That was my first quantitative realization of my age. My young friend laughed at my panicked expressions, so I had to do the same calculation for him, and though it was somewhat more respectable than mine, it was still not much more than 600 books – about two book shelves. So the bottom line is, there is too little time left for anything meaningful, and no matter how young you are, there is just too little time to screw around.
My first reaction was to stop reading all the cheap thrillers that I loved to read. I started going through lists of classics that are supposed to be part of one’s bucket list. I quickly realized I will barely cross into the twentieth century if I take that tact. Moreover, I often could not relate to the realities of nineteenth century British aristocrats, and I realized I need to find another way to find my books. Once you reach my age, you will quickly learn that you cannot really afford to read too many bad books, and you must improve your selection methodology such that the probability of reading a book that you eventually dislike is very small.
My solution came in the form of a social media website for book readers – Goodreads.com. Once you sign up, you have to enter all the books your read (or read in the past) and rate them in a scale of one to five stars. I know, I know one should not put numbers to works of art, but just don’t take it too seriously. Just hold our nose and try to put a number to your general level of enjoyment. Once you have done that, the algorithms of Goodreads has a general idea of the kinds of books you like and tries to recommend others. I don’t use that though. Instead, I look at the scores other people have given to the same books I liked. I eventually discover among my friends those whose book taste mostly matches mine. Once I find them, I try to see what other books they have rated highly. This proved to be an excellent predictor, and I rarely pick a book that I dislike completely. Even if I don’t enjoy such a book, they at least prove to be interesting reads.
Since that conversation, my book reading rate has increased significantly, and I manage to read roughly one book a week – a fourfold increase from my days before the conversation with my young friend.
Below is the list of books I read since that day. I also occasionally comment on Goodreads about books that I particularly liked or disliked, and I have copied them here, in case someone finds them useful to add a book to their own bucket list, or to take one out.
Books from 2016
The Things They Carried -- O'Brien, Tim
The Broom of the System -- Wallace, - two bookDavid Foster
Flood of Fire (Ibis Trilogy, #3) -- Ghosh, Amitav
Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death -- Yalom, Irvin D.
Six Drawing Lessons¬ -- Kentridge, William
When Breath Becomes Air -- Kalanithi, Paul
The Noise of Time -- Barnes, Julian
Life and Death in Shanghai -- Cheng, Nien
The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients -- Yalom, Irvin D.
When Nietzsche Wept -- Yalom, Irvin D.
Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy -- Yalom, Irvin D.
My Country And My People -- Lin Yutang
What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins -- Balcombe, Jonathan
Tao Te Ching -- Lao Tzu
China in Ten Words -- Hua, Yu
In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu #1-7) -- Proust, Marcel
Red Sorghum -- Mo Yan
The Vegetarian -- Han, Kang
Ulysses -- Joyce, James
Stories of Your Life and Others -- Chiang, Ted
Thousand Cranes -- Kawabata, Yasunari
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich -- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr
Kokoro -- Natsume Sōseki
A Short History of Nearly Everything -- Bryson, Bill
The Girl in the Road -- Byrne, Monica *
Dreamtigers -- Borges, Jorge Luis
In Other Words -- Lahiri, Jhumpa
The Sun Also Rises -- Hemingway, Ernest
M Train -- Smith, Patti
Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman -- Korn, Peter
The Days of Abandonment -- Ferrante, Elena
Troubling Love -- Ferrante, Elena
The Lost Daughter -- Ferrante, Elena
The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4) -- Ferrante, Elena
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3) -- Ferrante, Elena
The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels #2) -- Ferrante, Elena
Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light -- Shlain, Leonard
Books from 2015
My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1) -- Ferrante, Elena
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles -- Pressfield, Steven
Beauty and Sadness -- Kawabata, YasunariBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life -- Lamott, Anne
Death with Interruptions -- Saramago, José
The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1) -- Liu, Cixin
Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy -- Yalom, Irvin D.
Never Let Me Go -- Ishiguro, Kazuo
Whatever... Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves -- Bello, Maria
The End of the Affair -- Greene, Graham
A Moveable Feast -- Hemingway, Ernest
A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design -- Wilczek, Frank
This Is How You Lose Her -- Díaz, Junot
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies -- Diamond, Jared
Identity -- Kundera, Milan
Slowness -- Kundera, Milan
Laughable Loves -- Kundera, Milan
Ignorance -- Kundera, Milan
The Joke -- Kundera, Milan
Immortality -- Kundera, Milan
Jacques and His Master: An Homage to Diderot in Three Acts -- Kundera, Milan
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative -- Kleon, Austin *
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao -- Díaz, Junot
A Visit from the Goon Squad -- Egan, Jennifer
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession -- Levitin, Daniel J.
