Sunday, January 5, 2020

Best books I read in 2019 and 2018

 will cheat a bit here. I did not read as many books as I would have liked in 2019, so I will include 2018 in this list. Since I do not have any compulsions to do a "Top-10" kind of a list, here are all the books I read and found interesting, notable, or memorable.

Nuclear energy has for the past several decades struggled for acceptance as a viable and safe source of safe power, despite evidence to the contrary. Its cause was not helped by the Three-Mile Island reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, or the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011. But the accident that people most remember, and the one that was as symbolically representative of the meltdown of the Soviet Union as of the actual meltdown of reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukrained in 1986 is captured in this highly engaging read -Midnight at Chernobyl. It is a vivid account of the events that led to the fateful night, to the immediate aftermath and frantic efforts by the crew to contain the damage, to the initial disbelief in the corridors of power, to the belated realization and rescue efforts. The author covers the nuclear physics part of it early on, in easy to understand terms. Even though the death-toll from the accident was not catastrophic, which led some to conclude that the accident itself was not, it is the aftermath of the meltdown that makes for the most absorbing reading. Much to the dismay of proponents of nuclear fuel as a safe, clean alternative to fossil fuels, this book makes it difficult to enthusiastically advocate nuclear energy.

On the subject of science, Paul Offit's Pandora's Lab - Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, is an eye-opening account of science and scientists gone wrong - a lethal concoction. The search for a healthier alternative to butter that led to margarine, or the war on pain that led humanity from opium and the Opium wars to its appearance in the United States to finally the opioid crisis that saw more than 2 million adults in the US alone addicted to prescription painkillers, this book has seven such stories of the unintended consequences of a blind faith in science or scientists. Or the fact that a scientific study in 1986 showed that there was no harm in the long-term use of oxycodone was upended by another scientific study in 2003 that claimed the opposite. The march of science has been such that it can be often mistaken for quackery. This book, if nothing else, should open the eyes of people who are converts at the altar of the infallibility of science.
Bad Blood, by George Carreyrou could spawn of case-studies - in corporate governance missing in action, in leadership gone immoral, in cognitive biases, in toxic workplaces, in investigative journalism, in regulators asleep at the wheel, in investors failing basic tests of due-dilligence. This book plots the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes founded pharmaceutical company, Theranos, that claimed to have come up with a breakthrough way of testing for diseases using very small amounts of blood. Except that the technology was nothing but thin air, the machines didn't exist, the tests were unreliable, the work environment was toxic. This is a sombre account told from a journalist who first broke this story in the Wall Street Journal.

Contrary to my expectations, The Four - The Modern DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, by Scott Galloway, is not a hagiographical account of four of the most pivotal companies of the age. Not by a long shot. Scott has massive amounts of fun in taking apart the business models of each and what each does is distinct from what it advertises. This is especially true of Amazon and Apple. The latter represents the triumph of man's eternal desire for reproductive supremacy - the iPhone and other products aim not for the heart or the mind. 

What happens when universities become echo chambers instead of centers for learning? When universities decide that it is in the student's best interest that he or she be protected from dissenting opinions, when free speech itself be labeled as a form of violence, when counter factual views be banned for fear of causing mental trauma, and when violence - both physical and mental - become mainstreamed in the furtherance of a mostly left-liberal ideology, you may be tempted to think I am talking about Indian universities like JNU. But no, Greg Lukianoff and Johnathan Haidt's book, The Coddling of the American Mind, is about the stifling of free speech and debate on American campuses in recent year. The authors take aim at both the right and left and paint an alarming picture of intolerance across American academia.

As America enters a Presidential election year, Peter Schweizer's 2018 book, "Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends", deserves a wider read. Corruption, or at the very least, a stark picture of impropriety, can come in many forms and can have many faces. This book sheds light on how politicians from both sides of the aisle have used their office to drive and derive personal profits through their sons, daughters, wives, relatives, and friends. A surprising, or perhaps not, realization was how little attention US President Barack Obama's tenure got in this regard from US media over the eight years he was in the White House. Perhaps US media put ideology over independence. The parallels with Indian media draw themselves.

