My top 5 books for 2016

I have finished 27 books in 2016: roughly 2 books per month.

I started reading many more books than I finished this year. Several books that I read this year were pure entertainment that were intellectually unchallenging and I read them quickly. In this category, the mystery novels of Michael Connelly stand out, whom I discovered this year and of whom I am now a fan.

For what it’s worth, below are five of my favorite books this year (in no particular order) coupled with a short impressionistic review and a quote that I like from that book. Two books are on Indian history which I review together.

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(1) Deep Work, Cal Newport.

A brilliant and essential book; especially for me. Deep work means work done in a state of unbroken concentration that pushes one’s cognitive abilities to their limits. Newport first argues that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful, especially in an age of distraction. Next, he provides concrete strategies to increase deep work in one’s life and career.

After reading this book I adopted several of the strategies in this book which boosted my productivity substantially. One important strategy is making clear schedules for my week and my days so that I control my time. Another important strategy is to block off periods in my schedule during which I can work without any distractions—no interruptions, no email, no phone, no internet surfing. Finally, in order to ensure that I am not fooling myself, I have started keeping track of how many hours I’ve worked everyday in a state of deep concentration.

Quote: “More generally, the lack of distraction in my life tones down that background hum of nervous mental energy that seems to increasingly pervade people’s daily lives. I’m comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill—especially on a lazy D.C. summer night listening to a Nationals game slowly unfold on the radio.”

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(2) India: A History, John Keay 

(3) Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Sunil Khilnani.

India’s history presents a paradox: on the one hand, it is probably one of the richest and most interesting in the world; on the other hand, it is probably one of the foggiest and most obscure histories in the world. It is instructive—and sobering, and comical—to compare the history of India to that of the United States. India’s history is longer by about 4500 years—the first traces of civilization appeared in the subcontinent around 3000 BC. But the written history of the US is larger by roughly 400,000 books (I obtained this number by looking at how many search results show up on Google Books for “United States history” and “India history“). To compound this problem, a lot of Indian history, especially as received from Indian schools or Indian popular culture, is tinted with ideology or religion or mythology, and it can be hard to get a crisp, unvarnished account of what actually happened.

On this problematic backdrop, the books by Keay and Khilnani are a welcome sight.

Keay’s book is an ambitious and comprehensive history of Indian civilization starting from the Indus Valley settlements all the way to the present day, written in chronological order. It’s largely a political and dynastic history, with some fascinating nuggets of economic history. Religious history is refreshingly underemphasized. The scholarship is thorough, and he does a great job of condensing this dense and complicated history into 600 pages.

Khilnani’s book attempts historically accurate portraits of 50 figures in Indian history who have either been underrated (e.g., Nainsuk, Malik Ambar, William Jones) or  misunderstood (e.g., Gandhi, Vivekananda, M.S. Subbulakshmi). Here are two examples. I did not know that a freed Ethiopian slave, Malik Ambar (1548-1626), was perhaps the best guerrilla resistance fighter against the mighty Mughal empire—significantly more successful than the much more famous Shivaji. I did not know that M.S. Subbulakshmi, one of India’s most famous singers, was originally from  the devadasi class: female artists, mainly musicians, dancers, who were ‘married’ to temple gods, and were high-end mistresses for their wealthy patrons. As social norms became more Westernized in India, Subbulakshmi, with help from her husband, carefully crafted a more sanitized, Brahmin-centric personality.

Khilnani combines beautiful prose, exacting scholarship, and stunning photographs to give depth and perspective to Indian figures who are often lionized or vilified.

Quote from Keay: “Jinnah, according to Mountbatten, ‘was absolutely furious when he found out that they [Nehru and the Congress Party] were going to call themselves India’. The use of the word  implied a subcontinental primacy which Pakistan would never accept. It also flew in the face of history, since ‘India’ originally referred exclusively to the territory in the vicinity of the Indus river (with which the word is cognate). Hence it was largely outside the republic of India but largely within Pakistan.”

Quote from Khilnani: “The seventy-nine marchers [of the Dandi march] who accompanied him were each chosen and vetted by Gandhi himself. He wanted a small enough number for him to personally manage the procession; a representative from each part of the country; and marchers who were dedicated but relatively unknown – no political colleagues who might dilute attention centered on him.  He carefully designed their outfits – no political insignia or markings were allowed: he wanted his satyagrahis to convey a timeless, elemental quality – and made sure that he was the only one to carry a stick.”

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(4) Ghettoside, Jill Leovy.