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew -- Lightman, Alan
The Art Rules: Wisdom and Guidance from Art World Experts -- Klein, Paul
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration -- Catmull, Ed
All Men are Mortal -- Beauvoir, Simone de
On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems -- Gödel, Kurt
Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas -- Modiano, Patrick
Targeted: How Technology Is Revolutionizing Advertising and the Way Companies Reach Consumers
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies -- Bostrom, Nick
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character -- Feynman, Richard
Books from 2014
The Alchemist -- Coelho, Paulo *
All the Names -- Saramago, José
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ -- Saramago, José
Henderson the Rain King -- Bellow, Saul
The Meaning of Human Existence -- Wilson, Edward O.
The Glass Cage: Automation and Us -- Carr, Nicholas *
A Bend in the River -- Naipaul, V.S.
Consciousness and the Social Brain -- Graziano, Michael S.A. *
To Kill a Mockingbird -- Lee, Harper
The Narrow Road to the Deep North -- Flanagan, Richard
Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos -- Hoffmann, Peter M.
Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking -- Bayles, David
Tender Is the Night -- Fitzgerald, F. Scott
Breakfast of Champions -- Vonnegut, Kurt
This Side of Paradise -- Fitzgerald, F. Scott
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman -- Murakami, Haruki
Norwegian by Night -- Miller, Derek B. *
Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality -- Tegmark, Max
Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality -- Frenkel, Edward
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage -- Murakami, Haruki
The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art -- Chatterjee, Anjan
Capital in the Twenty-First Century -- Piketty, Thomas
Slouching Towards Bethlehem -- Didion, Joan
Revolutionary Road -- Yates, Richard
Ragtime -- Doctorow, E.L.
Of Mice and Men -- Steinbeck, John
Roots: The Saga of an American Family -- Haley, Alex
Darkness at Noon -- Koestler, Arthur
Galapagos -- Vonnegut, Kurt
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature -- Pinker, Steven
Mother Night -- Vonnegut, Kurt
The Visionary Window: A Quantum Physicist's Guide to Enlightenment -- Goswami, Amit
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values -- Harris, Sam
The Death of Artemio Cruz -- Fuentes, Carlos
Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False -- Nagel, Thomas
Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away -- Goldstein, Rebecca
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work -- Currey, Mason
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction -- Goldstein, Rebecca
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves -- Fowler, Karen Joy
Tenth of December -- Saunders, George
Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980 -- Robertson, Jean
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. -- Waldman, Adelle
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater -- Vonnegut, Kurt
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths -- Shermer, Michael
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle -- Nabokov, Vladimir
Lady Chatterley's Lover -- Lawrence, D.H.
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon -- Dennett, Daniel C.
The World is Round -- Stein, Gertrude
Sputnik Sweetheart -- Murakami, Haruki
South of the Border, West of the Sun -- Murakami, Haruki
The Lowland -- Lahiri, Jhumpa
The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology -- Kurzweil, Ray
Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science -- Krauss, Lawrence M.
Books from 2013
The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present -- Kandel, Eric R.
The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human -- Ramachandran, V.S.
The Third Curve -- Khan, Mansoor
Sentimental Education -- Flaubert, Gustave
Dear Life: Stories -- Munro, Alice
Too Much Happiness -- Munro, Alice
The View from Castle Rock -- Munro, Alice
Runaway -- Munro, Alice
The Idiot -- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor
Madame Bovary -- Flaubert, Gustave
Love in the Time of Cholera -- García Márquez, Gabriel
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything -- Hitchens, Christopher
The Winter of Our Discontent -- Steinbeck, John
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court -- Twain, Mark
Instructions for Preparing Your Skin -- Nash, Ariana Nadia
Wuthering Heights -- Brontë, Emily
God's Debris: A Thought Experiment -- Adams, Scott
Sophie's World -- Gaarder, Jostein
Essays in Aesthetics -- Sartre, Jean-Paul
The Man With the Golden Arm -- Algren, Nelson
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives -- Eagleman, David *
A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing -- Krauss, Lawrence M.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined -- Pinker, Steven
Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter -- Deacon, Terrence W.
