Monday, January 06, 2014

Reading in 2013

I aim to read at the rate of at least one good book per month, and by that measure, 2013 was a satisfactory one.

Top tier recommendations

The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined - Steven Pinker: Anthropology, history and ethics all come nicely together in this book, persuading you to accept a reality that seems counter-intuitive, especially when, while I was reading this, the details of the 2012 Delhi rape were just coming out. Eventually, the mass response to that incident did somewhat prove Pinker's hypothesis that we live in the most peaceful time ever.
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking - Daniel C. Dennett: The chapter on consciousness was such a delight. You realize even when demystified by Dennett's logical deconstruction, "consciousness" inspires awe.
The Evolution of Cooperation - Robert Axelrod: "Axelrod's tournament" kept getting cited in several books I had read in the recent past, and I had to read this book to satisfy my curiosity. It's intriguing how a vanilla Tit-for-Tat strategy is the most effective one in an iterative prisoner's dilemma game. It's even more fascinating to think that beneath all our complex social behavior our firmware might be as simple as that - tit for tat! (although the author never makes that claim).
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - David Foster Wallace: A luxury cruise is a good setting for Wallace's dark social commentary. Really funny!
India After Gandhi - Ramachandra Guha: The freedom struggle, the characters in it, and the episodes around (like the Partition, and the Gandhi assassination), by the sheer momentousness probably dwarf all other succeeding events. Somehow, I grew up believing that history ended in the late 40s. Guha chronicles the events after independence. But it's the portraits of the people (Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, JP, Ambedkar etc.) that get the treatment they deserve, restoring them from the distortions dealt by the current popular narratives.
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie: I read this one immediately after India After Gandhi, and it felt like Rushdie borrowed the intricate sets that Guha erected to stage a magical opera of his own. Plus the fact that I read this book by a fire in a kitchen tent in Stok Kangri base camp during the 3 days I spent at 18k ft amsl waiting for the weather to let up made for an other-worldly experience.

Here are other books that I recommend
Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut: My yearly Vonnegut dose.
Satyagraha in South Africa - M.K. Gandhi: A glimpse of how MKG developed his philosophy and political strategies.
Ravan & Eddie - Kiran Nagarkar
D-Day - Anthony Beevor
The Emperor of Lies - Steve Sem-Sandberg
Why Does The World Exist? - Jim Holt: A nice accessible history of ontology and one of the few philosophy books I've read that didn't leave me feeling like an idiot.
Moonwalking with Einstein - Joshua Foer: For days after reading this book I was using the memory palace technique to memorize all sorts of stuff.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity - Katherine Boo
Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese: I probably would have never read this book if my friend hadn't left it back because she didn't want to lug it around for the rest of a backpacking trip she was embarking on. Loved the descriptions of Ethiopia in this one.
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