Books

Homo Deus

Yuval Noah Harari

The follow up to Sapiens, and therefore it arrived with huge expectations. To begin with, while this is a progression from the earlier work, it is also a standalone work. The book has three parts which I would broadly classify as past, present and future. The author spends the first third of the book summarising what he wrote in Sapiens, and if you have read that book, especially recently, you might find yourself muttering “Why doesn’t he get on with it?” :)
To be fair, he outlines his broad premise right at the beginning – having (relatively) conquered hunger, disease and war, humanity’s next agenda would be to master happiness, immortality and divinity. The path to that is what Yuval Noah Harari slowly but surely proceeds to elaborate on.

The second part of the book is where Harari sets the premise and context for the future by analysing the present. As is his wont, he goes about dissecting the origins of our current belief systems and the occurrences that have led us to what he calls humanism, and our collective belief in man’s central role in the scheme of things. More

Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore

Manu S Pillai

Absolutely fantastic, and the strange thing is, if you had asked me when I was even at about page 400 (out of 555) I probably would have used milder adjectives. I also wouldn’t have thought (at that point) that I was likely to change my opinion later because knowing the direction, I didn’t think the last 100 or so pages would even be interesting to me. But while they’re not really the focus of the book, and more an inevitable ending, it (to me) is what delivered the texture that mattered most.

But let’s begin at the beginning. The focus of the book is definitely Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who was the Regent of Travancore from 1924-31, but the author spends the first section of the book in setting the context. The canvas is vaster than Travancore itself and everything from the fall of the Zamorin and the entry of Europeans to the evolution of the intricacies that decide the ruler of the land and the prevalent socio cultural setting sets the stage for the reign of the Senior Maharani.  More

Gem in the Lotus

Abraham Eraly

History is not usually kind on its readers, and changing that is probably the biggest advantage this book has to offer. The author makes history accessible through a largely simple narrative and writing style. While he has taught history, I don’t think he is a historian. Thus it isn’t based on what one might call ‘original research’ but more an aggregation of sources. Indeed, the book cites a large number of sources for the information it gives.

The ‘seeding’ begins long before humans arrived on the scene, when plate tectonics created the land mass that is now called the Indian subcontinent. The geological results – the Himalayas that act as a barrier, the fertility of the land etc – have had huge implications on how the civilisation in this part of the world has evolved.

The book moves on to the Indus Valley civilisation, the influx of the Aryans and the Rig Vedic times, the later Vedic times, and in the process, touching upon quite a few popular misconceptions. This entire shift is obviously significant from a civilisational and cultural point of view, but it is also interesting to see the theatre of action shift from the Indus to the Ganga. The societal and cultural milieu is also explained well, using the texts of the time – the Vedas and Upanishads. More

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Douglas Rushkoff

At the beginning of the third chapter, the author asks us to imagine a world where there is only one operating system. In such a world, it would be difficult to imagine another OS, or even think of the OS as something that need not be the way it is. That, in a nutshell, is what money has become. “Central currency is the transactional tool that has overwhelmed business itself; money is the tail wagging the economy’s dog” because “money makes money faster than people or companies can create value”. The proof of it is in the abstractions that have come up in history – the stock exchange was an abstraction of commerce, and the derivatives market its further abstraction. The author notes how fitting it was when in 2013, a derivatives exchange had enough ‘value’ to buy the NYSE, its own creator of sorts!

My introductory paragraph, and the title itself might give you the idea that this is some kind of a call for a bloody revolution against capitalism and technology. But it isn’t. The title is based on an incident in 2013 and in fact, the author notes how Google, using its buses, is actually doing its bit to protect the environment. He proceeds to ask “since when has doing the right thing become the wrong thing?” The buses, he argues, are soft targets, and the real culprit is a program that promotes growth above all else. So if the book is a call for revolution, it is against the concept of growth for growth’s sake, because such growth is the enemy of prosperity.  More

The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes

“You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question : what else have I done wrong?” That is the disturbing thought I was left with on the penultimate page of the book. But it wasn’t always that way, you know.
Tony Webster is the narrator of his own life’s story. In the first part, which is about one third of the book, he sets up the context and the characters. There is a deceiving flippancy and brevity about this section of the book, and Tony does seem very capable of being true and objective about his own life. It’s only towards the end of it that one got even a whiff of a suspicion that something different lay ahead.