To the Lighthouse -- Woolf, Virginia
Mrs. Dalloway -- Woolf, Virginia
The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design -- Dawkins, Richard *
The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True -- Dawkins, Richard *
Cat's Cradle -- Vonnegut, Kurt
Herzog -- Bellow, Saul
Mr. Sammler's Planet -- Bellow, Saul
Something To Remember Me By: Three Tales -- Bellow, Saul
Dangling Man -- Bellow, Saul
Ravelstein -- Bellow, Saul
The Selfish Gene -- Dawkins, Richard *
Dubliners -- Joyce, James
The Aleph and Other Stories -- Borges, Jorge Luis
Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking -- Dennett, Daniel C.
The Finkler Question -- Jacobson, Howard
The Sea -- Banville, John
The Sense of an Ending -- Barnes, Julian
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer -- Mukherjee, Siddhartha
Short Stories -- Chekhov, Anton
Mortality -- Hitchens, Christopher
Tropic of Cancer -- Miller, Henry
The Unbearable Lightness of Being -- Kundera, Milan
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business -- Duhigg, Charles *
Jamilia -- Aitmatov, Chingiz
The Master and Margarita -- Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Casual Vacancy -- Rowling, J.K.
Walk Two Moons -- Creech, Sharon
Just Kids -- Smith, Patti *
The Year of Magical Thinking -- Didion, Joan
COMMENTS ON BOOKS
Life and Death in Shanghai (****)
July 23, 2016
It is very unlikely that I would have discovered this book if not for a Chinese friend of mine who strongly recommended this book to me. While I learned to trust her literary taste, this was one time when I was a bit skeptical. The brief description of the book didn't seemed to agree with many things that I had learned during my formative years. Still, based on my past experience with her recommendations, I wanted to give it a try.
As I started reading, I quickly got drawn in by the vivid narration. It felt like I am there in Shanghai in the late 1960s, watching the Chinese Cultural Revolution unfold in front of my own eyes. While I could not break away from reading the book, something nagged me to doubt the perspective of the autobiographer, who was a member of the privileged class, and therefore seen as a "class enemy" by the Red Guard and the Chinese authority. She was brutally persecuted and spent years in solitary detention.
Just when all this was happening in China, I was growing up in Calcutta. During those early days of the Cultural Revolution, a political movement gathered steam in my part of India. Locally termed the Naxalite movement, it was the action of the Maoist faction of the Communist Party of India. At the same time similar movements were growing up in many parts of Europe, Latin America, and the rest of the world, all inspired by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in China. This movement, mostly led by the college students in and around Calcutta, eventually took a huge toll and thousands died as a result of clashes with police, rival political groups, or in police custody.
In those days it was hard to find a single building in Calcutta where the walls were not covered by stenciled images of Mao, with the absurd sounding slogan "China's chairman is our chairman". The little Red Book of Mao's quotations were omnipresent. Romanticized stories of the Cultural Revolution floated in and energized a whole generation of bright young people. Many believed they were witnessing the start of an ideal society with brand new values.
This book told a very different story. It told the story of a time when a bunch of young people were convinced that almost anyone outside of the working class was not to be trusted. Intellectuals and teachers were forced to give up their professions and pick up hard labor, all foreign books, music, art was abandoned and destroyed. Almost anyone with any past western connection were seen as spies. Thousands were jailed or killed simply on the basis of suspicion. Gangs of Red Guards roamed the streets and took whatever action they felt was necessary to punish and destroy the "Counter Revolutionaries". As a result of all this, people stopped trusting anyone, even closest family members, because under pressure anyone could point fingers. Those were horribly brutal times in China.
Six years later we came to know of the ouster of the Gang of Four in China, the mastermind behind the horrible atrocities that happened in the name of the Cultural Revolution. Even though the authorities never directly blamed Mao or denounced the Cultural Revolution, all the old policies were reversed, and today's China is very far from the days of the Cultural Revolution. In spite of all that, somewhere deep in my mind, the romantic notions probably persisted. That was perhaps why my initial reaction was slightly doubtful. But as I read more, and also based on many other books I have read recently about that time in China, I realized that even if you discount the political beliefs of the writer, one cannot deny the inhuman conditions that prevailed, and the sheer madness of the ideology.
What is most sobering is the fact that perfectly smart and well meaning people are capable of being blinded by a powerful ideology where we stop to question the facts. Anything that does not fit the ideological mold is ignored or explained away. That is the danger of an ideology, any ideology. Our intelligence is no guarantee that we would not fall victim of its anesthetizing effect. Ideologies are the thinking crutch of the intellectually lazy, where once you accept the framework, you don't have to do much critical thinking anymore, as the ideology does it for you. It is a black box where you can throw in your problems and the moral answer pops out.
