherwise well-guarded this far, it does not quite throw much light into his design-sensibilities or business-acumen or how they helped him create such a spectacular turn-around at Apple.
I did not want to read “Softwar” by Matthew Symonds at first. I thought it would be just like the numerous other biographies endorsed by their subjects that are so common these days and that are utterly banal and filled with nauseating flattery of their subjects. I also felt a bit weird for some reason reading about the company (and its CEO) that employed me.
“William Shakespeare and His Dramatic Acts” is a book written by Andrew Donkin in the “Dead Famous” series. It is a great little book that is very well-researched and packed with loads of interesting nuggets about Elizabethan England.
“Writers and Their Tall Tales” is the second book I have read in the “Dead Famous” series of books (the first one was on William Shakespeare). It is a light book written in a humourous manner and is loaded with comic illustrations.
“Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary” is a book about the life of Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, till the year 2001. It has been written by Linus and David Diamond.
Benjamin Graham, known as “The Dean of Wall Street” and as “The Father of Value Investing”, was one of the greatest investors and teachers of investing principles. His disciples include some of the most famous investors, including Warren Buffett, and his approach of “value investing” still retains a dedicated following despite the advent of fancier and more popular approaches like “Modern Portfolio Theory”. He is credited with bringing discipline to the field of investing via the influential textbook “Security Analysis” that he co-authored with David Dodd and that was first published in 1934.
If you are looking for a comprehensive and accessible introduction to economics, “Economics: Private and Public Choice” by James D. Gwartney, Richard L. Stroup, Russell S. Sobel and David Macpherson is the book for you. It covers both microeconomics and macroeconomics in addition to the core principles of economics. Though it is a textbook meant for an undergraduate course in economics, it is also suitable as a gentle introduction to the dismal science for the lay person. I read the tenth edition of this book that was published in 2003.
I wanted to read “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner since the time I read a review of the book in The Economist. For some reason or the other I kept postponing it, though I could not help but notice how rapidly popular it was becoming. Now that I have finally read it, I wholeheartedly agree with almost every praise showered on this book.
“The Undercover Economist” by Tim Harford attempts to explain some of the basic principles of economics using a jargon-free language that is easy to understand for the lay person. He provides several examples of these principles at work in our day-to-day life. Peppered with his great sense of humour, this book is an extremely interesting and insightful read.
Robert Shiller (of the Case-Shiller housing index fame) is one of the few level-headed economists who have been able to recognise and point out market bubbles in the making and who have had the courage to stand by their analyses even in the face of ridicule. His book “Irrational Exuberance” became famous for calling out the stock-market bubble in the US when it was published in early 2000, just some time before the bubble burst. The second edition of the book has again been remarkable for pointing out the housing-market bubble in the US when it was published in 2005, though this time it took a little over a year since then for the bubble to burst.
“Predictably Irrational” is an entertaining and insightful book by Dan Ariely that seeks to show how irrational we humans are, in sharp contrast to standard economic theory that assumes that people are perfectly rational beings acting in self-interest (Homo Economicus). This realisation forms the basis for the relatively-new field of Behavioural Economics that marries psychology with economics in an attempt to create better models for human economic behaviour. Even if you're not interested in the study of economics, this is a great book to help you understand how your behaviour impacts your ability to take rational decisions and use this awareness to minimise the effect of irrational decisions on your life.
Liar’s Poker is a book by Michael Lewis that describes his time during the late 1980s at Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank. It also tells the story of the firm itself, especially its hits (with mortgage bonds) and misses (with junk bonds), as it rose to become a mighty power in the financial markets and subsequently fell into disgrace from that position. The book provides an interesting look into the mad, testosterone-filled world of financial traders as it was during a crucial turning point for Wall Street.
“Superfreakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner is a sequel to their successful book Freakonomics. Like that book, this one too uses some of the principles from economics to answer a number of questions pertaining to our lives. If you enjoyed that book, this book is more of the same, though much less interesting in my honest opinion. Of course, this could well be due to the number of books that have been published since the original book came out and that explore very similar topics.
I wanted to read “The Ascent of Money” by Niall Ferguson after having watched a local broadcast of the eponymous documentary-series from Channel 4. Each episode of the documentary-series was about an aspect of finance and was presented by the author himself. As they were broadcast around the time of the latest financial crisis (called the “Great Recession” by many people), it made for some very interesting viewing. Hoping to find more depth and greater detail in the book, I have to report that I was mildly disappointed after reading it. If you are totally new to the world of finance though, you will very likely find the the documentary-series (or the book) entertaining and insightful.
