The Anti-Library

Unread books are where the action is.

The trader turned smart thinker Nassim Taleb approvingly calls such a collection an “ANTILIBRARY”; one’s shelves, he argues, should contain “as much of what you do not know” as finances allow. And he says don’t expect the proportion of unread books to fall, either.

The more you read, the more the perimeter of your knowledge increases, and the more you’ll realise what you don’t know.

Back in India when I was living in a capacious apartment all by myself I used to stock my shelves with books both read and unread, the former over time out numbering the latter.  I naively thought that was a good thing. Now in the limited confines of London where real estate (even post Brexit) is not exactly ‘cheap and abundant’, the numbers have switched. Limited space also honed my underdeveloped skill at ditching mediocre books right after reading them into the local charity shop bin. Now only a few books stay. So now the books lining my limited shelf space are either great books I retain and will re-read at some future date or mostly ‘pending to read’ books, all coming together into making the gestalt that is now my antilibrary. Morgan Housel, a great blogger, nailed my sentiment when he recently tweeted ‘90% of books should be half the length they are‘. My reviews of a books are here and here and here.

The Japanese have a cool word for all this : Tsundoku. It is the condition of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them. It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf. An avid american book collector once said something wise on the subject that resonated with me : “Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes Comfort, their ready access Reassurance.

Since I was 10 I have always been a dietary and reading omnivore. I will read anything on any subject as long as the book and the subject sound interesting. My wife will vouch that this is my exact approach to food too. Over the last year, using the fabulous algorithm of the  Keepa.com website I have purchased books covering wide and varied subjects and themes that I plan to delve into over 2017-18, in the hope of improving what Taleb aptly labels ‘the perimeter of one’s knowledge‘.

Recently I decided to summarize all the physical books I have on my shelf under conspicuous themes and motifs,  for two reasons, one selfish and one altruistic. Writing about it forces me to rationalize the actual purchases and also altruistically serves as a starter for ten for readers like you looking for some book suggestions  for the upcoming summer.

Welcome to my Tsundoku…

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Well written autobiographies of 5 worthy people. The book ‘TITAN’ I would rank as one of the best 5 books I have read in the last few years, the apotheosis of what a good book ought to be. The middle book (Snowball) I am reading midway and I think it is going to rank up there with the best of them. The bottom two are pending. I would put all 5 in the curriculum if I were the dean of a decent undergrad college.

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As someone who migrated from one country to another (India to UK) I am keen to fill the gap in my knowledge of my adopted country and these 8 books are an attempt at that. 3 of them I finished reading and ALL of the 3 I heartily endorse.

  1. Tudors – cracking good tale
  2. The Angry Island – The best caustic prose I have encountered in the last few years. His asperity towards the unemotive island people is penetratingly hilarious
  3. Longitude – a book so gripping I started at 9 PM and stayed up till 5 AM to finish it

The other 5 are pending a read.

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If someone was looking to move to India and asked me for books to understand the country, I can confidently say the Naipaul Trilogy would get the job done. It is about India as it IS, not as it is ineffectually and prosaically penned about in most books and articles about the country. It was after reading these three books that I understood Naipaul for the genius he is and the real history of my country that is never written about even today. The other 2 are pending a read.

 

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I am a complete sucker for sea faring survival takes and anything old navy related. And these 5 scratch that itch. Two of them (Endurance and In The Hear of the Sea) I read one after another and was blown away by both. Set about 100 years apart, they suck you in and don’t let you go until the end. Last thursday I recommended the book ENDURANCE to my team at work as not just a survival take but also one of the best books on Leadership and Teamwork out there. The other 3 are pending a read.

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These are assorted books on the subject of Metacognition, Heuristics, Forecasting, Thinking and Decision Making,  an effort to polish my own ingenuous executive functions & skills.

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These two books are my attempt to understand Investing from someone OTHER THAN Warren Buffet for a change. The left one I suspect is going to be refreshingly discursive and not stick tightly to dry finance.

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I would rank the decrepit looking The Best and The Brightest as one of my best books from the last decade. Halbertstam is a great writer and the book is just so good wading through the dense fastidious prose it feels akin to reading a John Grisham novel. A great primer on the pitfalls of Groupthink and Pink Flamingoes.