In 1977, just after the ouster of the Gang of Four, my parents visited China for the first time. At one point they visited Mao's mausoleum, who died an year earlier. My mother, not a particularly political person, saw the body of the man and started to weep. When I asked her what made her cry, she said she was thinking of the the thousands of young people in Calcutta who gave their lives believing in this man. I wonder what would have been her reaction if she also knew that thousands of innocent people were tortured and killed in China under his rule, and perhaps with his knowledge. Such are the complexities of history.
When Nietzsche Wept (****)
Irvin D Yalom
July 15, 2016
Here is a book that totally surprised me by touching so many corners of my mind. I have been a fan of Irvin Yalom’s books on existential psychotherapy, but this is the first fictional work that I have read. On one hand it is a psychological page turner as you watch an intellectual chess game being played between two sensitive and extremely intelligent people. It is also a wonderful book on existential philosophy, but without the dryness and difficulty of a scholarly book. But above all, it addressed me very personally, as I am myself struggling with the essential issues of aging and the relentlessness of time. It will remain one of my favorite books and I will probably come back to it again.
Tao Te Ching (*****)
June 23, 2016
I was stunned by the brevity and clarity of this more than two thousand year book. I am not a mystic by any stretch of imagination, so there are parts that I could not appreciate, but most of it touched me very intimately. The world, and our state of knowledge has changed so dramatically in the last two thousand years that it is hard to believe a book written that far back can still speak to us, and do so with so few words. Every sentence makes you reflect into your own life and experience, and makes you realize that things could have been done differently.
May 17, 2016
I heard about Ulysses when I was in high school. It took me more than 40 years to gain the courage and literary experience to read it. Finally, having done that, I realize a lot more than just time and experience was necessary to prepare me for this novel.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the unique literary style, I was not prepared enough to fully comprehend many of the literary and historical references. To fully understand this book one needs to follow it up with one of the many explanatory/analysis books on Ulysses and then read the novel one more time. I am not sure even after that whether I would be just scratching the surface. Such is the complexity of this narrative.
That is not to say I did not enjoy reading it. I loved the style, and was repeatedly surprised by the fact that book was written almost a 100 years ago. I was mesmerized by the elaborate tapestry of details it uses to paint a rational picture of the main characters as well as the time and place they lived in. I don’t think it is book that is supposed to touch you emotionally. The approach is entirely cerebral, but the unique sense of humor lends a degree of levity.
It is impossible for me to rate this book at this point. It surpassed all my expectations in terms of its formal quality, but since I missed many of the intricate references, I think I should refrain from putting a number.
My only negative impression was about some of the inner monologues (or streams of consciousness) passages. While they were uniformly brilliant, I often found them to be a little contrived and self-conscious.
Jorge Luis Borges
March 8, 2016
I went into reading this book knowing that it is hailed as a defining piece of literature of the 20th century; that it was highly recommended by a friend whose taste in books is impeccable; that it is an odd collection of short anecdotes and poems, apparently disconnected, but tied together by a deep thread; but above all, written by a writer whose earlier books had left me spellbound by their sheer intelligence and philosophical depth. Therefore, obviously I was expecting a lot.
The book didn't disappoint me. Each short piece created a state of mind that only great poetry can. Most of these page-long pieces of text induced a thought that is powerful, but cannot be summarized, and this un-summarizability, perhaps, is the essential quality of any great art.
However, it was also a frustrating and humbling experience. There were pieces that I just couldn't grasp. After completing the book I could not clearly see the pattern that ties all the individual pieces together to tell a bigger story. It was like watching a huge painting from a couple of feet away, where you can appreciate the details and the brush strokes, but cannot view the whole thing. It made me doubt my intelligence and sensitivity, because clearly I could not see the bigger picture that others have seen. I re-read parts of the book, and with each reading it felt like I took a step away from the huge painting and I could see a little more of the big picture.
I still have a lot further to walk back until I see what others have seen. So, this remains a work in progress. May be I will never succeed, and that would define the perceptive limits that all of us carry. It is a humbling experience, but I feel it is important to be reminded from time to time that we all have our limits of perception, and the best we can do is to exploit what we have to the utmost, and try to push back that limit in the process.
In Other Words (*****)
March 2, 2016
To be inspired by someone happens a lot more readily when you are young. With age, things don’t impress you as easily, and unless you are impressed, you cannot be inspired.
