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The 10 Best Books I Read in 2019

The books I read in 2019

TLDR: Tech giants, economics, the Cold War, and some fiction! You can also check out my previous lists for 2018 and 2017.

Around this time last year, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I deliberately set aside the books I wanted to tackle in 2019.

One of the advantages print books, rather than e-books, is their physical nature: I actually lined up the titles I wanted to read on a dedicated shelf next to my favorite reading chair. And they were there, looming over me, all year long, reminding me to dive in.

I picked a mix of classics I’d never read — or had delved into but never fully grasped — and more recent books that I was interested in for work or personal reasons. I also tried to read more novels, as my previous year-end lists have been dominated by nonfiction.

These were my faves, in roughly the order I read them. Note that as always, these are books I read that were new to me in 2019, not books published only during that year.

  1. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World,” by Brad Stone. (Published: 2017.)

    I enjoyed Stone’s “The Everything Store,” about Jeff Bezos and Amazon (corresponding Book Notes post here), and found this one to be similarly instructive for understanding the origins and culture of Uber and Airbnb — and their founders.

    For more details, see my Book Notes post on “The Upstarts” here.

  2. The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal,” by David E. Hoffman. (Published: 2015.)

    This was not something I’d actually planned to read, but happened upon a copy of it while away at the beach. (All that stuff I was saying above about planning what to read? This was a notable exception.)

    It’s fantastic: a page turner about successful U.S. efforts, after years of failure, to cultivate a spy deep within the Russian government during the Cold War — and how much that cost all the individuals involved. It’s such a pleasure to encounter new insights about a topic that has so little to do with your daily life, but feels so timeless.

  3. How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region,” by Joe Studwell. (Published: 2013.)

    I’d been meaning to read this this it was published several years ago, having loved Studwell’s seminal 2007 book “Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia” (Book Notes post here).

    Why do some countries become rich, while others remain poor or stuck with their middle income status? Studwell shows that it’s really not so mysterious.

    There is a proven path to economic development that countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have undertaken. First, initiate land reform that permits farmers to practice small scale agriculture; then build a manufacturing sector by requiring domestic firms to be globally competitive; and, finally, enforce fiscal discipline.

    Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and India (though the South Asian nation is not discussed at length in the book) have not taken this path, and thus have not developed as quickly. (China is a case unto itself.)

  4. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” by Neil Postman. (Published: 1985.)

    The crux of this book: TV ruins everything.

    When people communicate important ideas through words (i.e. newspapers, magazines, books), public discourse tends to be more thoughtful. But the rise of TV has brought about sensationalism and shallowness of thought, and discourse has followed suit.

    Were Postman still alive, I reckon he would simply point to Donald Trump, the reality star turned president, to prove his point.

  5. 1984,” by George Orwell. (Published: 1949.)

    I must have read this book in high school or college, but I gave it another look in 2019. The dystopian novel is famous for terms like Big Brother and Doublespeak, and for showing (predicting?) how totalitarian states can employ surveillance to stifle dissent and crush individuals.

    Especially compelling was just how vividly Orwell renders the personal toll on citizens, describing the suffering endured by Winston and Julia in such horrific terms.

  6. Exit West: A Novel,” by Mohsin Hamid. (Published: 2017.)

    Last year I read Hamid’s novel “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” and found it strikingly good.

    I also enjoyed “Exit West,” which follows a couple named Nadia and Saeed as they live their lives together in a world of war and global migration.

    One criticism: Without giving away too much, there is one sci-fi-related plot point that I found unconvincing, but otherwise I found it to be an excellent novel.

  7. The Talented Mr. Ripley,” by Patricia Highsmith.” (Published: 1955.)

    I’m not sure how it is I’d never read this Highsmith classic. It is a psychological thriller about Tom Ripley, touching on identity, wealth and class, jealousy, love, and deception.

    I loved her beautiful, unadorned prose and perfect pacing.

  8. Googled: The End of the World As We Know It,” by Ken Auletta (Published: 2009).

    First, yes: this book is a decade old, and that’s about a century in internet years. Google has changed a lot during that time, but I didn’t read it to understand the company’s most recent happenings.

