The Best Books I Read in 2023

Here's my annual rundown of the standout books I read this year.

Like in previous roundups, I’m not confining myself to books published in the last 12 months.

My nonfiction picks span the global semiconductor industry, equitable parenting, and – thanks to Netflix – the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

For fiction, I completed a trilogy by my new favorite spy thriller author and took in a sprawling Jonathan Franzen family saga.

As ever, I prefer physical books over e-books. I like the sensory experience of holding books in my hands. I like gazing at the cover art. I like tracking my progress through the pages and flipping forward and backward. And most of all, I like the ability to mark up the pages for future reference.

My reading wasn't as focused on particular topics as it's been in previous years. But I've tried to keep in mind what the great Charlie Munger once said: “As long as I have a book in my hand, I don’t feel like I’m wasting time.”

Here goes:


  • Chris Miller, Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology – This acclaimed 2022 book provides a timely, accessible introduction to the global semiconductor industry. Miller, a history professor at Tufts University, describes how scientists developed the staggeringly complex technology over the decades.

    He also shows why semiconductors are crucial for everything from missiles to smartphones and kitchen appliances. And the book hammers home just how vulnerable global semiconductor supply chains are to geopolitical tensions, and makes clear why Beijing is pouring resources into bolstering China's domestic chip-making capabilities.
  • Russell King, Rajneeshpuram: Inside the Cult of Baghwan and Its Failed American Utopia – Like many others, I enjoyed the 2018 Netflix documentary series “Wild, Wild Country.” I found the series fascinating given my roots in Eastern Oregon and our time in India, so I decided to do some reading on the movement.

    In this book, out last year, Russell King puts his skill as an attorney to work in reconstructing a timeline of Baghwan's life in India. King documents the growth of Baghwan's ashram in Pune, and then his migration to rural Oregon in the early 1980s, where the documentary picks up.

    While the Netflix series is sympathetic to many members of the group interviewed, including the memorable Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneeshpuram includes a fuller account of the group's many alleged crimes and misdeeds in Oregon. They include the poisoning of more than 700 people in a town near the Rajneeshees' ranch that still ranks as the U.S.'s largest biological terror attack, plans to assassinate public officials, the disregard for homeless people brought to the ranch, and the forced isolation of Rajneeshees who contracted HIV.

  • Subhuti Anand Waight, Wild Wild Guru: An insider's account of his life with Bhagwan, the world's most controversial guru – Next up was this 2019 account by a Bhagwan devotee who left a job in journalism in the UK to live in the guru's Pune ashram, then later traveled westward to the U.S.

    The book provides a sense of Baghwan's appeal to hippies at the time: You can strive to reach enlightenment, he preached, but rather than sacrifice earthly delights as an ascetic would, you can still indulge in all manner of corporeal pleasures.

    Perhaps most instructive for me was to see how a devotee can, after all these years, appear to gloss over the great damage the Rajneeshees inflicted on neighbors and various vulnerable people. The author's message seems to be: We were a religious movement persecuted for being different; sure, there were a few bad apples, but no one knew about their shenanigans; ultimately those uptight Americans just couldn't accept us for being different.

  • George Friedman, The Storm Before the Calm: America's Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond. Geopolitical forecaster Friedman in his well-known The Next 100 Years looked at global trends. In this 2020 book he projects what's in store for the U.S.

    Friedman says this decade will continue to prove tumultuous because a historical cycle that governs institutional change is converging with a similar socio-economical cycle. He's bullish on the U.S. over the long term, though, because the country is blessed with a favorable geography, a powerful economy, and an inherent dynamism. We'll weather the storm, he argues.

  • Eve Rodsky, Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live). My wife, who is brilliant and well-read, suggested this 2019 book. I'm glad she did.

    Rodsky, trained as a lawyer, provides a template for couples that encourages men to own their share of work that goes into running a household and raising kids. That way, “shefault” parents — women — can do less of the cognitive, invisible labor that make homes function.


  • Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads: a Novel I didn't expect to find a nearly 600-page-long family saga set in 1970s Illinois and focusing on a minister and his family to be so absorbing, but I did.

    Perhaps that's a testament to Franzen's storytelling skills, or simply my tastes, as I've read nearly everything he's written. In this 2021 work, I loved the characters (particularly the memorable Marion Hildebrandt), I loved the dialogue, I loved the vivid scenes. Apparently the first in a trilogy. I'll be reading the titles that follow.

