My Year in Books - 2020

2020 is finally coming to an end - phew!

It was a tragic year with an abundance of solitude & boredom. The only decent thing about 2020 was the work-from-home culture kicking in and saving our time from the dreaded Mumbai traffic. It presented an opportunity to fall back in love with our hobbies again. For me, it was reading.

I shouldn’t have needed 2020 to up my reading game but staying indoors for a whole year took away that one last excuse of lack of time. So here are the books that I read this year - some of them were delightful and some all right. I am listing them in order of my ratings (highest rated first):

1. To Green Angel Tower (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, #3)

cover image Author: Tad Williams
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This was an intense and gratifying ending to more than 2200 pages of epic story-telling. The character arcs, world-building, myths, conflicts, politics & the climax - everything was top notch. The whole series was a slow burn with multiple loose ends after the first two books. All these ends are tied perfectly together in this grand finale. It’s evident why G.R.R. Martin credits this series for inspiring A Song of Ice and Fire.

Though the final war felt a little underwhelming, Tad Williams makes up for it in character development. Every character has the appropriate motivation and history leading them to the final battle. The ending is especially pleasing with Rachel, the dragon’s last appearance tugging at your emotions.

Simon Mooncalf and Binbiniqegabenik will remain two of my favorite characters ever!

2. Volga te Ganga

cover image Author: राहुल सांकृत्यायन
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

वोल्गा से गंगा 20 अद्भुत कहानियों का संग्रह है। ये कहानियां 6000 BC से 1942 AD तक मानव सभ्यता के विकास का सफ़र तय करती हैं। इन सभ्यताओं में कब, कैसे एवं क्यों भिन्न प्रकार की सामाजिक विकृतियां प्रवेश कर गयी, इसकी संभावनाएं तलाशी गयी हैं।

मसलन, पहली चार कहानियां पाषाण युग की हैं जब इंसान स्त्री-प्रधान समूह में रहते थे। उस काल की प्रजातियों में बहुविवाह-समाज की रीतियों का अच्छा चित्रण है। अगली चार कहानियां वैदिक काल की हैं। उसके बाद बुद्ध और गुप्त काल की कहानियां हैं। इन कहानियों में उस वक़्त के ऐतिहासिक किरदार जैसे की गौतम बुद्ध, कौटिल्य, सम्राट अशोक, चन्द्रगुप्त आदि मौजूद हैं। यहाँ तक की कहानियां बताती हैं कि कैसे वेदों की रचना हुई, जाती प्रथा कैसे शुरू हुई और स्त्रियों को कैसे स्त्री-प्रधान समाज से पुरुष-प्रधान समाज की ओर धकेल कर उनके सामाजिक अधिकारों का शोषण शुरू हुआ।

उसके बाद की कहानियां दसवीं से बीसवीं शताब्दी तक की हैं। इनमें अकबर, मंगल पांडेय एवं गांधी से संबंधित किस्से हैं और इन शताब्दियों में पनपता धार्मिक उन्माद है।

इन कहानियों की सबसे अच्छी बात ये है की लेखक ने हर काल के समाज की व्याख्या उसी काल के किसी किरदार के दृष्टिकोण से की है। इन दृष्टिकोणों में इतिहास और लेखक की कल्पना का मिश्रण है। मसलन स्त्री-प्रधान समाज कैसे चलता होगा, कुमार-संभव, हर्षचरित जैसे काव्य क्यों राजाओं के महिमा-मंडन में लिखे गए होंगे, उपनिषदों का इस्तेमाल नीची जातियों को दबाने में कैसे किया गया होगा, हियुएन-त्सांग के आने पर भारत कैसा रहा होगा, अकबर ने क्यों नए धर्म की स्थापना करनी चाही होगी, मंगल पांडेय ने कैसे जनता को एकजुट किया होगा, ज़मींदारी प्रथा क्यों लागू की गयी होगी इत्यादि।

इस तरह के सवाल अगर आपमें उत्सुकता जगाते हैं, तो ये क़िताब आपको ज़रूर पढ़नी चाहिए।

3. Annihilation of Caste

cover image Author: B.R. Ambedkar
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is an uncompromised and brutal takedown of the caste system. Mr Ambedkar has bared the menace of caste in its complete nakedness. He says that if not controlled, caste will be exported out and become a problem for the world. How prophetic is that prediction in light of the recent lawsuit in America - it accuses Cisco (a multibillion-dollar tech conglomerate from California) of denying equal professional opportunities to an engineer due to his Dalit background!