Reading this book was a departure from that rule. I can say it without any doubt that this has been one of the most inspiring experiences for me in a long while. The book is about many things. It is about the courage to try something completely new and obviously risky, especially at the peak of ones career as a writer. It is about the astonishing quality of language to define ones thoughts, and therefore define the person. But above all it is a love story between a writer and her language. As with any intense loving relationship, it is irrational, obsessive, painful, transformative, and profoundly lyrical.
The book touched me very personally, probably because I have also been trying to transform my identity from that of being a scientist and a technologist to that of an artist. The risks I have taken are far less significant than what she has taken. Yet, I can appreciate the feeling that I always feel, that of an outsider and an imposter. I have to constantly remind myself that if you don’t feel like a fake from time to time then you are probably not trying hard enough. Reading this book, I feel less alone.
M Train (****)
February 10, 2016
I started reading this book with great expectations, and hoped for another Just Kids. This turned out to be a very different type of book. Deeply contemplative, it interweaves dreams with mundane details of everyday life to create a wonderful atmosphere and made me question my own life. Patti Smith's life is not mine. Most of us can only dream of the type of detached and free existence she could create. I also don't live in a state of poetic dreaminess that she describes, but she makes that state understandable and almost desirable. I can completely understand her when she says that she never loved lightly. Her deep sense of love for everything that touched her life is something that resonated with me, and something that will stay with me for a long time.
The Days of Abandonment (****)
February 2, 2016
Yet another astonishing novel from the magical Elena Ferrante where, once again, she could effortlessly navigate the inner world of a person who has been abandoned by her partner. She is left with responsibilities, and a debilitating doubt about her own value, struggling to find meaning in anything that surrounds her. Ferrante has the rare ability to use a simple linear narrative to weave an ever increasing complex inner world. She would make you wish that you had the power to express yourself the way she can. She would make you believe that your life could have been subtly different if you could express yourself with such clarity and sincerity.
In an otherwise perfect experience, the only regret I have is about the part where everything starts breaking down for the main character. It is only here where some of the situations seemed a little contrived. It is the only time where I could see the gossamer strings in the author’s hand, trying to make her characters move. Art, to me, is all about manipulating the audience, but it only works when we cannot see the manipulator or the strings she is using. Ferrante is usually perfect, but I feel there were a few moments in this novel where I could see her delicate hand.
The Story of the Lost Child (*****)
January 24, 2016
I just finished the four part novel, and I feel like having to say goodbye to a close friend -- happy that I met her at all, but very sad that it is over. For the last one month I was living in two worlds -- my own, and the world created by Ferrante (or whatever her real identity is). That second world will slowly fade away, and I'll certainly miss it. I have not read anything this touching and penetrating in a very long time. It is simple, mostly linear story telling, without any attempt to impress the reader with formal surprises or philosophical novelties. What got me is the complete believability of the characters, their complexities, and how it managed to make it so familiar to my experience of growing up in Calcutta, almost at the same time, and under similar politics. I also have never read anything that made me get so close to the mind of a woman. It is Dostoevsky in scope, but from a woman's perspective, and dealing with times and issues that I can directly relate to.
The Story of a New Name (*****)
January 7, 2016
Just finished reading the second part of this mesmerizing story. For the first time I am not rejoicing that fact that I am halfway done with a thick book, but rather that there is only another 800 pages left. What an experience to read something this sincere and penetrating. One can only be this open and honest when creating a work of fiction, and I envy those who can express it this well. Not sure how much I am missing in its English translation.
My Brilliant Friend (*****)
December 27, 2015
What a wonderful way to end the year! Not only I got to read one of the most beautiful book I have read in a long time, but to know that this is just the beginning, and I have three more books to complete the story. After a long time I read a novel that does not try to impress you with brilliant thoughts or profound philosophies, but rather just tells the stories of ordinary people, in ordinary circumstances, but living extraordinary lives. It looks at the world with penetrating clarity, the kind that can only come from honesty and sincerity, and in the process build bridges that can connect the world of post-war Naples to the world I grew up in, around the same time, in another corner of the world.
The Three-Body Problem (**)
November 29, 2015
I am not sure what made this book such a sensation. There are some interesting ideas here, but the literary quality is very weak. The characters lack any emotional completeness and the narration is mostly soulless. I understand it is a bit unfair to criticize the literary quality of a translation, but I doubt reading it in its original language would have changed much.
Also from a science perspective, it is very far from a "hard science fiction", yet it has the tone of one. Many scientific ideas are presented without adequate justification and plausibility.