    Rather, as I mentioned in reading about Uber and Airbnb (and Amazon), what I’m often looking for is knowledge about big tech firms’ beginnings and cultural makeup. Auletta, who covers media for The New Yorker, delivers on that front.

  9. The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age,” by James Crabtree (Published: 2018)

    Crabtree, who was a Financial Times correspondent here in India for several years, has delivered an excellent book explaining why the ranks of India’s billionaires has risen so sharply in recent years, and drawing comparisons to the American Gilded Age.

    He explains how it’s happened in the world’s second-most-populous country, who the billionaires are as people, and mixes in colorful anecdotes from his reporting. Recommended for anyone interested in India, its economy, and its future.

  10. Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman (Published: 2011.)

    Yes, it’s as good as you’ve heard it is.

    I’d put off reading this book for so long because since its publication eight years ago the ideas contained in its pages have been everywhere — conversations, podcasts, all manner of journalistic stories — to such an extent that I felt I’d already understood them.

    And, largely, I had. But it’s worth devoting the time to read about them at length. The book is meticulously researched and brimming with insights.

    Simply put: Kahneman provides page after page of evidence showing that we just aren’t as smart as we think we are. When we think fast — use heuristics and fall prey to our cognitive biases — we make bad decisions. Even when we know we’re vulnerable.

Categories
Books India

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018

Books

Here’s the best of what I read in 2018.

As in previous round-ups, some of these titles came out this year, while others were published in years past.

Nonfiction

  • Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World,” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope. The first of two astoundingly good books by WSJ colleagues this year. Even if, like me, you’ve followed the 1MDB scandal, you’ll find here a ton of surprising, colorful, mind-boggling details, not to mention memorable characters. I think this will go down as a narrative nonfiction business classic.
  • Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” by John Carreyrou. The second book by a WSJ colleage. The crazy story of Theranos, founder Elizabeth Holmes, and a cautionary tale about how investors can be duped by powerful personalities.
  • The Other One Percent: Indians in America,” by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh. A rigorous work, full of data, that explains the factors that have contributed to the remarkable success of Indians (and Indian-Americans) in the U.S. My Book Notes entry is here.
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari. A compelling, accessible, intriguing look at our species. Worth all the attention it has gotten since its 2015 publication. My Book Notes entry is here.
  • Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. I’d heard about this book for a long time. The first half is a harrowing Holocaust survival memoir. The second is a guide to Frankl’s theory of logotherapy. I understand now why so many people say this is the single book that has affected them more than any other. “The meaning of life is to give life meaning,” as Frankl writes.
  • India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy,” by Ramachandra Guha. An exhaustive (it’s more than 900 pages long), impressively researched work: everything you need to know (and then some) about India since independence. I will keep a copy on my desk for reference. On the one hand, the level of detail can make for slow going; on the other hand, India’s history is so complicated that there can be no short cuts in a book like this.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” by Katherine Boo. A moving introduction to the plight of India’s poor.
  • The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires,” by Tim Wu. A timely read, given the rise of powers like Facebook and Google. Book Notes entry is here.
  • Fiction

    Last year I noted that I’d read just two memorable novels that year. My consumption of fiction this year, sadly, has again been low.

    I am always tempted to read nonfiction books related to work – India, tech, business – and I sometimes forget that in tackling both the universal and the particular, novels have a unique power. They build empathy and communicate truths in ways that sometimes nonfiction cannot. For example, take my favorite novel of the year, by Mohsin Hamid…

  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel,” by Mohsin Hamid. I just recently finished this novel. It was stunning. It’s a parody of a self help book, told in a unique fashion.
  • It succeeds as a page turner, as a thrilling rags to riches tale, as a romance, and also as a realistic look at society, money, power and corruption in South Asia.

    (It is set in an unnamed country that appears to be Hamid’s home country, Pakistan, but there are many echoes of India.)

    This is the first book my Hamid that I’ve read, and apparently some feel it’s not even his best. You can bet I will be reading his other works. Highly recommended. (Thanks, Michael, for the gift!)

  • Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville. It had been years since I’d encountered this book back in school, and I decided to pick it up again. I must have read it at some point, but I can’t remember when.
  • I’d forgotten how vivid the prose is. I highlighted this sentence, about Captain Peleg, which I really loved:

    “Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacific; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tons upon tons of leviathan gore.”