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This grandiloquent tome by Chomsky on the right was an eye opener in the real sense the word is meant. Depressing but oh-so-needed in these times. This too would go on the curriculum of my imaginary college reading list.  The left one is pending.

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Both books I have heard good press about. right one to understand Cancer, something that will kill the majority of us if heart related issues don’t do the morbid job first. And the left book (GENOME) is to understand the new upcoming CRISPR related developments.

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I am a sucker for crisp essays and I am promised by wise people that these two authors are worth the investment.

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These 4 books are an attempt to better understand the events that shaped the superpowers in the first half of the 20th century. Definitely sombre reads I suspect.

 

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These three to understand better the places I hope to visit someday and spend time without just being a tourist in the pejorative term. Africa, America and Europe. All covered here. The Bryson book, while dated, is hilarious and after a visit to a European destination mentioned in it, I always read the chapter on it to get at HIS funny and smart take on the place.

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4 books to better fit into and understand the workplace. Prince and Effective Executive are almost mandatory reading at this juncture. The Peter Principle is wry but sharp. Inside Drucker’s Brain I am still to tackle.

Hope this wets your reading appetite and gets you onto a few of them. I can vouch that most have made it to the shelf only after some solid research and good reviews so the odds are decent that most are worth your precious time. Find a decent perch to park and dive into a few. I recommend outdoors now that summer is here.

Happy Reading!

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The best Buffet for your money

Mount Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga are the 3 indisputable tallest mountain ranges out there. It is likely on the bucket list of many new and aspiring climbers, working as a backdrop siren call as they hone their skills on lesser mounds.

Book lovers have their own list but this list can never be definitive since there can be no universal consensus on what should go into “the toughest reads out there!” book list. Each person’s list, like the idea of utopia or hell, is personal and unique.

But odds are a 100 book list made by a lot of bibliophiles would likely contain gems like:
    Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
    Moby Dick by Herman Melville
    Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
    The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
    Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

These books are reputed to be very tough slogs and there is no definitive guarantee you will turn the last page and feel glad you dived in. In fact, chances are most of these books will be flung across the room well before the last chapter. A lot of them are wilting in bookshelves around the world waiting for a day when the owner inevitably bundles it into the charity box for donation.

When I purchased ‘Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders‘ on 15 November 2013 (for the pricy sum of £2.07) I was not sure what I was in for. All I knew was that I liked Warren’s way of thinking, his approach to business and investing and I wanted to read more from the man directly, not via a biographer or hired hand. I surely would have done a double take if my future self had told me I would take 865 days to finish this thick fat almost 1000 page book.

 

L2S

‘Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders’ is not a book really but a collection of annual letters written by Warren Buffet, the legendary investor and 2nd richest man on Earth. Each year he writes a letter to his shareholders telling them how well (or poorly) Berkshire Hathaway, the company he runs, did. So technically this books, containing 50 letters, from 1965 to 2015, took 50 years to ‘write’. (Amazon automatically updated the kindle version with the letters of the last 2 years, after I purchased the book in 2013. Go Amazon!).

But then saying this book is a collection of annual letters written by Warren Buffett is akin to saying “History is about some important dates”. ‘Letters to Shareholders’ is soooo much much more than just a collection of letters. Through these 50 letters, Buffet talks about the wider investing and business world and touches on a lot of very interesting subjects, giving the reader a solid grounding on many helpful topics that can stand in as 24 Carat practical life lessons.

The book is especially splendid at educating the reader on 3 topics:

1. Investing: Over 50 letters (sermons?) Buffet elaborates on what being a value investor is all about and how to think like a smart value investor. There are books explicitly dedicated to teaching you investing and they fail at it while this £2 book does in effortlessly. Warren talks at length on how to think about investing and then how to act on that thinking. This alone makes this book worth the time needed to read it. I envy the young reader who finishes it before his 25th birthday. He is guaranteed to have a literally richer life than he would otherwise have had, whatever his starting position was weath-wise. Warren’s 2005 letter has a write up on ‘How to minimize investment returns’. What a tour de force that particular one was. As was the 2013 section ‘Some thoughts on investing’.

2. Business: Berkshire Hathaway buys and oversees a boatload of companies and Buffet wades deep into what specific metrics matter when running and evaluating a firm and which are the dubious ones (it’s EBIDTA). There are many colleges around the world, esp. in third world countries , offering dubious 2 year+ MBA and Business Diplomas that fail to do what this one little book does by itself: Give the reader an unbeatable and thorough education in the basics of thinking like a CEO/Businessman.

