Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ten Favorite Books - Part 1

Books I've read appear, in retrospect, in two orthogonal dimensions to me. One, as a pointer in time - it brings together the year-season-state of mind of the reading period as a unified packet to the present day. This aspect is often overwhelming for its non-discrete and strongly associative nature. That I had seen a then popular movie two days before reading 'Tintin in the Congo' and a particular part of the omelette had too much salt in it as I reached the last page would never otherwise be correlated other than the book reference. A madeleine helped Proust remembrance of smells past and write a very long book. For most others, a particular book often uncovers remembrance of a slice of past - comfortably zipped like a well-behaving benign set of computer files. Two, in a more direct way, we keep becoming an average of the books we read. 'Education of a Value Investor' may leave permanent neuronal bonding in us that refuses to jump in to buy the latest fad stock, while John Wright's 'Indian Summers' may forever make us want to discover 'who was the character he did not name on page 38'. This way, books get enfleshed into what we dream, abuse and think when we drive longer than few hours. 

When I chose the "Top Ten" Books - I made three conscious choice criteria.

1. For past 15 years or so, I've almost exclusively read english. But for the decades before that, I almost exclusively read Bengali books. So, I will create two sets of "Top 10".

2. My list would be as much about the goodness of the books as about the importance of the period the book points to. I suspect the latter criterion inevitably would have crept up irrespective and bloat ranking of an otherwise potboiler, I just wanted to be cognizant of it. 

3. I've excluded "academic" or "career" books even though a few I would happily rescan if I am sitting idle. Though I massively enjoyed some of these otherwise perceived "boring" tomes and financially benefitted from it, I doubt it merits mixing it within a global view of literature.

Here goes my "Top 10 English Books" (in parenthesis is the year I read it) with a brief "why" for each -

  1. The Road (2012) - I was interested to read McCarthy after learning that he never uses quotation marks (as a computer programmer, minimal ink per page principle fascinates me). Immediately after, our local bookstore was offering a british paperback edition for $1.99 on the sale rack and I dutifully picked it up. As it happened, we were expecting our first child a few months later and I was mostly agnostic to the phase transition to parenthood. This book, that I originally had put high on my reading priority list because it technically belongs to 'post-apocalyptic genre' and is a thin one at that too, left me completely shaken and often into tears of helplessness. Before I finished first 30 pages or so my life revolved around myself. After finishing, I just wished my kid would be lucky to sip into a cold can of Coke when I am gone. I was also never more impatient and perhaps more ready to welcome him. 'The Road' is indeed a definitive guide to fatherhood, not the "how", but the "what" parts of it.
  2. A Fine Balance (2006) - This Russian novel like wide structural narrative accompanied me to get over a somewhat serious illness. Trying to reign over strong medicines and depressingly lit bedside lamp, I was looking forward to vicariously share a life in 1970s India. I quickly read each of Rohinton Mistry's other books and while mostly enjoyed them, 'Fine Balance' was far and above of anything I'd ever read about India.
  3. Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) - Scott Adams once wrote an insightful article on 'How to get a Real Education' and listed 'Learn Persuasion' as a key domain. We follow the classic Greco-Roman partitioning of education and have mostly refrained from introducing anything newer (conceptualized in past 50-ish years) to middle-education. Also, there is very high domain-specificity for recent subjects, e.g., 'Bugs of our Mind' is mostly appropriated by business education. Thinking, Fast and Slow should be a prerequisite reading, and again, for everyone. It is enjoyable, does not read at all written by an academic and puts a big light on the darkest fuzzy areas of our minds. This is as close to a "Manual for Human Thinking" as I could find within 400 pages or so.
  4. The Walking Dead: Compendium One & Two (2010) - Perhaps the only time I "read" 1000+ pages within 24 hours. What a series! How could someone better a story with many multi-dimensional characters in black & white graphic surviving reactively in a zombie-infested world? It could also be a supplementary material for "Evolution" class in Biology, I guess.
  5. Book of Lists: The Original Compendium of Curious Information (1994) - This book led me to consume a very large number of books supplying trivial knowledge. In hindsight, addiction to this genre could also be seen as the only non-competitive - like walking - way to gain knowledge. Particle Physics knowledge and such is associative with a formal method of evaluation, but who on the world would rank the knowledge of "Everyone who knows '5 Celebrities who Spotted Elvis after Death''?
  6. Stumbling on Happiness (2008) - In summary - all human woes could be attributed to our pursuit of transitory assets disguised as 'happiness'. Like 'Thinking...', this book is a very readable "Manual to an OK Life". Some of the concepts from this book, like quantifying commute in context of active life, have baselined in my decision-making heuristics.
  7. Conspiracy of Fools (2013) - I cheat, I actually haven't read this one. But I listened to the audio book over two weeks of commute. The real-life narrative of Enron collapse and the ubiquitous randomized executive decision-making environment of any high-flying public entities hit the spot. It is not easy to explain concrete details of 'accounting fraud' and rivet the reader's/listener's attention that the author managed to do such effortlessly.
  8. Team of Rivals (2010) - The only reason I purchased this book was its brand new condition in a $1 used-book sale! A few weeks later as I casually started scanning it was difficult to stop. Any politician, especially an elected President of a monolithic republic, mostly loses mass interest after a few weeks in power. It speaks enough of Lincoln's that he grows more interesting with each passing century. This particular tome led to a series of history binge-reading that only was traded at a "Stop Loss" while buying into 'Walking Dead'!
  9. At Home (2012) - If Bill Bryson speaks as he writes, I could buy drinks for him every afternoon just to listen to him. Who else could sneak in Queen Elizabeth's silverware stealing habit in a very enjoyable ride through history of home? The key thing about Bryson is his uniform high quality of writing across 10+ books. I considered at least three of his books for this list.
  10. Phaidon Design Classics (2013) - Originally consulted a volume of the book for a talk I was giving, I purchased the ebook for iPad. The hardcover volumes total 5 lbs each and are difficult to handle. The iPad version is beautifully designed and easily navigable as you would expect for an anthology of 1000 beautiful functional design. Who knew the cap of Bic pen has a hole to comply with an international design standard to reduce accidental choking!