2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh

2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh

2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh

Screen-Shot-2019-01-02-at-5.30.57-PM-213x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghEvery year, Konverser and passionate bibliophile Ajit Singh writes a review of his top-10 books of the year. Genres featured in this book list include fiction, philosophy, management/economics, history/politics, science, and mathematics. If you’re looking for some good reads, this guest blog post is definitely for you.

Fiction

  1. Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry, Simon and Schuster, 2018

[I picked this book over Isabel Allende’s In The Midst of Winter. That’s one indicator of what I think of Asymmetry; I have covered every book written by Allende in my Top-10 over the years.]

When I googled Lisa Halliday after hearing about her debut novel, the first entry on the search results page was A Rare Look at Philip Roth. The video didn’t come with a spoiler-alert warning.

It didn’t have to.

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_Asymmetry-196x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghA few entries down in the list was Halliday’s own candid admission that she had an affair with Philip Roth several years earlier. Also, in an interview just before his death, Roth said about the book: “She got me.”

The novel’s accolades include “a brilliant and complex examination of power dynamics in love and war” by The Wall Street Journal and “a literary phenomenon” by The New Yorker.

Much of the innovation in Halliday’s work is in its unusual structure. Asymmetry is comprised of two parts that tell two separate stories – seemingly unrelated in the first glance. The first story, “Folly,” is about Alice, a young aspiring writer, and her relationship with Ezra, her mentor a few decades her senior, in the post 9/11 New York. The next story, “Madness,” is narrated in first person by Amar Jaafari, an Iraqi-American detained at Heathrow Airport. Halliday does a beautiful job of sprinkling just enough clues along the way to help the reader see the connection between the two stories. Subtly expressed and very carefully placed, the clues also leave you no choice but to remain fully engaged and pay attention: blink and you will miss.

In the words of Craig Hoffman in Globe and Mail, “In the brief final section, Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs, there is a moment in which, almost by accident, the novel suddenly fits together in a swift, chiropractic snap. Without spoiling the moment, suffice it to say it is one of the more satisfying moments I’ve had as a reader, one of Halliday’s many genius turns that I never saw coming. She got me.”

The sensation caused by Asymmetry is owed, at least in part, to the imbalance of the romance between Mary-Alice Dodge, or Alice, and Ezra Blazer. The latter bears an uncanny resemblance to Philip Roth, including being a perpetual runner-up for the Nobel.

[In real life, Roth and Halliday—forty years apart in age—had a romantic relationship when Halliday was in her twenties. They have remained friends since then. Roth proofread the novel and called it “a considerable achievement.”]

While it is obvious that the author herself is the protagonist, she chooses to give very few direct insights into Alice’s persona and her inner thoughts. She lets her remain mostly quiet and reticent. The challenge of figuring her out is left to the reader. As “Folly” draws to an end, Ezra is hospitalized. It is then that we hear Alice’s inner conflict find a voice for the first time, “What do I want — to become him, or to be with him?”

Halliday uses a more explicit lens in observing Ezra Blazer—his frail physical health, his sexuality, his self-centeredness and narcissism.

The power asymmetry between Alice and Ezra mirrors itself in a different kind of asymmetry –between the U.S. and the Middle East – in the second part of the novel. Adam Kirch writes in The Atlantic, “The leap from the novel’s first section to its second is so great, and yet so intuitively logical, that it forces the reader to rethink the Alice section entirely.”

The following excerpt from “Madness” aptly illustrates the wit and biting clarity of Halliday’s prose:

The UNHCR man, who had a Southern accent and continuously shifted his cigar from one hand to the other as though even its unlit end were unbearably hot, said:

Well, what choice did we have?

Sami exhaled and said:

Isn’t it possible that what the West really wants is simply not to be inconvenienced by the Middle East? Not to be terrorized, not to be charged too much for its gas, not to be threatened with chemical or nuclear weapons? And otherwise you couldn’t really care less?

No, said the man with the UNHCR. I believe the average American is sincere when he says he wants Iraq to become a peaceful and democratic nation. A free and secular nation. Though we understand this may not be possible for some time.