With a title like “The Little Book That Beats the Market”, this book might appear to be peddling nothing more than snake oil to gullible people looking to make money from the stock market. It still merits a look since the author Joel Greenblatt is a respected value investor and a professor, who started and managed the hedge fund Gotham Capital that achieved an average annual return of 40% over more than 20 years.
In “Beating The Street” Peter Lynch tries to show ordinary investors how to pick stocks and get better returns on average than most professional investors. I would ordinarily have dismissed such a book outright, but when it comes from the former head of the Magellan Fund, which grew from $18 million in assets to $14 billion in assets in about 13 years under him, it merits a second look.
“Early Indians” by Tony Joseph takes a look at some of the recent scientific research in genetics, linguistics, archeology, etc. to figure out just who the first settlers of India might have been and how they might have evolved over the years to form the current population of the Indian sub-continent. It is a relatively small book, but it is packed with information and provides copious references to the curious reader for further research. As it touches upon the roots and the identity of us Indians in these hyper-nationalistic times, it seems to have ruffled a few feathers already despite having what I consider a well-balanced and non-judgemental presentation.
Why was it that the Europeans came to dominate over the native Americans, the Africans and the aboriginal Australians and not vice versa? Why was it that civilisation flourished early on in places like the Middle East, India and China while places like sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and the Americas languished far behind for several thousand years?
“Alistair Cooke's America” is a book derived from an eponymous 13-part television series about the United States of America and its history. If you are even vaguely familiar with the history of the USA, this is the book that can provide great perspectives on the events that shaped the country and wonderful insights into the character of its people.
“Paris” by Colin Jones is a history of the city of Paris, covering the period of about 2,000 years from its days as the Roman camp of Lutetia to the present. The author chronicles its rise to prominence as one of the greatest cities in the world and a major centre for art and fashion. He does not shy away from talking about the horrible attrocities of its past either. This is a book written by someone who clearly loves the city for what it is and what it has been.
“Peter Colaco’s Bangalore” is little book containing several light essays and entertaining anecdotes about Bangalore by Peter Colaco. The book is richly illustrated with water-color sketches by Paul Fernandes (who has created great posters like “Bang, Bang, Bangalore” and the “Shine Boards” series). The book contains “a century of tales from City and Cantonment”, told many a time using the stories of members of the P. G. D’Souza clan, of which the author represents the third generation.
After our recent trip to Hampi, Anusha and I became quite curious to know more about the history of the Vijayanagara empire. Our high-school text-books on history barely touched upon the rise and the fall of this great empire that ruled over almost all of southern India for about three centuries beginning in the 14th century. We picked up Burton Stein's “The New Cambridge History of India: Vijayanagara” mainly because at about 150 pages it looked like a more manageable read than the other such books. It was also far more recent than the other books and therefore had a much better chance of incorporating the findings from recent research into this aspect of Indian history.
Lynne Truss's “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” is a delightful read about using punctuation correctly in English sentences.
“The Elephants of Style” by Bill Walsh is a style guide for written English. The title is a play on the title of that classic book on style by Strunk and White, “The Elements of Style”.
It is not easy to put “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb into one of the standard book categories like “Business” or “Science” or “Philosophy”. This is because the book is about all of these and more. The main message of the book is that humans have an innate tendency to overlook the randomness of most of the events in their lives and they must learn to recognise this. Chance plays a much greater role in our lives than we are willing to believe. The success or failure of a person depends a lot on luck as well as the usual suspects like skills, hard work, risk-appetite, etc.
As I struggle with opening a fruit-juice pack by tugging at its inconveniently-placed pastic ring (that hurts your finger if you pull it too hard or for too long) or try to open a cola can by trying to get my thick finger under the metal ring that is placed too close to the surface of the can, I think to myself: “Who designs such things? What were they thinking?” In “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman I find a kindred spirit who is frustrated by the apparent lack of thought put into the design of most of the things around us and who suggests several ways of improving such designs.
“The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” is Edward Tufte's classic book on the principles behind creating effective data graphics. This is the area where graphic design and statistics meet to present a lot of information in a manner that readily provides viewers valuable insights, without them having to wade through and analyze a swarm of numbers. Charts, graphs and other visualizations of data fall into this category. With the vast amount of data created these days, effective analyses of these data using statistics and digestible presentation of these analyses using graphics become very important.
“The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a follow-up to his last book “Fooled by Randomness”. A Black Swan is a completely unforeseen event with significant consequences. It could be the sudden crash of the stock market after a prolonged bull phase or the unexpected success of a book by a previously-unknown author. The term refers to the shattering of the long-held idea of a swan always being white by the sighting of black swans in the newly-discovered land of Australia. The book is a warning against using induction to derive conclusions that are then prone to Black Swans.