May be reading the whole trilogy will change my mind, but I am not sure I have the energy to read through the other two hefty volumes.
The End of the Affair (****)
October 27, 2015
This is such an astonishingly touching and complex love story! It is about the kind of love that exhausts you so completely that you cannot fall in love ever again. The book is about love and hatred, about man and god, about fidelity and betrayal, and how uncomfortably close they can be to each other. For me, it touched the same spots that used to be the sole domain of Dostoevsky, but this I could relate to better, probably because of the modern milieu. It is one of those books where the thoughts linger on long after you are done reading it, and you have to give it some space to breath before you pick up your next book.
A Moveable Feast (*****)
October 23, 2015
What a wonderful read!The best Hemingway I have read since Old Man and the Sea, and I should have read it a long time ago. There are some places in Paris that I always thought of as my personal spaces -- my own discoveries. These are narrow streets that tourists generally don't find. I was so thrilled to see that Hemingway lived and worked in this same area, walked the same streets, and enjoyed the same atmosphere that enchants me every time I visit Paris.
A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design (*****)
October 20, 2015
This book is a bold attempt to answer one of the deepest and most intriguing question that every scientist must ask -- why does nature follow any laws rather than being random and why are the laws of nature so beautiful? The book is a wonderful and methodical meditation into the history of science to uncover this profound question. It is mesmerizing in its scope and beauty.
August 5, 2015
May be not one of his best, but still full of amazing insights, which is what draws me to Kundera. One thought that keeps lingering is the comment that we make all the major decisions in our lives in a state of ignorance, when we are far too young to understand what they really mean.
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative (****)
June 8, 2015
I generally don't enjoy "how to" books, but a very good friend of mine recommended it, and so I wanted to give it a try. This is very different from all other how-to books I have seen, and it really spoke to me. As a practicing artist I often feel a little isolated -- not at all sure if I am following the right course. This book frequently touched upon something that I personally felt, but never shared with anyone, so it came as a wonderful surprise to see someone else saying the same things.
This is Your Brain on Music (****)
Daniel J Levitin
April 14, 2015
During my high school and early college days I was naturally attracted to the question of what is music and why do we enjoy them. I was totally uninformed on the subject, and after not finding any books to read (remember, this was long before the Internet), I had to try to find the answers for myself. With the help of a home grown electronic synthesizer and later an eight-bit micro-computer I did some experiments in creating strange musical scales and randomly generated "music". I then subjected my hapless friends and my parents to listen to these and react. The answers that I found seemed adequately convincing and satisfying, and I moved on.
After more than forty years I read this book with the eagerness of reading a detective novel, trying to find answers to questions that were important to my young mind. It is a wonderful read. The book not only explored the evolutionary basis of musical appreciation, but it also helped me understand why I like certain music more than others. I think I am also more prepared now to venture into certain types of music that I avoided in the past because now I know what to look for. Most importantly, it was a wonderful feeling to realize the conclusions I drew more that forty years ago were not that far off the mark.
On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems (*****)
February 9, 2015
It was much harder than I thought, and it is best suited for professional mathematicians. For the rest of us Godel's Proof by Nagel is a better option. Still, had to try the original for one of the most audacious ideas humankind can be proud of.
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (****)
January 20, 2015
I generally avoid books that are essentially speculative in nature. However, in this case I would make an exception because that's the best we can do to understand this very serious issue and prepare, as best as we can, for this inevitable future. I am not very sure about the predictive power of his analyses, as so many things that are assumed here could prove to be wrong, but given the uncertainties, Bostrom's thinking is as rigorous as I can imagine it could be.
My only mild complain is that the author is assuming any superintelligence we create will be external to us. However, it is just as possible that we will start enhancing our brain through hybridization before we develop superintelligence, and therefore the enhanced self will still be considered "human" (just as a person with an artificial limb or heart considers herself human). In that scenario the first superintelligences will be viewed as an evolutionary step of the human race, and the existential question may not even be that important.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (*****)
January 10, 2015
I just met the most fascinating man in my life – just finished reading “Surely You Must be Joking Mr. Feynman”. Here is a man who is probably one of the brightest that ever walked on this planet. A person who was relentlessly curious, and not just about his own craft, but about almost everything he encountered. An incredibly mischievous person who took nothing very seriously, but at the same time took everything seriously enough to explore passionately. Feynman was obsessed with solving problems, and not just in Physics but anything that he took interest in, and that’s a very large universe from machines to drumming, from school education to picking up women in a bar, from art to Mayan hieroglyphics. Above all, he was a man who was irreverent towards all ideas until it made complete sense to him.