But you wouldn’t want us to become richer than you. More powerful than you. To have greater international clout and the same seemingly boundless potential.

So how are the two parts connected?

Madness is the novel that Alice would write after ending her romance with Ezra.

Halliday was the recipient of the 2017 Whiting Award for fiction. Her personal reflections on her novel are in a Guardian podcast.

Memoir

  1. Tara Westover, Educated, Random House, 2018

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_Educated-199x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghIn the words of the reviewer from Vogue, “Beautiful and propulsive . . . Despite the singularity of [Tara Westover’s] childhood, the questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?”

Tara Westover spent her childhood in rural Idaho in a Mormon family. Youngest of seven children, she worked at her father’s junkyard. Having never been to school until she was seventeen, she decides to leave home and educate herself. In so doing, she also chooses to escape her father’s radical beliefs and her brother’s abuse. By age twenty-seven she had earned herself a doctoral degree from Cambridge.

In an interview with The Guardian, Westover gives a poignant response to Lisa O’Kelly’s question, “How could your parents have turned a blind eye to what was going on?” She answers, “That’s the biggest question of my life. I was reluctant to speak to my parents about it for a long time because I didn’t want to acknowledge the unthinkable – that they already knew but had done nothing about it.” She adds, “What broke us was not me going to college against my father’s will or even leaving home to go to Cambridge. It was me speaking openly about my brother Shawn being violent and abusive to me. My parents couldn’t deal with that so they turned the other way and made me look like the bad person. In families like mine there is no crime worse than telling the truth.”

Here is a scene from the book.

In the first lecture, we were told that the next class would begin with a quiz on the readings. For two days I tried to wrestle meaning from the textbook’s dense passages, but terms like “civic humanism” and “the Scottish Enlightenment” dotted the page like black holes, sucking all the other words into them. I took the quiz and missed every question.

Then the projector showed a peculiar image, of a man in a faded hat and overcoat. Behind him loomed a concrete wall. He held a small paper near his face but he wasn’t looking at it. He was looking at us. I opened the picture book I’d purchased for the class so I could take a closer look. Something was written under the image in italics but I couldn’t understand it. It had one of those black-hole words, right in the middle, devouring the rest. I’d seen other students ask questions, so I raised my hand.

The professor called on me, and I read the sentence aloud. When I came to the word, I paused. “I don’t know this word,” I said. “What does it mean?”

There was silence. Not a hush, not a muting of the noise, but utter, almost violent silence. No papers shuffled, no pencils scratched.

The professor’s lips tightened. “Thanks for that,” he said, then returned to his notes.

I scarcely moved for the rest of the lecture. I stared at my shoes, wondering what had happened, and why, whenever I looked up, there was always someone staring at me as if I was a freak. Of course I was a freak, and I knew it, but I didn’t understand how they knew it.

When the bell rang, Vanessa shoved her notebook into her pack. Then she paused and said, “You shouldn’t make fun of that. It’s not a joke.” She walked away before I could reply.

I stayed in my seat until everyone had gone, pretending the zipper on my coat was stuck so I could avoid looking anyone in the eye. Then I went straight to the computer lab to look up the word “Holocaust.”

I don’t know how long I sat there reading about it, but at some point I’d read enough. I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. I suppose I was in shock, but whether it was the shock of learning about something horrific, or the shock of learning about my own ignorance, I’m not sure. I do remember imagining for a moment, not the camps, not the pits or chambers of gas, but my mother’s face. A wave of emotion took me, a feeling so intense, so unfamiliar, I wasn’t sure what it was. It made me want to shout at her, at my own mother, and that frightened me.

Westover says, “We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.” The same is true of her book. It is more multifaceted than the attributes her readers will assign it to it.

The book is about the power of education, not because of the academic value of the institutions that Westover attended, but for the environment they created for her to come to an uncluttered state of awareness about her family, and through it, about patriarchy and feminism. Westover’s story recasts education as a surrogate for consciousness.

It is also about coming of age, and about breaking away from people who love you and yet pathologically control you. Hearing of Westover’s decision to go to college, her father walks into her room and tells her that God would be angry with her “to whore after man’s knowledge,” essentially casting aspersions of promiscuity on her will to survive, her ambition to grow. The book is about being liberated from such pathology of subversion.