3. Understanding the Insurance Industry : Berkshire Hathaway at its core is an Insurance firm and as a Consultant currently embedded at one such firm, I could not have hoped for a more comprehensive overview on how to look into and understand the industry and the myriad operators in it. Insurance plays a crucial part in economies globally and the book gives the reader lessons on how to evaluate the health of the industry and a firm in it. Nothing comes close.

So yes, while it took me the better part of 30 months to finish this book end to end, it was only because one should ingest this book slowly and gradually to let the lessons and Buffet’s wisdom sink in, like sand settling at the bottom of a lake. A beach read this book is most definitely not but you know what this book most definitely is : The best £2 I ever spent.

So go on, jump in and climb this Everest of a book . The view from the top is breathtaking.

The 2014 Books Review (33 read, only 13 were really good)

I took the easy way out and went with an infograph to tell you 4 books you could try among the 33 books I read this year.

Click on the URL below or on this sentence to jump to the site.

https://infogr.am/books-of-2014-102

Full list of books read in 2014 below :

Book 1 The Strategist’s Toolkit
Book 2 The Dispossessed
Book 3 Life Itself
Book 4 The Martian
Book 5 Old Man’s War
Book 6 A Fire Upon the Deep
Book 7 Badass
Book 8 A Deepness in the Sky
Book 9 The Lowland
Book 10 Brideshead Revisited
Book 11 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Book 12 All You Need Is Kill
Book 13 How the Light Gets In
Book 14 Slaughterhouse
Book 15 Physics of the Impossible
Book 16 The Whisperers
Book 17 Read This Before Our Next Meeting
Book 18 The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty
Book 19 What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Book 20 Skeleton Crew
Book 21 Fuzzy Nation
Book 22 Dreadnaught (The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, #1)
Book 23 The Making of Modern Britain
Book 24 The Age of Wonder
Book 25 Thinking Statistically
Book 26 The Memory Chalet
Book 27 Fooled by Randomness
Book 28 Look To Windward
Book 29 Visit Sunny Chernobyl: Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places
Book 30 The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme
Book 31 From Dictatorship to Democracy
Book 32 Embroideries
Book 33 HBR Guide to Project Management

September was busy chasing the right things

One of my dearly held goals in life is to read as much good literature as I can possibly cram into my years. The other big one is to travel as much of the world as the wallet and boss will allow. The first needs the finite resource of time and the second needs the oxygen of cash (“It’s a fact almost every traveler faces: The world is bigger than our wallets are deep”)

A naive approach would be to leave those type of noble goals word smith’ed as they have been above and fervently hope for the best. This is the robustness of most New Year goals we all undertake no? And their success (or more to the point, lack thereof), belatedly mourned in the waning weeks of December can be traced to this profound error of optimism lethally mixed with vagueness.

A smart idea that the bibliophiles online mecca ‘Goodreads.com’ came up with was the ‘Reading Challenge’ where you pledge at the start of a year to finish a certain number of books and then try to make sure you do. Last year I pledged to read 26 books and did. At the start of this year I optimistically jacked up that number to 30 and at the beginning of September I had managed to finish only 13 books. A reading rate of around 3 books every 2 months. So in September I really really floored it. Today I counted up and realized I have managed to start and finish with 11 books in September. So it looks like those homilies on perseverance and persistence were not bong smoke. It was a mixed bag too. Some books were wonderful, some had limited pleasures to be extracted from drilling in and 3 were gushers in the pleasure they managed to evoke thumbing those their pages. Here is a 1 line review of each of the 11, preceded by this beautiful quote from Sagan on books:

CS on BOOKS

Night‘ – The suffering on one man in the Nazi camps and the story of how he survived. Think ‘The Pianist’ in book form. 3 stars.

Child 44‘ – Thriller about a killer on the loose in Communist Russia. The description of life in that horrible system chilled me more. 3 stars.

The Old Man And The Sea‘ – Numbing tale of a senile man’s ramblings from too much sun that had an important lesson: Hemmingway is boring. 1 star.

Escape from Camp 14‘ – True story of how one man-child escaped the horrible North Korean labor camp. 3 stars.