What bothered Feynman the most was people’s lack of deep understanding of what they believe they understand. Most of us believe we understand a few things, especially things that relate to our professions, but do we really? Most of us have a very superficial sense of things that we know, which may be adequate to waddle through our jobs and our life, but the kind of deep understanding that Feynman is referring to, where everything fits together and makes perfect sense, where one is capable of explaining to another individual with perfect clarity, is mostly missing. Even more dangerous is that fact that most of us are not even aware how muddled our understandings are. Most of us, as individuals, and sometimes entire professions, suffer from this grand illusion without ever being challenged.
I wish I read this book many decades earlier, because there was a possibility that it could have changed my life. I believe it should be a must-read for all young people, especially those that plan to take up a scientific, or for that matter, any intellectual profession. Looking back at my childhood, I had very similar curiosities as Feynman, and like him I spent most of my time tinkering with things and exploring everything from fire to ants and from machines to questions like why we find something musical. However, I was not even nearly as smart, but more importantly, I did not have his perseverance. Many of us are curious when we are young, but intellectual laziness prevents us from exploring them adequately. Most of us also lack the spirit to challenge all ideas that came from authority sources. To Feynman, every idea had to make perfect sense to him, and until then he simply would not accept them. I, on the other hand, grew up with values that tried to convince me that having some “beliefs” is a virtue. These beliefs did not come as religious or social dictates but more as moral and political wisdom, and I convinced my young mind that I am making perfectly rational choices. The funny thing is, if you asked me when I was in my teens or twenties. I would have proclaimed the same mindset that Feynman had, except I really did not practice it.
What a remarkable human being – almost unbelievable! I have never met or seen Feynman. Once I stood just outside his office door in CalTech. I have been extremely lucky to have met and spent time with his close friend and colleague Murray Gell-Mann, who is often mentioned in this book. Another astounding mind…
All the Names (*****)
December 28, 2014
What a beautiful way to end my year! It was one of those books that certainly left me as a different person, with a different way of looking at the world and the people around me, and yet I do not know for sure what exactly is the change. That is, to me, the best that great literature can offer. If I can summarize a book, and I can say what it is all about then it is probably too restricted to affect me in a profound way. This book is from the other, rather rarefied, universe where you cannot put your finger on it, but you still watch it change you.
The Glass Cage (**)
November 22, 2014
I loved his earlier book, “The Shallows”, which dealt with the issue of how the Web could be altering our ability to think deep. The book was well researched and well argued. In this book he is raising similar concerns about automation. He uses various examples of how increasing automation is making us loose certain essentially human qualities. Automation is no longer just limited to replacing human perceptive and motor skills, but it is now entering into purely intellectual activities. He argues that this increasing reliance on automation may rob us so some qualities that are essential in defining who we are. He uses examples from various industries including auto piloting in commercial airplanes to self-driven cars and automatic medical diagnostic computers.
The problem I had with this book is not in its general conclusions, but the way he arrived at it. It smelled like one of those books where the conclusion is first drawn and then evidences cherry picked to support the thesis. While all the evidences he used are strong and compelling, rather obvious counter arguments are conspicuously absent. I cannot believe that the author, a brilliant thinker, could not think of these counter arguments, but it seems like he deliberately avoided them in order to make his point. For example, a significant part of the book tries to show how the popularity of auto piloting features in commercial aircrafts is causing a deterioration of pilot skills and caused a few accidents that were due to this loss of skills. I am not doubting this fact at all, and I think his conclusion is correct. While he admits that the number of airplane deaths have dropped dramatically since the advent of automation, he avoids the question whether we are better off with more automation, even at the cost of lower piloting skills, or the question of whether piloting skills can be improved through more mandatory simulated training.
He also makes some sweeping comments about the limits of computation. He takes it as a self-evident fact that computers can never “think” or have a “mind”. He is not referring to the state of computation today, but he makes a general pronouncement that this is simply not possible. While there is a lot of serious debate about this issue, it is certainly not a self-evident conclusion, and he should have at least mentioned that the jury is still out there on this issue rather than just dismissing it with no attempt at an argument. This is again a sign that he was more keen on winning an argument rather than discovering the truth.
There are some portions of the book that raises really interesting issues. He shows that even the gadgets that we use today are making some moral choices for us. For example a robotic vacuum cleaner treats a living insect and any other inanimate piece of dirt equally and would vacuum them both, but a human being may make a conscious decision not to do so. The same moral decision making by machines will get amplified when a self-driven car would have to make a decision between running over a small animal and protecting the car from damage or injury to the passenger. This problem would ultimately shake our moral roots when autonomous machines are used to kill people in a conflict.