  • Jason Matthews, The Palace of Treason and The Kremlin's Candidate. Thanks to my friend Stuart H. for suggesting, since I love spy fiction, that I check out 2013's Red Sparrow trilogy.

    The first in the series, called Red Sparrow: a Novel, introduces us to Russian spy Dominika Egorova and her handler, Nathanial Nash. This year I enjoyed the final two books, which came out in 2015 and 2018.

    Matthews spent more than three decades as a CIA officer, mostly stationed abroad and involved in clandestine work, before trying his hand at fiction. The books contain detailed depictions of modern spy-craft, are well-paced, and are imbued with Matthews's take on modern-day Russia. Among the characters, for example, is one Vladimir Putin.

    Matthews also no doubt drew upon his years of experience to portray idealistic but imperfect CIA staff who fight for America's interests. Sadly, he died a few years ago at the age of 69, leaving just the three books behind.

  • Ernest Cline, Ready Player One Some works of fiction are so frequently discussed that you have to read them to know what everyone's talking about. This 2011 book is one.

    Set in a dystopian 2045, it is popular for its focus on 1980s pop culture, such as video games and music, which are of course ancient history for the book's characters. Viewed today, with Mark Zuckerberg and other believers touting the metaverse it's interesting to see how Cline viewed the possibility of future virtual realms taking shape.

My previous annual best books lists: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016.

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas. Antwerp, Belgium: Interior of Museum Plantin-Moretus, via Wikimedia Commons


The Best Books I Read in 2022

Here the best books I read in 2022.

As in previous years, I’m not restricting myself to titles published this year.

A note on format: I still prefer to read books in printed form. Their analogue attributes such as the ability to mark up pages, easily flip through chapters, and consult front and back matter at a glance just can’t be replicated in electronic form.

Physical books, unlike e-readers or smartphones, don’t run out of batteries, can easily survive a rainstorm, and automatically shut out distractions despite lacking Airplane Mode. So: dead trees FTW!

I do sometimes read e-books on my Kindle, though, when I can’t find a paper version of a title, or to peruse samples of books I’m considering purchasing in print.

This year I read nonfiction spanning Ukraine’s history to the economics of Big Tech to — most important — parenting!

For fiction, I read novels set in the western U.S., in Hong Kong, Italy, and even a post-apocalyptic future North America.



  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. The huge 2014 bestseller that you’ve no doubt heard of. I love post-apocalyptic tales. This one weaves through past and future, telling the stories of characters’ lives before and after a pandemic, with lovely literary flourishes and interfused with a sense of hope. I watched only a bit of the TV series and didn’t get into it. My Book Notes entry is here.

  • Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete. A short, sad, striking tale containing some passages and imagery I don’t think I’ll ever forget. My Book Notes entry is here.

  • Thomas Harris, Hannibal: A Novel. I’d never read Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs until two years ago, and finally got around to reading this sequel, featuring the iconic Hannibal Lecter, this year. Set largely in Florence. Fantastic.

  • Paul Theroux, Kowloon Tong. A 1997 novel mainly about the lives of the privileged and insular British living in the city as the handover loomed. Contains some troubling depictions of local residents. (Thanks to pal Dan C. for the recommendation.)

  • Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow: A Novel. Spy thrillers dominated my fiction reading last year, and Matthews might be my new favorite of the genre. This book is rich in detail, beautifully paced, and the characters are vivid. (Thanks to Newley’s Notes reader Stuart H. for the recommendation.)

Previous lists: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016.


The Best Books I Read in 2021

Here are the most intriguing books I read in 2021.

As ever, this list isn’t confined to titles published during the year. And as in previous years, I continue to prefer print books over e-books.

They are better for making notes in the margins, being able to flip through them aids in the learning process, and I appreciate the ability to pick them up off the book shelf to consult later, after I’ve read them. And I just love the tactile sensations of holding them in my hands.

My nonfiction picks spanned tech, history, current affairs, philosophy and art. For fiction, I found pandemic-era solace in revisiting a genre I have always loved: spy thrillers.