The book also includes Mahatma Gandhi’s reply to this work and Ambedkar’s counter-reply. Watch out for the sheer audacity & panache with which Ambedkar tears down Gandhi’s views.

4. Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development

cover image Author: B.R. Ambedkar
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This research paper by Dr. Ambedkar is a seminal work on the caste system. He traces the origins of multiple evils in Indian society to the caste system. Some examples:

The caste system is sustained by endogamy i.e. marrying within the caste. The greatest threat to endogamy is posed by widows and widowers.

Let’s see the issue of widows first. Society couldn’t allow widows to remarry within her caste due to its misplaced belief of maintaining the gender ratio. As in, if all widows were allowed to remarry, it will not leave enough bachelor men for the rest of the women. But if her own community/caste denies her a second marriage, then widows (he calls them a surplus woman) might opt to marry outside the caste. Thus, breaking the very fabric of the caste system. Widows/ surplus woman became a menace for the caste system. How do you solve the problem of the surplus woman to sustain the smooth functioning of the caste?

1. The first solution was to burn the widow with the dead body of her husband i.e. Sati. But Sati was not accepted easily after a time. So, how do you solve the problem of the surplus woman again?

2. Enters the concept of enforced widowhood. Here, women are prohibited from remarrying and forced to become a marginalized section of society. They can’t wear color clothing, their hair is shaved off, they can’t use makeup or jewelry and are left to rot in a small room of the house. They are degraded to a point where they become absolutely undesirable and unattractive for a remarriage. Thus, you prevent them from remarrying and eradicate the threat to the caste system.

Similar is the problem of a surplus man or widower. But one couldn’t burn men with their dead wives because they were the more powerful half of the society. Then, how do you solve the issue of surplus man to prevent the caste system from collapsing?

1. Society forces celibacy on them where men are expected to renounce the world and take Sanyaas after becoming a widower. But again, men were too powerful for each one of them to accept this arrangement. So, what’s the next solution?

2. Society decides to defer the problem to the future. If all widowers are allowed to re-marry an eligible woman, then there is a danger of not having enough women for all bachelor men in the immediate future. How do you solve that? By allowing widowers to marry a girl child - hoping that in the future, the community will produce enough women to maintain the ratio.

Essentially, the roots of Sati, Enforced widowhood, and Girl marriage are traced as servants of the caste system. My greatest takeaway from this paper is that historically, the caste system has been a menace for Indian women and they need to be at the forefront to fight for its eradication.

There is more material on the origins of caste and its differentiation from the race. All in all, this is a must-read for anyone interested in developing a deep understanding of the evils of the caste system.

5. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

cover image Author: John Carreyrou
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bad blood is an absolute page-turner. The thrill in this business story is on par with Phil turner’s Shoe Dog , albeit its lessons lie on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is How Not to Run a Start-Up 101 in blood & flesh. The enormity of the fraud and the blatant disregard for ethics is mind-boggling - especially since Theranos dealt in healthcare.

John Carreyrou has done a commendable job at first conducting this investigation and then writing so lucidly about it. It almost reads like fiction. He aptly summarizes the silicon valley culture which led to this fiasco:

“Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry.””

6. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

cover image Author: Hans Rosling
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In one of the chapters, Hans Rosling coins a beautiful term called “Stats as therapy”. It might just be the aptest description of this book.

Some of the graphs and bubble charts left me pleasantly speechless. I especially liked his division of the world in 4 categories based on income levels rather than the old paradigm of developing vs developed or rich vs poor nations.

Factfulness arms you with the tools to extract knowledge from non-stop bombardment of dramatized information in the modern world. It has infused more positivity in my world view than any other literary work.

7. The Fire Next Time

cover image Author: James Baldwin
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

These hundred-odd pages from James Baldwin are probably the shortest - and yet a deep introduction to the injustice bestowed upon the black community for ages. The book is highly recommended if you’re moved even a wee bit by what’s happening in the USA.