In the second section, the ‘peacable’ life that Tony desired (or did he?) is his. Even as he celebrates the ordinariness, we do get the other side by his own admission – “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded – and how pitiful that was” and “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe.” But it is when he gets the bequest from someone he met 40 yeas ago, and exactly once, that the story really unravels into a “what is really happening here?” mode. More

When Breath becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi
If we go by Montaigne, Cicero had written that “to study philosophy is to learn to die.” If I go by Paul Kalanithi’s work, it is when you confront mortality that you discover your own philosophy. I have never read death this close, and I am finding it difficult to get words that would accurately describe my reaction to it, so I will restrict myself to the streams of narratives I followed in this book.
The first has less to do with Paul, and more to do with his trade. In his case, it isn’t a trade, it is a calling. However, this book has also given me perspectives which ensure that I would not judge those doctors who consider it a profession, and nothing more. Just to be clear, I am not referring to the monsters which the modern hospital corporations are, but the individual doctors who might appear callous or unfeeling in their interactions with us. Through his description of what the typical doctor goes through when he chooses the profession, Paul shows that doctors are humans too. Maybe we forget that, when we expect empathy and understanding. I can only barely begin to understand now what it means to have the responsibility of a life in your hands. A mistake is not about targets not being achieved or losing a job, a mistake is a life lost, or even worse. How can a person deal with that on a regular basis? And yes, some people can’t!

The Lessons of History

Will Durant, Ariel Durant

A delightful read. Surprisingly small in terms of number of pages, for a book that’s titled “The Lessons of History”. A total of 13 chapters, of which 10 are devoted to history’s relationship with other sciences- from biology to economics and philosophies – from politics to morals.
The book covers a lot of ground and vast swathes of history are reduced to a paragraph with learning that is applicable even now. The text is succinct and it would seem like each word has been weighed carefully before being used in a particular context. In uncovering the thesis, antithesis and synthesis in different domains, there are some superb profundities. e.g. “for freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails, the other dies.” or “Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down, the other goes up.”

Scarcity

Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir

On a relative scale, we probably are in the most abundant era of civilisation. And yet, we struggle to manage with less than what we need. Sometimes it’s money, in other cases time or health, and then there are emotional needs like love and affection. But there’s a common thread that connects all of these – the scarcity mindset. A feeling of having less than what one needs. And scarcity, as the authors repeat many a time in the first few sections captures the mind.

This framing suddenly brings up patterns that are common across vegetable sellers in India and the authors of this book, two sets of people vastly separated by geography and lifestyles. It then allows the formation of concepts and constructs – bandwidth, focusing and tunneling, choking, slack are a few examples – that offers explanations on how scarcity is created, how it forms its own vicious cycles, and how far reaching its consequences are. Complicated as the subject may seem (and it is!) the fantastic use of examples (tests, experiments and real life scenarios) explains things in a way that the reader can easily grasp. More

The Accidental Universe

Alan Lightman

The title is intriguing and revealing at the same time, just as the book is. Most of us understand that it required an almost impossible set of coincidences for me to be writing this and you to be reading this! In many ways, it is accidental. And despite the vast developments in science and improvements in technology across time, do we still really know much of the universe we exist in?
It is an awe-inspiring subject, and Alan Lightman uses a series of lenses to frame the universe in ways that give us some understanding about its origins and how it works. From the basic forces that underpin the functioning of the universe, to the way it is constantly changing, to my favourite part – the two paths that have we humans have taken to answering our questions – science and religion – both spiritual in their own right, to the symmetry in design that almost suggests an architect, to the scale that is vastly beyond what we can actually perceive in relation to our immediate world, to its paradoxical love for the predictable and the occasional unpredictable, to the ‘unseen’ but active world of waves and particles, the book provides us snippets of the knowledge that humanity has collected over the years about the universe it inhabits. It also gives us an idea of what we do not know.

Land of the Seven Rivers

Sanjeev Sanyal

Geography through the lens of history, the other way, or both! Whichever way one interprets it, the perspective it offers simply by traversing the length of time from “Gondwana to Gurgaon” is quite amazing.

In trying to unravel the broad contours as well as nuances of an ancient civilisation that continues to thrive, the author covers varying domains – beginning with genetics and tectonics and continuing on to trade, politics, cartography and so on. As the title suggests, the specific area around the seven rivers gets most of the focus. One reason is probably that, the events and transformation that this region has witnessed is relatively much higher than the rest of the country. But in many contexts, the author has given hat tips to other relevant regions/kingdoms. e.g. Vijayanagara, Chola, Muziris. He has also covered population influx and exodus at different points in history, and the influences of both, in India as well as in other geographies.

In terms of history, while it might be arguably selective, the author does cover the Harappa civilisation, the movement of civilisation from the Indus to the Gangetic plains, the Mauryas, Guptas, the dynasties preceding the Mughals, different emperors of the Mughal empire, the British and even the politics and policies of contemporary India that continues to create new contours. It is fascinating to see the change in GDP (global share) and population growth through history, and understand the reasons behind them. More