    Tons of leviathan gore!

    Previously:

  • The 10 Best Books I Read in 2017.
  • The Best Books I Read in 2016.
  • Categories
    Book Notes Books India

    Book Notes: ‘The Other One Percent: Indians in America,’ by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh

    the other one percent

    From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

    These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting. They’re neither formal book reviews nor comprehensive book summaries, but simply my notes from reading these titles.

    For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

    The Other One Percent: Indians in America

    By Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, Nirvikar Singh
    Published in 2017
    Oxford University Press
    ISBN–10: 0190648740
    Amazon link

    Brief Summary

    An illuminating look at how Indians in America – a tiny percentage of the overall population – have come to enjoy such outsized success.

    My Notes

    The jacket copy sums up nicely the miracle that is Indian immigration to America:

    One of the most remarkable stories of immigration in the last half century is that of Indians to the United States. People of Indian origin make up a little over one percent of the American population now, up from barely half a percent at the turn of the millennium. Not only has its recent growth been extraordinary, but this population from a developing nation with low human capital is now the most-educated and highest-income group in the world’s most advanced nation.

    You read that passage, and the title of the book, right: There are only about 3 million people of Indian origin in the U.S.

    That’s an astoundingly low number when you consider their prominence in tech, medicine, finance and more. As a group, they have much higher levels of education and income than other citizens.

    How’d that happen?

    The short story: A U.S. immigration act in 1917 virtually terminated immigration from Asia. But changes to the law in 1965 opened things up, and thus began an influx of Indians.

    But not just any Indians.

    The authors – academics at Temple University (Chakravorty), the University of Pennsylvania (Kapur) and the University of California, Santa Cruz (Singh) – argue that Indian immigrants were “triple selected”:

    1. They came from dominant castes and had access to higher education
    2. They were selected to take exams in tech fields
    3. They benefitted from U.S. immigration law, which favored immigrants with tech skills

    The book is absolutely brimming with data, and makes for a fantastic resource. (One reason I read substantive books in paper rather than on a Kindle is so I can underline passages, take photos for blog posts like this one, and then put them back on my shelf for future use!)

    “The Other One Percent” contains some excellent graphs and charts, like this one, illustrating just how exceptional this population is:

    IMG 0645

    There were three phases of Indians coming to America:

    1. The early movers, in the 1960s and 1970s
    2. The families (1980s through early 1990s)
    3. The IT generation (after the early 1990s)

    IMG 0648

    Here’s a map of where Indian-Americans tend to be clustered in the U.S., based on community organizations:

    indians in america by geography

    And here’s data on the boom in H–1B visas (a topic on which I’ve reported before) issued to highly skilled workers – and Indians’ huge proportion of those.

    indian visas and america

    Finally, while the book argues that “the success of Indian Americans is at its core a selection story,” the authors do touch on other potential factors. These include:

    • “thrift and pooling of savings”
    • English language skills
    • strong social networks
    • “cohesive families”
    • an experience with social heterogeneity in India that has made them more “adaptable”

    I highly recommend “The Other One Percent” for those interested in immigration and immigration policy, the Indian diaspora, and American society broadly.

    Categories
    Book Notes Books Life

    Book Notes: ‘Sapiens,’ by Yuval Noah Harari

    Sapiens

    From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

    These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

    For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

    Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

    Published (in English): 2014
    ISBN–10: 0062316095
    Amazon link

    Brief Summary

    A deeply thought-provoking book about how homo sapiens came to dominate the world – and how our advancements have come at a significant cost.

    My notes

    I love big, sprawling books that tackle huge subjects and challenge you to change the way you conceive of the world.

    This global bestseller, which has been all the rage among Silicon Valley technologists in recent years, in particular, is one of the best of that sort of title I’ve read.

    It’s a kind of even-bigger-picture “Guns, Germs and Steel,” the hit 1997 book (which I also loved) in which Jared Diamond famously demonstrated the role the environment has played in shaping civilization and material development.