The beauty of Baldwin’s message lies in him trying to find the solution through love and not hatred towards your hater. He must have seen the future while writing this:

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

8. Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

cover image Author: Steve Krug
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Interesting read on web design and usability. Its ideas are simple and effective. People working on web/app-based products (engineers, designers, product managers) will enjoy this book.

9. The Little Prince

cover image Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This was a beautiful read! There are different layers to the story depending on whether the reader is a child or a grown-up. Although grown-ups are strange, they still might enjoy reading it ;)

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

10. निठल्ले की डायरी

cover image Author: Harishankar Parsai
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

हरिशंकर परसाई जी की कहानियों का ये संग्रह सरल हिंदी में लिखा बेहद धारदार व्यंग है। इस संग्रह में अपने पैने कटाक्ष से उन्होंने धार्मिक उन्माद, राजनीति, किसान पर होते अत्याचार, पितृसत्तात्मकता आदि सबकी खबर ली है। ये कहानियाँ आपको परसाई जी की और किताबें पढ़ने को प्रोत्साहित करेंगी।

11. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, #2)

cover image Author: Douglas Adams
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Better than the first book. Absolutely bizarre. Hilarious. Sometimes philosophical. Makes no sense. Loved it.

″‘If I ever meet myself,’ said Zaphod, ‘I’ll hit myself so hard I won’t know what’s hit me.’”

12. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

cover image Author: Matthew Walker
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is a summary of more than 20 years of sleep research. It was a scary read - an eye-opener on the importance of closing your eyes!

Your life span will be much shorter if you sleep less - terrified, yet? Continuous lack of sleep can mess up your brain, heart, immunity, cognitive & analytical skills, creativity and much more. And by “continuous”, the author means a consistent run of sleeping less than 7 hours for a week.

I was mesmerized by how sleep affects our learning ability - especially in children. It was fascinating to know that the concept of sleep debt doesn’t exist - No, you can’t make up on lost sleep over the weekend.

Matthew Walker is a sleep scientist and that reflects in how all his claims are backed by scientific experiments.

13. A Thousand Splendid Suns

cover image Author: Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A riveting story of two enduring female characters with a backdrop of the devastation caused by wars. The vivid imagery brings Afghanistan alive before your eyes. The sufferings of Mariam & Laila’s lives are beautifully entangled with the war-torn landscape.

The endurance & simplicity of the protagonists reminded me of Munshi Premchand’s characters from Godan/ Nirmala. Like them, this book is also a slow burn but equally effective in melting your heart. The characters in Khaled’s own words:

A woman who will be like a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her.

14. Discourses and Selected Writings

cover image Author: Epictetus
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Discourses is a hard book to read but totally worth the effort. It isn’t a breezy read. You have to stop on every page and allow yourself some time to contemplate. On every sitting, a couple of thoughts will stay with you for hours.

It has some profound thoughts on assent, friendship, family, character & virtues. It will make you grow in a way only some hard-to-read books can.

Overall, this book is a massive pillar of the Stoic school of philosophy. A must-read to gain some sanity in the daily rush of life.

15. Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters

cover image Author: Ryan Singer
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ryan Singer provides very sane advice on managing the product development process. I will recommend it highly for engineers & product managers working in a start-up with a growing technical team. Ryan achieves his objective which is stated pretty candidly, “ I want it to give you better language to describe and deal with the risks, uncertainties, and challenges that come up whenever you do product development. “. I especially liked his advice on six-week cycles, depicting progress through hill-charts, code reviews & testing.

I have summarized the lessons from this book in here.