It is about learning how to write well: “Everything I wrote at the beginning was awful. Then I became obsessed with the New Yorker fiction podcast. You can hear these wonderful things like Margaret Atwood reading a Mavis Gallant story and then she and Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker fiction editor, will discuss why it works. They’ll bring up all these weird little things that writers do that make it much easier to say – Yeah, I can do that too”.

The book is also about Westover’s reconciliation with feminism. She studied Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill: “I read through the afternoon and into the evening, developing for the first time a vocabulary for the uneasiness I’d felt since childhood.”

And it is about forgiveness and redemption: “I know only this: that when my mother told me she had not been the mother to me that she wished she’d been, she became that mother for the first time.”

The author was interviewed by PBS and The Economist. The book has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over 40 weeks.

If you are inspired to write a memoir, The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr is a great start.

Philosophy

  1. Maria Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick, A Velocity of Being: Letters to A Young Reader, Enchanted Lion Books, 2018

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_AVelocityOfBeing-225x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghI have been reading Maria Popova’s blog Brain Pickings—which is now included in the Library of Congress archives—for the last five years. I have found her reflections thought-provoking and original. Claudia Zoe Bedrick is the publisher, editor, and art director of Enchanted Lion Books. She is also a close personal friend of Popova.

Like last year, I have chosen to include this children’s book in Philosophy section, albeit for a different reason. In Popova’s own words, “And so it was that a package arrived in my Brooklyn mailbox one day, containing three exquisite wordless picture books by a French artist — not children’s books so much as visual works of philosophy, telling thoughtful and sensitive stories of love, loss, loneliness, and redemption.”

The book is composed of 121 letters written to young readers by some of the finest thinkers of today’s age—authors, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers. The letters are on the joys of reading, and how books are both the outcome and the cause of deeper human experience.  Each letter is accompanied by an artist’s visual rendition of the message in the letter.

The letter-writers include Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, and Ann Patchett, among others.

The artwork is by book illustrators such as Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction section of the book:

My grandmother, an engineer herself, had and still has an enormous library of classical literature, twentieth-century novels, and—my favorite as a child—various encyclopedias and atlases. But it wasn’t until I was older, when she told me about her father, that I came to understand the role of books in her life—not as mere intellectual decoration, but as a vital life force.

My great-grandfather had been an astronomer and a mathematician who, in the thick of Bulgaria’s communist dictatorship, taught himself English by hacking into the suppressed frequency of the BBC World Service and by reading smuggled copies of The Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, and a whole lot of Dickens and Hemingway. This middle-aged rebel would underline words in red ink, then write their Bulgarian translations or English synonyms in the margins.

… And so Claudia and I finally met, having orbited each other unwittingly for decades, around the shared sun of story and image.

Although I have always been agnostic about the medium of reading, I was beginning to worry, as was Claudia, about what reading itself, as a relationship to one’s own mind and not a relationship to the matter of silicon or pulped wood, might look like for the generations to come. I took solace in a beautiful 1930 essay by Hermann Hesse titled The Magic of the Book, in which the Nobel laureate argued that no matter how much our technology may evolve, reading will remain an elemental human hunger. Decades before the Internet as we know it existed, Hesse wrote: We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority.

Animated by a shared ardor for that ‘dignity and authority’ of the written word, Claudia and I decided to do something about it — which is, of course, always the only acceptable form of complaint — not by fear-mongering or by waving the moralizing should-wand, but by demonstrating as plainly yet passionately as possible that a life of reading is a richer, nobler, larger, more shimmering life. And what better way of doing that than by inviting people cherished for having such lives — celebrated artists, writers, scientists, and cultural heroes of various stripes — to share their stories and sentiments about how reading shaped them? After all, we read what we are as much as we are what we read.

Popova’s labor of love is evident in the fact that it took her eight years to pull together this book. Some of my accidental learnings from reading The Velocity of Being include the meaning of the words “endpaper” and “marbled page.” I also learnt about a novelist from 250 years ago whom I had not heard of: Laurence Sterner and his seven-volume book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. [The book was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha. The two had a ritual of reading the story aloud to each other.]