“The Ode Less Travelled” by Stephen Fry is a book that attempts to teach you how to write poetry. He introduces the reader to variations of metre, rhyme and form in poetry and tries to dispel the myth that in poetry these days “anything goes”. Even if you never plan to write poetry, this is a good book to read as it illustrates the various techniques and constraints that poets work with and will very likely make you appreciate poetry more. If you do write poetry, or plan to, this is an indispensible book.
Most of us living in the fast-growing Indian cities tend to ignore the slums that dot these cities and the slum-dwellers who live within - just as we tend to ignore the garbage strewn all around us. Katherine Boo with her book “Behind The Beautiful Forevers” manages to make us pause and think about these less-privileged folks who have been dealt a rough hand in life as well as our garbage that provides livelihood to many such folks. It is beautifully-written, especially for a first book, and is a must-read.
“Beautiful Thing” is a poignant book by Sonia Faleiro on the lives of bar-dancers in Mumbai, based on research done by the author over a period of five years. The book tells the story of Leela, a beautiful nineteen year old girl who works as a dancer in a dance-bar in Mumbai called “Night Lovers”. It traces her life as a much-exploited young teenager from Meerut who manages to escape from her home only to become a bar-dancer in Mumbai. There she earns good money, achieves independence and is fussed over by a steady stream of men.
“Following Fish” by Samanth Subramanian is one of those rare English books published from India that are not banal attempts at aping the success of the last block-buster book or lame attempts at becoming a “published author”. It is a travelogue and a food-guide that is very well-written and has also been very well-received, hopefully encouraging others to write good non-fiction books of their own.
Granta is a quarterly magazine dedicated to new writing. It usually contains a motley collection of fiction, essays, photographs, poems, etc. Granta 100 is a special issue celebrating the 100th edition of this magazine featuring contributions from the likes of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Hanif Kureishi, Ian McEwan, etc.
“The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell is a book that expands upon an article by the author in the New Yorker published in 1996. It seeks to explore how ideas, products, messages and behaviours “tip over” and suddenly spread through or recede from society, just like pathological epidemics through a population. These are termed “social epidemics” by the author. Understanding such phenomena can help us effect a desired change in society (e.g. market a product or spread a message).
“Blink” is a book by Malcom Gladwell on rapid cognition, that is, our ability and tendency to take decisions and form opinions in the blink of an eye, without taking the time needed to fully evaluate the matter at hand using all the available evidence. We are usually not conscious of such behavior and cannot normally explain it, if forced to do so. This “thin-slicing” (as the author calls it) helps us a lot in our lives, but we need to be aware of its disadvantages and work towards turning it into an advantage.
“101 Essential Tips: Wine” by Tom Stevenson is an introductory little book for those interested in wine. It is a copiously-illustrated book with easy-to-read text and is so small that it can be finished in just a single sitting. It serves its purpose fairly well, though the title is a little misleading.
“Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” is a book by John Perkins describing his work as a purported economist for a large engineering firm (MAIN) that allegedly colluded with politicians and other such firms to spread America's hegemony as an economic super-power. This was done in part by convincing corrupt political leaders in poor countries to take on onerous loans from the World Bank and other such institutions in the name of development and extracting concessions for the business of American companies in such countries when their loans became difficult to service for them.
“The Elephant Paradigm” by Gurcharan Das is a collection of essays by the author based on his columns in The Times Of India and other newspapers. Published in 2002, it examines how India has changed after the economic liberalization of 1991, as well as other reforms like those in telecommunications, education, and local government. It then ponders how the country can really make progress on economic and other fronts to become a truly developed country. (Disclosure: After the first 100 or so pages, I mostly skimmed through the rest of the pages as I found the book a bit dull – more on that below – so take this “review” with a pinch of salt.)
“Buyology” by Martin Lindstrom is a book that purports to show that our subconscious drives our buying decisions in ways that we rarely suspect. Marketers can successfully sell products to their target consumers by understanding these factors; otherwise their campaigns are a waste of time, effort and money. The author tries to back these claims by citing the results of some studies.
“The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger was in the news recently when its publisher Penguin India decided to withdraw it from India after a prolonged legal fight, fearing for the safety of its employees and its persecution under a repressive and antiquated law. This shameful state of affairs has made it very difficult to get this book in India even though the Indian government hasn't actually banned the book. Thankfully there are other ways to get this book, which is a great relief since I have come to believe that every Indian (and every person seriously interested in India) should read this book as it provides an excellent context for understanding our country. It is really ridiculous that the author is being attacked so viciously by fundamentalists on the far right since if you actually read the book, she comes across as someone with a great love for Hinduism and India. That she has handled this whole affair with grace and poise makes me respect her even more.