Take a murder mystery, add touching portraits of the humans involved, combine with journalistic descriptions of the institutions in which these humans move in, and mix well with a sociological argument. The result is Jilly Leovy’s exhilirating book. This book is non-fiction (Leovy is a crime reporter for the LA Times), but the book reads like a paperback page-turner.

The murder mystery is the killing of Bryant Tennelle, a young black teenager in South Central Los Angeles—an area famous for its high crime. The humans involved are suffering parents, other murder victims, gang members, drug dealers, and homicide detectives—especially, the relentless homicide detective, John Skaggs. The institutions involved are the labyrinthine Los Angeles Police Department, the bewildering court system, and most of all, the frustrating physical, racial, and social geography of the urban sprawl that is LA. The sociological argument is that if you want the murder rate to decline among young black males, you need to prioritize the investigation and capture of their murderers, much more so than is being currently being done. As Max Weber famously put it, the state needs to have the monopoly on violence. 

Quote: “To other cops, ghettoside was where patrol cars were dinged, computer keyboards sticky, workdays long, and staph infections antibiotic-resistant. To work down there was to feel a sense of futility, forgo promotions, and deal with all those stressful, dreary, depressing problems poor black people had. But to Skaggs, ghettoside was the place to be, the place where there was real work to be done. He radiated contentment as he worked its streets. He wheeled down filthy alleys in his crisp shirts and expensive ties, always rested, his sedan always freshly washed and vacuumed… He descended into the most horrifying crevasse of American violence like a carpenter going to work, hammer in one hand, lunch pail in the other, whistling all the way.”

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(5) Quantum Information Theory & the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Christopher Timpson.

The foundations of quantum mechanics (QM) have been a site for spirited debated since the origin of quantum mechanics itself—Einstein and Bohr being the most famous interlocutors. Quantum information theory (QIT) is a relatively new arrival in physics, but its roots lie deep inside the quantum foundations community: e.g., John Bell was motivated to discover his famous inequalities by worrying away about the nature of non-locality in QM; and e.g., David Deutsch did his seminal work on quantum Turing machines and quantum algorithms motivated by a desire to vindicate the Everett interpretation.  Since then, there have been many attempts by practitioners of QIT to use their newfound tools to contribute back to the foundational debate. This has lead to huge variety of work: e.g., quantum information theoretic interpretations seem to make some kind of claim that nature is itself, somehow, information, whatever that means. And then there is Chris Fuch’s quantum Bayesianism—or QBism—which from Fuch’s writings is frustratingly opaque and apparently bordering on the incoherent.

Timpson takes apart these claims methodically with the care and precision that Oxford philosophers are justly famous for. Make no mistake, this no light reading; this is a dense collection of academic philosophical essays. I consider myself an expert in QIT, and am also keenly aware of the foundational and philosophical discussions of QM, and yet it took me a while to parse every sentence. This was the hardest book I read all year.

He argues convincingly that quantum information theoretic interpretations are nothing more than tired, and mostly discredited, instrumentalist views of physics, dressed up in new mathematical garb.

Also, Timpson gives, in my opinion, the best elucidation of what QBism really is, and also its best defense. He sets up clearly what its ontology is and what its major objections are. In my opinion, QBism fails, but at least Timpson makes the case that one shouldn’t dismiss it so easily.

Quote: “But now suppose that this realist progression of explanatory, descriptive, theory construction eventually runs into difficulties. Suppose that, although applying just the same kinds of exploratory techniques, the same kinds of reasoning and the same kinds of approach to theory construction that have served so well in the past, one nonetheless ends up with a fundamental theory which is not descriptive after all; a theory which, one slowly comes to realize, has no direct realist interpretation; a theory whose statements are not apt to describe how things are. And let us suppose that this eventuality does not arise through any lack of effort or failure of imagination in theory construction; nor through want of computational ability; nor through any mere psychological or sociological inhibition. Perhaps it is just the case that once one seeks to go beyond a certain level of detail, the world simply does not admit of any straightforward description or capturing by theory, and so our best attempts at providing such a theory do not deliver us with what we had anticipated, or with what we had wanted. A descriptive theory in any familiar sense is not to be had, perhaps, not even for creatures with greater cognitive powers and finer experimental ability than our own, for the world precludes it. The world, perhaps, to borrow Bell’s felicitous phrase, is unspeakable below a certain level. What then for the realist?

Just this provides the starting point for the quantum Bayesian approach to understanding quantum mechanics.”

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Honorable Mentions: LabyrinthsJorge Luis Borges; Fear of Knowledge, Paul Boghossian; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carré.

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