On matters more Indic, I read Bibek Debroy's three-volume unabrdiged translation of the Valmiki Ramayana. As was my observation after reading his ten-volume translation of the Mahabharata (eleven, if you count Harivamsha), there is really no substitute to reading the unabridged texts. Reading them in the original (Sanskrit, in this case) would be even more rewarding, but for people like me, unlettered in Sanskrit, these unabridged and faithful translations are the next best thing. Do you know how Kaushalya, Rama's mother, sustained herself and her lifestyle? Or just what gruesome end did Ravana have in mind for Sita if she did not submit to him? Or how meticulous Hanuman's planning was when he first flew into Lanka? Or how vividly is Hanuman's flight over the ocean to Lanka is described? This and so much more is possible if you read the unabridged version, or its translation. The other notable book here is the Markandeya Purana, again the unabridged translation, by Bibek Debroy. The shortest of the maha Puranas, at six-and-a-half thousand shlokas, this one was an incredibly rewarding read. Just the Devi Mahatmya would have done it for me, but this Purana is a lot more. Prof Meenakshi Jain's Flight of Deities was a difficult book to read. The documentation of the wanton destruction of temples, of the desecration of deities, and the persecution of Hindus over more than a thousand years across the length and breadth of the country cannot be a joyful read. However, like truth that destroys ignorance, this book cut through myths and misconceptions that Hindus abandoned temples and deities and moved on. They did not! They preserved memories of destroyed temples, went to great lengths to protect idols when they could, and tried to reclaim their holy places where they could.

What does one then say about Indians who make a business out of stealing idols from temples and selling them off to art galleries and auction houses abroad? What do you say about art galleries that do nothing more than a cursory job of ascertaining the provenance of these idols they purchase? What do you say about a government department that has done nothing to stop the theft of these idols? Despite all these depressing realities, S. Vijay Kumar's book, The Idol Thief: The True Story of the Looting of India's Temples, is a remarkably well-written, fast-moving, informative, and engaging read. I would have marked this book a notable read for just its opening pages, but this is much more than that. You owe it to yourselves to read this one.

Like most problems, even the malaise of India's deracination has many facets. One important reason is the destruction of India's educational system and its takeover by communists and the left-liberals. They have turned India's universities into breeding grounds for Urban Naxals, who become propagandists for Marxists, breaking-India forces, and who deny space to any alternative discourse. They achieve this through the takeover of key institutions like the HRD Ministry, research institutions, and key publicly-funded universities like JNU. They then employ tactics from academic apartheid to outright violence and murder to maintain their hold over the indoctrination of the nation's students. Vivek Agnihotri's book, Urban Naxals, was an eye-opening and lucid account of his experiences when trying to make his movie, Buddha In a Traffic Jam, and his struggles thereafter to screen it at campuses around the country. Engaging, informative, and disturbing in equal measure.

Of the fiction books I read, and I did not read many fiction books these last two years, two that stood out were David Baldacci's "Memory Man" and Stephen King's "Pet Sematary". Memory Man is the first book in the Amos Decker series, about a police detective who had his life shattered, went downhill after that, and is trying to find his way back to some semblance of normalcy. A horrific mass-shooting brings him back to the world he had once inhabited. The book may have been a little slow at times, but the plot kept moving ahead, and that held my attention. Stephen King described Pet Sematary as the "most frightening book he has ever written".  The book does not disappoint in that respect. It's also thankfully nowhere as long as some of his other works, like It or Under The Dome. The horror in Pet Sematary is real, vivid, and made the hairs on my neck stand. The movies, neither the 1989 nor the 2019 versions, do justice to the novel. All the more reason to read the book!

Some other notable books are The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis - A Friendship That Changed the World - Lewis' grasp on prose and pace are impeccable. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, took me into the world of ultra-marathoners, runners who run 100-mile races. Along the way it also takes us into the business of running and the complete unsuitability of modern sneakers to the needs of human feet. Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by Lee Sandlin, is a book as remarkable for its prose as it is for its fascinating portrayal of life along the Mississippi in the nineteenth-century America before the advent of the steamship and the building of the first bridge over the river south of the Missouri, in St. Louis. I could read this book any number of times for its sheer magic and mastery of prose. Hindol Sengupta's The Man Who Saved India was a meticulously referenced book on the iron man of India and a valuable addition to the piteously corpus of books on one of the most important persons of India in the twentieth-century. AI Superpower, by Kai-Fu Lee, should be mandatory reading for Indian policymakers if only to wake them up from their slumber. In the race for leadership in AI, the country that has the most data will win. China not only has the most data, but also the most investment in research and output as measured by the world's top-ranked researchers and patents. India, should the present course continue, is destined to become a data colony of either America or China, or both. Alpesh Patel's Chalta Hai India can perhaps be a companion read to AI Superpowers, to remind us how the accursed 'Chalta-hai' attitude ingrained in Indians is dooming the nation and its future to mediocrity.


This post first appeared in MyNation on Dec 31, 2019.

© 2019, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.