“God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens might well become the little red book of modern antitheism. The roughly 350 pages in this book are an erudite exposition of its subtitle “How Religion Poisons Everything”. The book seeks to show that it would do modern society a lot of good to get rid of religion. If you are an atheist, you will find a lot of reaffirming material in this book. If you are religious, this book might rekindle some of the suppressed incredulity you probably felt when you were first introduced to your particular dogma.
“Myth = Mithya” is “a handbook of Hindu mythology” written by the prolific Indian author Devdutt Pattanaik that seeks to gently guide the reader through the vast set of somewhat confusing myths that are generally considered to form this mythology. Through this process, the author expounds upon the underlying philosophical framework that binds this mythology.
“Holy Blood Holy Grail” (HBHG) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, was published in 1982 and contains a lot of the interesting hypotheses that appear in “The Da Vinci Code” (TDVC), down to the breaking of Sangraal to either read “Holy Grail” or “Royal Blood”. I think I would not have been so gripped by TDVC had I read HBHG before.
Science and Technology
“A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson is the kind of book everyone who is even remotely interested in science, or even slightly intrigued by it, should read.
“How to Solve It” is the classic book on problem-solving by G. Polya that shows how to approach and attack problems in a way that you are ultimately able to solve them as well as verify your solutions. Polya provides heuristics for mathematical problems but I think the approach applies quite well to problems in other domains as well.
“What The Dormouse Said” by John Markoff is an intruiging account of how the milieu of the counterculture movement in the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1960s shaped the evolution of the modern personal computer. In particular, it explores the effect of psychedelic drugs like LSD, anti-war protests, and the culture of sharing on the pioneers of this area of computing. In parts poignant, insightful, and funny, this book is a worthy complement to the two other great books on the history of personal computers — “Fire In The Valley” by Paul Freiberger & Mike Swaine, and “Hackers” by Steven Levy.
“In The Plex” is a book by Steven Levy on Google that attempts to explain the factors behind its rapid growth and spectacular success and what makes it really different from other companies. It differs from the other such books on the company in that the author was granted unprecedented access by the normally-secretive company. This makes the contents of the book fairly accurate and turns it into a great book to read if you are curious about the inner workings of this company.
I must confess that having spent a significant portion of my youth playing First-Person Shooter (FPS) computer games, particularly those developed by id Software, I was predisposed to read “Masters of Doom” by David Kushner with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. I was also a budding games-programmer with a strong interest in PC-based 3D graphics, so John Carmack was (and still is) a natural hero for me. After all, he created several pioneering FPS games at id Software, including Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake and is very generous about making their source-code available. I was obviously excited to read about his life and how he got together with John Romero to create id Software and its ground-breaking games. This book didn't disappoint me.
I have come to believe that statistics is one of those important subjects that most of us know woefully little about even as we increasingly rely on the results of various studies to drive our lifestyle choices or on data visualisation to take decisions at our workplace. That said, I have been procrastinating on my resolution to study this subject in greater depth than what was afforded by an introductory course I took in college ages ago. The first step towards that goal has now been precipitated due to the nature of my current work. Unfortunately for me, most of the books on this subject looked too dull or intimidating to serve as a useful review of the basic concepts. “Head First Statistics” by Dawn Griffiths presented a welcome contrast with its pages full of informal text and fun pictures, though I was sceptical at first of its utility. I am happy to report that my scepticism was entirely misplaced.
In “The Calculus Wars”, Jason Bardi writes about the bitter fight in the beginning of the 18th century between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over the right to be known as the inventor of calculus. Since this episode paints an extremely unflattering picture of the two great men, it is either ignored or only mentioned in passing by most authors writing about the history of mathematics.
“The Search” is a book by John Battelle that seeks to explain “How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture”. The book highlights how searching for something or someone on the Internet is becoming such an integral part of our lives and how companies are trying to profit from this opportunity.
“The Upstarts” is a book by Brad Stone on the start-ups Airbnb and Uber, chronicling their foundation, growth, and travails till October 2016. Both start-ups have disrupted deeply-regulated industries around the world (hotels and taxis, respectively), grown spectacularly since their foundation, seen unprecedented investment and heady valuations, inspired several copycat companies that have not managed to overthrow them yet, and have faced heated opposition from both local governments and the entrenched incumbents wherever they launched. They are thus very similar to each other, even having been founded around the same time, and it therefore makes sense to study them together as is done in this book by a seasoned journalist.