2011 Books

Notable Books I Read in 2011
Now that 2011 has come to a close here is my list of the best books I read last year. Compared to the previous two years, the first half of 2011 has proven to be a fertile period on two counts. First, I read more books than I did in 2009 or 2010. If my count was correct, the number was 38. Yes, I read thirty eight books in 2011. I have not managed to put up reviews of all 38 on my blog, so the two numbers will not tally - the number of books I read and the review blog posts. Secondly, several of the books I read were top notch. While the overwhelming proportion of books were non-fiction, some of the fiction works were also quite spectacular, like The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly.

13. Indian Culture and India's Future, by Michel Danino (my review)

Perhaps fitting that this should be the last book I completed in 2011. A book on my motherland. A book that pulls together in one short, readable book much what is good about the country, and much that India has given to the world. I call it a ready reckoner for the confused Indian and the misinformed rest.

12. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson (my review)

Is the world ruled by psychopaths? This is a breezy look at the madness industry, and a close look at some possibly psychopaths by the author. Be sure to catch the author's interview on The Daily Show and you will better appreciate the book.

11. The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly (my review)

The book lives up to its hype. This is a first-rate thriller. And a first-rate legal thriller.  On to the movie now!

10. Cheap, by Ellen Ruppel Shell (my review)

You know the nagging feeling you get when you buy something that seems too cheap to be true, and too cheap to be good? Well, you are right, mostly. Cheap is not the same as inexpensive, and what is cheap also cheapens. So goes the author's point, and the very well-written book to substantiate the point.
A very engaging journey through the history of cheap, from shops to malls to outlets to sales to IKEA to shrimps to globalization. Ignore the brief denunciations of capitalism and globalization and this is a five-star book. Thankfully much of the globalization phillipic is isolated at the beginning and end.

Know how the baby brain develops and responds to become a better parent. Know how babies affect parents to know how not to affect babies adversely. Learn about stress, smarts, happiness, and disciplining children. A natural follow-on to his first book, Brain Rules. If you have read the first book, then some of the material will be a repeat, but there are several chapters in the book that make it worth the admission ticket.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
It is a testament to the incendiary nature of the topic, to suggest that the Internet may actually be harming our capacity to focus, and doing so by actually altering the way our brain is wired, that even bright and reasonable people as John Battelle, author of the bestselling and an excellent book on the history of search engines on the net, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, become unhinged when commenting on the topic (see his post, no, more a hasty, flustered rant, Google: Making Nick Carr Stupid, But It's Made This Guy Smarter from June 2008)
Nicholas Carr's book, however, is a very well-written book on the topic. Even if you disagree, for whatever reason, with the premise of the book, you owe it to yourself to read it. This is also not to gainsay the fact that Carr does have a predilection for provocative, almost needling, headlines. Whether you are convinced or not is besides the point, this book will surely enlighten you in at least some ways on how we think and and how we remember what we remember. And this is worth something, surely. On a side note, there is a lot that this book shares with another outstanding book I read, Moonwalking with Einstein, on the topic of memory. On how memory is formed. On what happens when we cannot form long-lasting memories (think Memento). It is somewhat surprising that two books, as seemingly dissimilar as these two, should have a substantial bit that is so common between them. But then, the two books do cover a lot of ground on memories.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
 It is easy to forget. If it weren't, we would likely all have gone mad a long time ago. However, not being able to remember is also a curse. And then you have people who have abilities that inspire awe among us. We consider such people to be savants, geniuses, different-from-us people. However, that is not necessarily the case.
This is an excellent book that takes us on a journey through memory-land - people who could not remember, people who could not forget, and people, like the author himself, who taught themselves to remember almost anything. This ability is among us.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoWhere's the money in selling potatoes? No there is not. So you sell fries. Where is the profit in selling fruits? So you sell sweetened, flavored water and call it fruit juice. That's how you make money. The poor thing known as food is left without the rich and powerful friends it needs from turning it into some sort of a hideous, food-like substance that is meant to be grown, stored, transported, marketed, sold, but not really fit for consumption.
And, oh yes, food scientists don't really know that much about food. Nor do journalists. Which is why you see a new theory of food every decade. Food as eaten since the beginning of humanity would do quite well, even today, except that it has been replaced by the modern, industrialized mishmash known as food.
Yes, this is also a must-read. Absolutely.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of CancerA stunning work of beautiful lucidity that brings together, into one book, all a lay person would want to know about cancer, and then some more. The history, the people, the victims, the research, the politics, the science, the oncology, behind this truly remarkable disease.

Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War IISo Churchill hated India. So he hated Indians too. And he hated their religion. And he was a true believer in the English empire. So what? Everyone is entitled to their opinions, no matter how repugnant they may be. Where it does however become a crime against humanity is when this hatred is culpable in the deaths of 3-5 million people. That is genocide. This book lays bare, with immaculate detail and references, the consequences of the churlishness of one of the most repulsive characters of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill.
Should be required reading for every Indian and for every person who still believes that imperialism resulted in even an iota of good for the colonized.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Borzoi Books)Ignore the ugly white on black cover, and with the metallic font, and focus on the content instead. Whenever a new medium of dissemination of information and entertainment has evolved, from the telegraph, telephone, radio (AM and later FM), television, and now the internet, there has always been a period of radical and free innovation, that is always followed by a period of consolidation where the establishment asserts control and slowly but surely subsumes the technological innovation into its large corporate folds. Always. Therefore, there is no reason to believe the internet will not follow the same path. Therefore, it is imperative for people to read this book. And it does not hurt that the book is very well written.
Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules: Designing with The Mind in MindThe mind interprets information. Understand how the mind works, how it has evolved to perceive and interpret information and visual stimuli, and the mechanics of user interface design should hopefully become less an exercise in random sketching and more a concerted effort in the application of scientific, usable UIs. Sadly, most UIs, even from some respectable and large companies (Yahoo Messenger Usability Riff), still leaves a lot to be desired.

Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic MiracleQuite a good read on the secret behind Israel's entrepreneurial successes, especially in high-technology, over the years. While it should not be a secret as such, a world-class higher educational system and lots of government encouragement is the key. There are some unproven assertions made, that on the face of it do sound quite credible, but without some sort of empirical evidence, I am inclined to take them with a pinch of salt, thank you.