16. सूरज का सातवाँ घोड़ा

cover image Author: धर्मवीर भारती
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“सूरज का सातवां घोड़ा” लेखन की शैली में एक अनूठा प्रयोग है। इसे लघु-उपन्यास भी मान सकते हैं और लघु-कथाओं का संग्रह भी। इन कहानियों में हास्य है और मध्यम वर्गीय परिवारों का संघर्ष भी। माणिक मुल्ला एक दिलचस्प किरदार है और उनका कहानियाँ सुनाने का अंदाज़ भी अलहदा है। मुझे ये कहानियाँ काफ़ी पसंद आयी और जैसा कि धर्मवीर भारती जी ने कहा है - इसका सारा श्रेय माणिक मुल्ला को जाता है, लेखक को नहीं।

17. आषाढ़ का एक दिन

cover image Author: Mohan Rakesh
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

यह नाटक कुछ बेहद मार्मिक किरदारों से बुनी गयी एक भावुक कहानी है। कहानी सरल सी है - ना ज़्यादा बड़ी है, ना ही ज़्यादा मोड़ हैं इसमें। पर पात्रों के बीच का संवाद और द्वन्द कमाल का है।

18. Stone of Farewell (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, #2)

cover image Author: Tad Williams
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This was a fantastic second book in the series. While the first book properly sets the world, this one takes you on multiple journeys through its characters to a common destination - the Stone of Farewell. The book is peppered with great characters, great conflicts, and just the right kind of cliffhangers. I absolutely love all the conversations in this series.

One complaint is that there could have been more talking and story building instead of descriptions of the world itself - but I guess, that’s just how epic fantasies are. It took me on a great ride filled with anxiety and nerves. I will be looking forward to a satisfying end in the third book.

19. Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives

cover image Author: Rudrangshu Mukherjee
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

spoiler alert This book is such a well researched and nuanced take on the relationship between two of the tallest stalwarts of India (actually three, if you include Gandhi). It humanizes them in their brightest and darkest moments. The book succeeds in clarifying that their differences were only ideological - importantly, through their own writings. I was fascinated by how the leaders in those times expressed their differences strongly while still maintaining utmost respect for each other. It also throws ample light on why Gandhi chose Nehru as his ideological heir despite having regular differences with him.
The last page summarizes the book pretty aptly:

“Gandhi was Jawaharlal’s emotional anchor, a father figure to whom he could turn to in joy and in sorrow. This dependence was enhanced after Motilal’s death. There was something in Jawaharlal’s personality that needed Gandhi’s sheltering and loving presence. Gandhi was aware of this; he wrote to Jawaharlal at the end of 1946, ‘I claim to be like a wise father to you, having no less love towards you than Motilalji.’ In the same letter he described Jawaharlal’s affection for him to be ‘extraordinary and so natural!’ Jawaharlal was not exactly a Gandhi acolyte but he knew his life was incomplete without Gandhi. Learning of Gandhi’s fast unto death in 1932, he had cried, and seeing Gandhi’s lifeless body on 30 January 1948, he sobbed like a child. Gandhi reciprocated these feelings. He named Jawaharlal his heir, and according to Patel, he loved Jawaharlal more than anyone else.

It was Jawaharlal’s personal devotion to Gandhi that Subhas did not understand or did not appreciate. Subhas did not allow any sentiment or personal feelings to come between him and his aspiration to make his country free. Even the news of his mother’s death did not make him stop his work when he was preparing for battle in Southeast Asia. He did not hesitate to leave behind his wife and his daughter in Europe knowing that he may not see them ever again. The personal was secondary to him: the political was paramount. Thus, it was exasperating for Subhas to see again and again Jawaharlal differing with Gandhi but pulling back at the last moment from an open break. This made him lash out at Jawaharlal on occasion. Subhas believed that he and Jawaharlal could make history together. But Jawaharlal could not see his destiny without Gandhi. This was the limiting point of their relationship. One man who was certain that nothing mattered to him more than the freedom of India; and another individual who also cherished his country’s freedom but tried valiantly to link it to his other and often conflicting loyalties. In the crevasse of this rivalry of aims fell the tension-fraught and passing friendship of Subhas and Jawaharlal. Their lives could have no tryst.”

20. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships (Nonviolent Communication Guides)

cover image Author: Marshall B. Rosenberg
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book has sound advice on communicating effectively. You get a clear picture of what violence in communication looks like and how to recognize & avoid it.

21. Calvin and Hobbes 1: Thereby Hangs a Tale

cover image Author: Bill Watterson
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A happy, feel-good book!

22. Bhagavad Gita As Viewed by Swami Vivekananda

cover image Author: Swami Vivekananda
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a beginner’s guide to Bhagwad Gita. The philosophical aspects are deep and requires a slow read. It succeeded in nudging me to explore more about Gita.