  • Martin Gurri, The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium This book by Gurri, first released in 2014 and since updated, has been hailed presaging the election of Donald Trump and the success of Brexit. Gurri’s thesis: Technological forces like the internet and social media, which have resulted in an exponential explosion of information, by nature undermine civil institutions and traditional figures of authorities. This democratization of information has exposed elites’ flaws, Gurri writes, sapping their ability to control once unquestioned narratives. Distrust now abounds.
  • Steven Levy, Facebook: The Inside Story. I enjoy books that tell the stories of singular tech companies, such as Brad Stone’s comprehensive looks at Amazon (“The Everything Store”) and Airbnb and Uber (“The Upstarts”), Duncan Clark’s book about Alibaba, and Ken Auletta’s look at Google. This 2020 work provides a comprehensive history of how Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, how it expanded quickly in the U.S. and then abroad, and how its emphasis on growth has created massive successes – and more recently, challenges – along the way. Useful as a backgrounder in understanding a company I did a lot of reporting on during the year.

  • Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power. A painstakingly researched, deftly told, utterly fascinating look at the Saudi crown prince, and what his rise means for his nation and the world. A rarity in nonfiction: a page turner that informs. By Hope, formerly of the The WSJ, and my current, supremely talented WSJ colleague Scheck.

  • Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. A wonderful book centered on ten timeless ideas from various cultures about human flourishing and what makes for a good life: why love and work are important, the benefits of adversity and reciprocity, why we’re all hypocrites on some level, and why happiness comes not just from within, but from without.

  • Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer. How and why journalism can be a messy business. Controversial. Extremely meta. I’m not sure I agree with its central claim that journalism is inherently psychopathic, but it is a quick and thought provoking read.

  • Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Worthy of its cult classic status. Meditations on why making art is hard, and why you just have to battle through what Pressfield calls “resistance”: fear, anxiety, laziness, whatever keeps you from articulating your creative vision. You just gotta sit down and do the work.

  • Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. After largely conquering disease, war and famine, humans are becoming increasingly individualistic, powerful, humanistic, liberal. Next up: seeking immortality as we make gains in artificial intelligence and biotechnology. (See also: Harari’s earlier book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.)

  • Jason Fung, MD, The Obesity Code – Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. I’ve long been interested in nutrition and find the research showing the benefits of low-carbohydrate, high fat diets to be compelling. In this straightforward book, Fung, a nephrologist who has had significant success treating diabetics with fasting and carb restriction, shows that weight gain is driven by high-carb, sugary foods that cause spikes in insulin. In short: sugars and starches are the problem, not fats or even calories. (See also: Nina Teicholz’s suberb The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.)

  • Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life I’d never read anything extensive about the brilliant, complex, dedicated, whimsical Franklin – the “founding father who winks at us,” Isaacson writes. Franklin had so much to do with with the U.S. became.


  • David Ignatius, Agents of Innocence: A Novel. I love spy thrillers but had never read this excellent novel from the Washington Post columnist. Set in Beirut in the 1970s, the protagonist is a CIA officer working to gather intelligence on the PLO. This book, Ignatius’s first, led me to some of his others…

  • David Ignatius, The Quantum Spy: A Thriller. The U.S., China, and quantum computing. Lots of fun.

  • David Ignatius, The Paladin: A Spy Novel. Cyber-security, media manipulation, deep fakes, financial fraud. Another page-turner.

  • Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle. Speaking of spy thrillers, I decided to re-read this classic, set during World War II, which I first encountered more than 20 years ago. What a read: wonderfully paced, strong characters, high stakes.

Previous lists: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016.


The 15 Best Books I Read in 2020

Books I read in 2020

Here’s the best of what I read in 2020.

As usual, I chose print books over ebooks whenever possible (all the better for taking notes in the margins and distilling them into my Book Notes posts).

Since we moved here to Hong Kong early in the year, and given that I continue to cover technology, you’ll see the world’s most populous country, our new home, and the themes of tech and business figure prominently in this list. Oh, and books about…pandemics, too!

As in my previous round-ups, I’m listing these titles in roughly the order I read them, and with selections not limited to books published during the year. Here goes:

1) "The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State," by Elizabeth C. Economy. An insightful explication of just why Xi is such an important figure.

2) "Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built," by Duncan Clark. An in-depth account of Alibaba’s rise, and of founder Ma’s background and personality. (My Books Notes entry is here.)

3) "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment," by Robert Wright. The title, of course, cannot deliver, but Wright makes the case that Buddhist thought, and especially meditation, can make life easier and more rewarding.

4) "The Quiet American," by Graham Greene. A classic I can’t believe I’d never read. A memorable story, written with skill by the great Greene.

5) "Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction," by Christian McMillen. Helpful historical context. One lesson that has stuck with me, which isn’t always obvious these days: pandemics do not last forever! (My Book Notes entry is here.)