    I think anyone who reads this fun, fast-paced, surprisingly easy-to-read book will be hard pressed not to come away with the sense that:

    Human life is insignificant in the grand scheme of things;
    – Our advancements as a species have been mind-bogglingly rapid, with humans and the planet paying a huge price;
    – The way we have been living for the last 200 years is radically at odds with how humans have existed over the long term;
    – The jury is out, according to Harari, as to whether humans will survive in the long term. He is not optimistic.

    (Okay, all that may sound depressing, I know realize, but still…)

    • Harari, a historian, shows how homo sapiens evolved in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then 70,000 years ago spread out of Africa as the cognitive revolution took over, in which language emerge and allowed sapiens to either kill off or out-flourish other humans, like Neanderthals.
    • We all know that sapiens wiped out the world’s biggest animals, but Harari reinforces this point, recounting how we killed off megafauna from Australia to the Americas over time. Sapiens has historically destroyed everything in its path, and now that we have nuclear weapons, Harari is not bullish on our long term survival. But, of course, the universe doesn’t care about people. Cockroaches and rats are thriving today despite our having driven other creatures to extinction, and could in millions of years evolve into sophisticated creatures, thanking us for demolishing the planet and setting the stage for their rise.

    • The agricultural revolution, which happened about 12,000 years ago, was “history’s biggest fraud,” Harari writes, because it lead to widespread suffering for farmers and laborers producing food for elites, while life as hunter-gatherers may have largely been more conducive to human happiness despite shorter lives and higher rates of violence.

    • 2,500 hundred years ago coinage came into use. Money equals trust. Harari is big on “imagined orders” and the power of ideas to bind or separate us, such as democracy, capitalism, racism and the caste system.

    • The scientific revolution, about 500 years ago, lead to the industrial revolution some three hundred years later, and ultimately imperialism, with all its devastation for those subjugated.

      “The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years,” he writes. Capitalism + scientific inquiry = imperialism.

    • The industrial revolution – while providing us with undeniable material and medical benefits – has meant “family and community” have been replaced by “state and market.”

      “Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members,” he writes. “Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.

    • Industrialized animal husbandry feeds the world, but “If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.

    • I found the penultimate chapter, on human happiness, to be particularly thought-provoking.

      Money doesn’t ultimately bring lasting happiness due the luxury trap: there are diminishing returns to having fancy things, and someone always has even nicer stuff. That’s the case even for most billionaires.

      Community, family, positive marriages, and living according to one’s values – and with a sense of purpose – matter more. It could be that happiness most flourishes when we buy into belief systems or religious delusions, even if scientifically life has no meaning.

    • Harari seems to promote Buddhist philosophy and meditation as an antidote to alienation. “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them,” he writes.

    • Ultimately, for all our advancements, human suffering is still rife in the world – whether it’s due to consumerism, ongoing oppression, or other factors. That puts all of our economic and scientific progress into perspective. Are humans actually happier today than tens of thousands of years ago? We are undoubtedly healthier and safer, but we may not be any happier.

    Categories
    Books

    The 10 Best Books I Read in 2017

    Best books 2017

    Here are the top 10 books I read during 2017. I may add individual Book Notes writeups for some of these later, but wanted to share the list as the year has come to a close.

    (As in previous roundups, these are books I encountered during the year, not books published only in 2017.)

    I chose these nonfiction titles mostly due to my professional and personal interests: technology trends, India, economics, media – and, let’s not forget, dogs!

    I also see now that I read a shockingly small amount of fiction in 2017. I may try to remedy that in 2018. (I did consume a beach read or two that weren’t memorable enough to add to this list, I should note.)

    In no particular order:

    Nonfiction

    Fiction

    • The Windup Girl,” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Sci-fi, set in a post-apocalyptic Bangkok? Yes, please! A fast-paced, thought provoking novel about genetic engineering (both agricultural and human), the environment, money, and power. Highly recommended.

    • The Circle,” by Dave Eggers. I didn’t think I’d like this book, as I’d heard it involves ludicrously far-fetched technologies. But it’s in many ways an important novel of our times, showing what could happen if societies continue to obsess over the digital rather than the physical world, and a fictional reminder that startups outwardly driven by utopian ideals are companies like any other, pursuing profits and influence. Also highly recommended. (Note: I haven’t seen the movie.)

    Previously: The Best Books I Read in 2016.