Forever War‘ – Fantastic Sci-fi about one man’s tale as a soldier in a pointless war spanning centuries. 4 stars.

The Little Prince‘ – famous French tale of the little prince who travels to Earth. 2 stars.

The Gods Themselves‘ – Asimov. How can one say no? Not as powerful as the foundation series but some bits were absorbing. 2 stars.

A Clockwork Orange‘ – Nadsat is daunting but ..this is important…you pick it up fast and then, O my brothers, it’s mayhem. 2 stars.

The Lazy Project Manager’ – breaks down project management into the minimum needs to launch. 2 stars.

The Sirens of Titan‘ – My first Kurt Vonnegut book. And the closest I think I have come to seeing a book rivaling the famed Hitchhikers Guide in satire.  4 stars.

The Curse of Chalion‘ – Epic fantasy set in a medieval Spain setting. With magic and saints. Deserved all the rave reviews it got. 4 stars.

So if you are looking to add 3 books to your reading list that both enjoyable and really worth finishing before 2013 year end, I’d recommend you go with:

1. Forever War

2. The Sirens of Titan

3. The Curse of Chalion

Can I also please add 3 documentaries to this mix that will totally rope you in from start to finish? – For those who say ‘Si’:

1. Collapse – A very good ‘intellectual horror movie’ that examines the dark side of our oil dependency.

2. Indie Game : The Movie – How 3 developers gave it their all and made the awesome indie games they did.

3. TPB AFK – A documentary film based on the lives of the three founders of The Pirate Bay Bit Torrent tracker.

These 6 real gems should keep you busy in Quarter 4.

Enjoy…

India through Naipaul’s eyes

Growing up like most Indians with a Congress Party sanctioned version of history (proving the old adage about how ‘history’ is a version decided by the winners) I realized, quite late in life, I really didn’t have the foggiest clue about what my India was all about. When you read  Michel de Montaigne lament, “Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know” , you begin to question your true right to partake in any serious debate if your only exposure to your country’s history is to a distorted,  intellectually bankrupt version of the events (aka your C.B.S.E issued, officially sanctioned history text books).

And it is in some ways a fascinating history and the more media I consumed the more I realized how little attention 1/6th of humanity gets as a part of general global dialogue. So I decided I was going to find out more about India in a broader, nuanced, and cultural sense.

While it is difficult to get an unbiased outsider view of anything in the real sense, for this ambitious project I decided to go with Nobel laureate V.S Naipaul and by God, he didn’t disappoint!

I juxtaposed all this literature with what I was reading on the Anna Hazare agitation with Naipaul’s observations in his books and it all becomes spooky and prescient. Here is one that kicks you right in the gut. Read the last line and know Naipaul wrote that in 1977.

“All creation in India hints at the imminence of interruption and
destruction. Building is like an elemental urge, like the act of
sex among the starved. It is building for the sake of building,
creation for the sake of creation; and each creation is separate, a
beginning and an end in itself…. but at Mahabalipuram near
Madras, on the waste sand of the sea shore, stands the abandoned
Shore Temple, its carvings worn smooth after twelve centuries of
rain and salt and wind…. In India these endless mosques and
rhetorical mausolea, these great palaces speak only of a personal
plunder and a country with an infinite capacity for being
plundered.”

(Area of Darkness, page 219, Chapter ‘Fantasy and Ruins’)

Or here is another gem :

“Out of its squalor and human decay, its eruptions of butchery, India produced so many people of grace and beauty, ruled by elaborate courtesy. Producing too much life, it denied the value of life; yet it permitted a unique human development to so many”

His trilogy deserve more publicity than it will ever get as it is one part utterly scathing social commentary and two parts wholly pessimistic about the Indian narrative. It is a terribly gloomy and dark fatalistic vision of things and I urge people who believe in rainbows, unicorns and innocence of kittens and puppies to never ever attempt this Everest.

For those who are fans of Orwell and could stomach 1984, you cannot and should not miss this set.

As for ‘A bend in the River’ and ‘Among the believers’, the former is just utter brilliant prose ( “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”, “After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.”) and the latter will help you understand Islamic fundamentalism better than all the blather you hear on NDTV, CNN and BBC.

All 5 books deserve prominent place in the shelves of any serious literature aficionado. Read them once before you join the next Hazare protest movement.