Books I’m Reading

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I find reading to be one of the most useful pursuits. This page, tracking the books I’m reading, is my effort to make it even more useful.


2016

February

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – I love books about the USSR. They demonstrate that no matter how well you plan something, it can still go down in flames. In fact, as Hormegeddon suggests, the more you plan something, the more certain it is to go kaput. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of the most scathing, most satirical writers on the Russian experiment. His Cancer Ward is a fascinating allegory of the USSR and everything wrong with it. In this book though, he simply describes one day in a prison camp in Russia. No need to embellish or dramatize – the reality was stark enough.

Hormegeddon – A great book by Bill Bonner, on what happens when you get too much of a good thing in public policy, economics, or business. Simply put, it results in disaster. It sounds like a rant in many places, but it’s a very informative compendium of lessons from history and current global trends, on what happens when you get too much of what you want.

Orwell’s Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest – Have you read George Orwell’s 1984? If not, do that first – it’s a 1948 book describing a frighteningly realistic dystopian future. Once you read it, the world won’t look the same again. This book, though, is a fascinating rebuttal. The author shows how Orwell is himself a victim of doublethink, a pattern of thinking he condemns in 1984. And how the telescreen – the chief dictatorial tool of the book’s Ministry of Love – actually heralds a much more liberal future.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – The best science fiction writers – Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert – are also sharp political thinkers. This 1966 book by Heinlein doesn’t disappoint. There’s AI, space travel, low gravity, and a good old-fashioned fight for freedom.

The Decision Book – This quick, breezy read is a compendium of 50 models for strategic thinking – from MBA school courses, consulting boardrooms, and various decision-making situations. You’ll read it in one go, but you’ll also keep it around to refer to the next time you need to make an important decision.

January

The Strange Library – This short book by Haruki Murakami is quite strange. A very well-designed and illustrated book (it looks like a library book), it’s nevertheless quite creepy in the way that only Murakami can write.

How Not to Be Wrong – This book’s Amazon page calls it the Freakonomics of math. But that doesn’t do it justice. While Freako… gets a little repetitive and obvious halfway through, this book is a refreshing look at the often dour subject of math. While not an easy read, it does explain complex mathematical concepts lucidly, with numerous everyday examples. As the author says, math is an atomic-powered prosthesis you attach to your common sense – read the book to find out how.

The Shadow of the Wind – This is a marvellous piece of fiction. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s book, set in Barcelona of the ’50s, weaves an epic tale that’s equal parts pulpy potboiler and classy literature. You’ll love it if you’re a book lover.

The Evolution of Everything – This is brilliant. I did not expect to read such a great book so early into my year of books. In this tour de force, Matt Ridley talks about how the biological concept of ‘evolution’ permeates and explains all social processes – the universe, morality, personality, technology, religion, government – everything. A great read, peppered with anecdotes from history, science, economics and various other disciplines.

Style: The Art of Writing Well – Started reading this book, but couldn’t plow through to the end. The writing is a little too heavy, for a book ostensibly about writing well. I recommend On Writing Well instead – a much better book on how to write good non-fiction – whether books, articles, or even emails.

The 48 Laws of Power – The rules for success and power highlighted in this book are not immutable in the sense that “laws” usually are, but they are great guidelines to keep in mind. And far more interesting than the laws themselves are the examples that the author uses to illustrate them – from Machiavelli to Clausewitz to Churchill.

2015

December

How to Make Sense of Any Mess – A very quick read on information architecture – the science (and art) of making information comprehensible. I read this in under an hour.

Forward the Foundation – Given how popular Prelude to Foundation turned out to be, Asimov was forced to write a seventh book in the trilogy (as Douglas Adams jokes in Hitch-hiker’s Guide, his own trilogy in four parts). Most ad hoc stories tend to be bad, but Asimov doesn’t disappoint in this one. A great story of one civilization decaying, and another one rising from the ashes.

Prelude to Foundation – I read the first four books of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series four years ago. I’d felt the series ran out of steam in the fourth book. But I was so wrong – this prequel to the Foundation series (although it was the sixth book written) is brilliant.While most sci-fi talks about tech advancements, this describes an evolution in basic sciences – how a new, fictitious branch of mathematics can predict the future. The Foundation series is still a classic, nearly 70 years after it was first serialized. The Hugo Awards call it the best series of all time.

Anything You Want – Derek Sivers started CD Baby in 1998, to help him and his indie musician friends sell their CDs online. He hired his first employee in 2000. Eight years later, he sold it for $22 million. This breezy book (I read it in under one hour) is his manifesto on starting and growing a business. It’s an honest, earnest look at building a business the old-fashioned way – by focusing on your customers.

Startup Playbook – This quick read (1-2 hours) is a great distillation of the key lessons to keep in mind when you start a company and try to grow it. Written by Sam Altman (President, Y Combinator), it collates the most insightful advice from YC Partners in one place. It talks through all the important stages of building a startup, and it’s available online for free!

Foundation and Earth – Chronologically the last book of the Foundation series from Isaac Asimov, and indeed of his entire body of work. It’s a pulpy read, and it’s entertaining to see how Asimov ties together all the loose ends, with tons of inside references to other series he’s written.

November

On Writing Well – I’ve read quite a few books on writing and communication, and this is by far the best. Whether you’re writing emails, a memo, an article, or even a book, this is a great book to read before you begin. The lessons and fundamental principles he offers are timeless. And the simplicity with which he has written this book itself teaches a lot (meta-lessons, if you will).

Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking – I’m a big fan of the mental models approach to decision-making. Have a few powerful frameworks in your head, which you can apply to various situations. This book is a great compendium of the most powerful psychological concepts, tools of reasoning and statistical principles, that we can use to make more effective decisions in our daily lives. Think of it as a toolkit for smarter and wiser thinking.

Words that Work – Frank Luntz is one of America’s premier communication experts, and helps politicians and business-owners use words and phrases tactically to capture votes and market share. In this short but informative read, he highlights an axiom that we always neglect: “It’s not what you say. It’s what people hear“.¬† And he offers a behind-the-scenes look at how we ourselves can make words work for us – whether to win arguments, get out of a traffic ticket, or get a raise(!).

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – An excellent summary of the history of our species – of how a combination of our biology and culture have defined our history. One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one – homo sapiens. How come? What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?

Bone Clocks – A fun, gripping fiction read. Oddly reminiscent of David Mitchell’s other book Cloud Atlas, this is an adventure playing out over 400 years. Starts a little slow, but quickly acquires a frenetic pace. Devoured this sitting at cafes in Galle.

Bargaining for Advantage – Professor Richard Shell runs the Wharton Executive Negotiation Workshop, and has taught thousands of people how to negotiate better. In this book, he lays down a systematic process by which you can negotiate better, to get what you want. It’s an excellent approach, starting from first principles – none of those hacky tricks to cheat your opponent into agreeing (although I love those too!). As he says in the Introduction itself, you don’t win by putting one over your adversary. All deals that close are win-win deals.