6) “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley. Another classic I must have dipped into at some point. Like “1984,” a book with themes that remain ever relevant.

7) “Hong Kong,” by Jan Morris. A thoughtful, highly detailed survey of this majestic city. Highly recommended.

8) “The Stand,” by Stephen King. What better to read during an actual pandemic than a 1000-word-plus novel about…the aftermath of a pandemic? I found it riveting. If long. And it’s clear to my why this is a favorite King book for many of his fans.

9) “Skinny Dip,” by Carl Hiaasen. I love Hiaasen’s humorous brand of crime fiction, set in Florida, and this 2004 novel is so, so fun. I mean, do the first few lines of a thriller get any better than this?

“At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic.

I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves.”

10) “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” by Evan Osnos. A stunning work encompasses a grand sweep of a narrative, but is also grounded in rich detail. Osnos tells important stories about individuals in a country that outsiders sometimes view through stereotypes.

11) “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” by Jordan Peterson. Thought provoking, controversial, moving.

12) “Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero,” by Cate Lineberry. I’d never heard of this book but a friend raved about it and let me borrow it. My first reaction was: WOW. A fantastic, fantastic, story. My second reaction was one of sadness, because despite the time I spent in the South Carolina Lowcountry growing up, I knew little of what Smalls accomplished. A must-read for anyone interested not just in U.S. history, but in heroism and moral courage.

13) “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” by Nina Teicholz. In this painstakingly researched book, which took nearly a decade to write, Teicholz shows how faulty science and powerful personalities drove the narrative, subsequently adopted by the U.S. government and enshrined in nutritional guidelines, that saturated fat causes heart disease. But there is little, if any, significant evidence for this claim. Nevertheless it was adopted as conventional wisdom, and as Americans began eschewing animal fats, meat and dairy products, we increased our consumption of grains, refined carbohydrates, trans-fats, and sugar. That has been disastrous, a major factor in the obesity epidemic. A remarkable book.

14) “The Silence of the Lambs,” by Thomas Harris. I love thrillers and had never read this one. The ultimate page turner, with some sparkling prose thrown in.

15) “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” by Cal Newport. A convincing argument for making room for what’s really important in life, and putting the rest in its proper place.

Honorable mentions:

Here are my round-ups for 2019, 2018, and 2017.

On to 2021. Happy reading, friends.


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.

Books India

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018


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.


  • 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!


  • 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.

    Book Notes Books Life

    Book Notes: ‘Sapiens,’ by Yuval Noah Harari


    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.


    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:



    • 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.

    Book Notes Books

    Book Notes: ‘The Innovators,’ by Walter Isaacson

    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 more, see my Book Notes category


    The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

    Published: 2014
    ISBN: 978-1476708690
    Amazon link

    Brief Summary

    An exhaustive, compulsively readable account of how the computer and the internet came to be.

    My Notes

    • If you’re looking for a comprehensive account of how some of the 21st century’s most important technical inventions came to be, this is it. It is long, at just under 500 pages, but is well paced and fascinating throghout.
    • Isaacson, who’s written acclaimed biographies of Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin and more, does an excellent job synthesizing what is fairly complex engineering material into a wide-ranging look at how innovations occured and — most important — what drove the men and women behind them.
    • An over-arching theme is that innovation is a group effort. Forget the idea of solo inventors toiling away in labs. Big breakthroughs happen via team efforts, often when engineers are paired with visionaries. In workspaces, physical proximity is important so that workers can share ideas.
    • The transistor was to the digital age what the steam engine was to the industrial age.
    • Vacuum tubes led to transistsors, which led to semiconductors and then microchips.
    • A group of men from a more traditional semiconductor company on the east coast headed west what is now known, yes, as Silicon Valley, to start their own operations (or startup). Their style was much more laid back, with unconventional work practices, a culture that prevails today.
    • Venture capital began as rich East coast families began backing west coast startups.
    • As most people know, government spending has always propelled the U.S. tech industry. A government project that started as a way for universities to share computing power, orginally begun as a government funded initiative to provide a secure means of communication in the event of a nuclear attack, became the internet.
    • In 1969 alone, that project began, NASA put a man on the moon, and microprocessors emerged.
    • The internet expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, but it didn’t hit a critical mass commercially until Sept. 1993.
    • Bill Gates and Paul Allen created the software industry.