In conclusion I do believe it is an important book, raising issues that needs to be discussed. I just wish it was better argued.
The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (****)
Aug 22, 2014
Why we like beautiful things is a question that have been intriguing me since my high school days. I remember building an electronic gadget in early seventies that could produce numerically determined musical notes, and I would try it on my friends to see if they found it melodious or not. I developed my own ideas about the evolutionary roots of aesthetic appreciation, but could not find any books that would satisfy my curiosity.
Many decades have gone by since my personal attempts to find an answer until I read Eric Kandel's "Age of Insight" and V.S.Ramachandran's "The Tell-Tale Brain". Both of these books had sections that discussed the neurological (the "how") and evolutionary (the "why") basis of visual aesthetics. The ideas in these books also inspired me to create a series of art pieces that dealt with these questions.
Therefore, I was really ready to read Anjan Chatterjee's book -- an entire book dealing with this very question, and I was not disappointed. He has been able to present a wonderful summary of all the past work in this field, while making it accessible to non-specialists like us. I am also very glad that he didn't exclude the philosophical and social scientist's view of the topic. However, the most enjoyable parts are where he describes his own ideas about the subject and how he extended the frontier. It is a very exciting time for this nascent field, and I can't wait to see what happens in the next few decades.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century (*****)
August 18, 2014
In a world that is increasingly blinded by ideological polarization, where we first decide what we believe we should believe in and then try to find facts to justify our cherished ideas, Piketty’s book comes as a surprise and a reminder that there is no substitute of good scholarship. The first requirement of honest scholarship is to be suspicious of all past ideas and question every single data source. Piketty does just that. He shows respect towards past economists while critically questioning each of their conclusions. He takes advantage of the longer time perspective that he has, and lays out a compelling array of powerful data. His conclusions that are logically sound and extremely sobering in their scope.
When it comes to capital accumulation, wealth disparity, and economic policies, we are as polarized as we could be. Within that environment Piketty has been able to take a few very simple ideas and build a convincing string of factual evidence and impeccable logic to build his argument. He does not have the audacity to believe that economics is a hard science that can dive into complex mathematics and pull out pearls of pure wisdom. He does not believe that economics can really stand apart from all other social sciences and history. The result is a narrative that is convincing, both intellectually and emotionally.
I am no economist, and I do not have the training to say anything definitive about his conclusions. I must admit that when I read articles written by his smart critics, criticizing the book, I find their arguments also powerful and almost convincing. Real arguments should only happen between experts, those who spent a lot of time mastering the complexities of the subject, so that the rest of us can listen to both sides and make up our mind. Piketty’s book is powerful enough to unsettle the right. Unfortunately, it has also disturbed the left. The important thing is that the book reignited a debate that was long overdue.
The Blank Slate (****)
June 4, 2014
Not that I was convinced by all the arguments presented in this book, but it is an incredible joy to discover a single book that echoes so many thoughts that have been percolating in my mind, and to hear the same things I have been trying to say, argued and articulated so well.
With age I have come to dislike the idea of an ideology, any ideology. Anything that compels us to think that something is correct or good because it ought to be correct. Reality does not care how any of us feel about it. Also accepting something to be true does not in any way imply that I have to like it or support it. So often we see these things mixed up in our modern intellectual mindset, and if anyone suffers from such distractions then this book is a must read for them.
The Visionary Window: A Quantum Physicist’s Guide to Enlightenment (*)
Amit Goswami and Deepak Chopra
May 20, 2014
The author uses one weak idea to explain everything from quantum mechanics, to cosmology, to evolution, to miracles, to reincarnation, to telepathy. That is nothing short of delusional. It starts with an antiquated definition of science, moves to adding totally unnecessary ideas into quantum mechanics where mathematically nothing is needed, and then goes on to attack Darwinian evolution with a less-than-popular-literature knowledge of the subject. The objections raised about evolution are the same ones creationists use, and have been demonstrably dismissed by anyone working in the field. The author doesn't just stop there but boldly "fixes" the theory with his ideas. Then he moves to use the same idea to explain all sorts of hocus-pocus ideas such as reincarnation, telepathy, and even miracles. I would have also blamed the author for intellectual dishonesty for not mentioning any contrary arguments, but I think it is more delusion triggered by his deep beliefs in spiritualism, than conscious omission.