23. Cobalt Blue

cover image Author: Sachin Kundalkar
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book has a captivating premise and was an easy read. I liked the subtle detailing about love and longing.

24. Jail Notebook and Other Writings

cover image Author: Bhagat Singh
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s intellect, ideas and the mastery over language to convey them is mesmerising. His notebooks are so rich in quality that it makes you regret the fact that his 4 books that were written in jail didn’t survive. But his letters and other writings do give a glimpse of how revolutionary those books might have been. He was a deep thinker - at a mere age of 23.

A special mention for his article on “Why I am an Atheist”. The manner in which he constructs his arguments and then arrives at the conclusion left me spellbound.

25. The Prophet

cover image Author: Kahlil Gibran
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

A short book on faith and philosophy with poignant ideas. The prose is beautiful and flows well. It has some stoic lines that are very quotable.

On the flip side, the ideas can get too simplistic. The constant references to God may not be conducive for atheist readers but that’s understandable as faith is a major undercurrent beneath its philosophy.

To the writer’s credit, the philosophy holds its ground even without those references.

26. Guilty Men of India’s Partition

cover image Author: Ram Manohar Lohia
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ram Manohar Lohia gives an insider account of the times of partition. He has presented his critique of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Abul Kalam Azad and Bose with respect. He also delves into how the Hindu-Muslim feud & the caste system led to partition and what will it take to reunite the two nations (published in 1960).

27. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, #1)

cover image Author: Douglas Adams
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Funny and as bizarre as life, the universe & everything.

28. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

cover image Author: Nir Eyal
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Hooked is about building addictive tech products. The book is nicely structured around four phases of the hooked model: trigger, action, variable reward & investment. I liked the case studies at the end depicting how certain products have implemented these models - watch out for the case study on the Bible app.
In hindsight, it is easy to see how the development of certain tech products fits the hooked model. But I doubt if these companies used the model to develop their products. So, take it with a grain of salt.

The book is also useful for social media addicts. There are nice bits on how these tech giants use psychological hacks to keep you hooked on their platform. Cutting down on social media intake might be easier if you understand the psychology behind it.

29. A Man Called Ove

cover image Author: Fredrik Backman
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a feel-good story about an endearing character. Ove reminds us of a doting grandfather. There is a certain sweetness about Ove’s love for his Saab and his disdain for men in white shirts. It has some beautiful & quotable paragraphs on love. I would have loved to explore more about his transition into liking things that he initially hated.

On the flip side, the book gets repetitive after 200-odd pages. There’s only so much that you can read about his cat, dislike for gadgets & love for tools. The story could have been more compact. Deducting one star for the length.

30. The Design of Everyday Things

cover image Author: Donald A. Norman
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Don Norman provides a nice introduction to human-centered design. It’s interesting to see how his vision of a powerful pocket device that acts as your notepad, calendar, notifier, etc has come to fruition as the smartphone. The book gives you a perspective to analyze everyday objects in terms of usability. I would have given it an extra star if not for its dry writing style.

31. Gujarat Files

cover image Author: Rana Ayyub
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Rana Ayyub’s version of truth is chilling.
The timelines could have been much clearer had the anecdotal conversations been accompanied by their respective dates.

32. Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

cover image Author: Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

This book has a high fluff to content ratio. Being about the future, it understandably contains speculations but they aren’t backed by solid scientific research or facts.

There are some good passages and chapters. It might be a good read if it’s your first Harari book. But having read his Sapiens , I found this rather repetitive.

The misleading title put me off. In a 450-page book titled Homo Deus , Homo Deus makes an entry after 400 odd pages. The length of the book is also problematic - it could have been condensed by 50%.

33. One Hundred Years of Solitude

cover image Author: Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Looks like I missed out on understanding the hype around this novel. I was left wondering what is it exactly that makes it so revered.

The story lacked a central theme. None of the characters had enough space to make them relatable except Ursula. Several characters had similar names which were confusing. There was hardly any dialogue or conversation. The story was wayward with nothing cohesive binding the 5 or 6 generations together. It sort of felt like 5 outlines spread over 420 pages.

I picked it up with so much anticipation and ended up dragging myself through the latter half of this book.

Written on December 21, 2020