If you are unfamiliar with Brain Pickings, the 2018 Year-End edition would be a good place to start. Also, listening to Maria Popova will give an excellent window into her work.

  1. Judea Pearl, The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, Basic Books, 2018

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_TheBookOfWhy-194x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghI first met Judea Pearl in 1987 when he was visiting New York. I was learning artificial intelligence at Columbia. Pearl’s book on Intelligent Systems was a required reading for the Ph.D. qualifying exams. While I don’t remember the exact conversation, he said something to the effect, “Why are they making you read my book? That’s not AI.” I recall my professors, on the other hand, placing him alongside Marvin Minsky and Allen Newell in any conversation on AI.

It was not until earlier this year that I revisited Pearl’s work. Bikash Sabata and I were attending the Santa Fe Complexity workshop, and he used the same phrase after listening to one of the speakers, “That’s not AI.” Bikash reminded me of Judea Pearl’s work on causality, and of his strong views on how causal reasoning must be central to any intelligent system.

[I also learnt in that conversation that Daniel Pearl was Judea Pearl’s son. You might recall that the junior Pearl was a WSJ journalist who was murdered in Pakistan. The movie Mighty Heart is based on his story.]

The table of contents of The Book of Why reads like this:

Introduction: Mind over Data

The Ladder of Causation

From Buccaneers to Guinea Pigs: The Genesis of Causal Inference

From Evidence to Causes: Referend Bayes Meets Mr. Holmes

Confounding and Deconfounding: Or, Slaying the Lurking Variable.

The Smoke Filled Debate: Clearing the Air

Paradoxes Galore!

Beyond Adjustment: The Conquest of Mount Intervention

Counterfactuals: Mining Worlds That Could Have Been

Mediation: The Search for a Mechanism

Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Big Questions

Pearl’s introductory passages in the book aptly demonstrate his integrated thinking, connecting the dots from lessons of his earlier years.

I was probably six or seven years old when I first read the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. My classmates and I were not at all surprised by God’s capricious demands, forbidding Adam from eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Deities have their reasons, we thought. What we were more intrigued by was the idea that as soon as they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve became conscious, like us, of their nakedness…

… Don’t get me wrong: we were no creationists; even our teachers were Darwinists at heart. We knew, however, that the author who choreographed the story of Genesis struggled to answer the most pressing philosophical questions of his time. We likewise suspected that this story bore the cultural footprints of the actual process by which Homo sapiens gained dominion over our planet. What, then, was the sequence of steps in this speedy, super-evolutionary process?

My interest in these questions waned in my early career as a professor of engineering, but it was reignited suddenly in the 1990s, when I was writing my book Causality, and came to confront the Ladder of Causation.

As I re-read Genesis for the hundredth time, I noticed a nuance that had somehow eluded my attention for all those years. When God finds Adam hiding in the garden, he asks: “Have you eaten from the tree which I forbade you?” And Adam answers: The woman you gave me for a companion, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate. “What is this you have done?” God asks Eve. She replies: The serpent deceived me, and I ate.

As we know, this blame game did not work very well on the Almighty, who banished both of them from the garden. The interesting thing, though, is that God asked what and they answered why. God asked for the facts, and they replied with explanations. Moreover, both were thoroughly convinced that naming causes would somehow paint their actions in a different color.

Where did they get this idea?

For me, these nuances carried three profound messages. First, that very early in our evolution, humans came to realize that the world is not made up only of dry facts (what we might call data today), but that these facts are glued together by an intricate web of cause-effect relationships. Second, that causal explanations, not dry facts, make up the bulk of our knowledge, and that satisfying our craving for explanation should be the cornerstone of machine intelligence. Finally, that our transition from processors of data to makers of explanations was not gradual—it required an external push from an uncommon fruit. This matched perfectly what I observed theoretically in the Ladder of Causation: no machine can derive explanations from raw data. It needs a push.

[As anyone whom I have coached would testify, one of my pet peeves is when I ask a “what” question, and I get a “why” answer… when I ask for a fact and I get an explanation.]

Most of the implementations of artificial intelligence work as follows: they search for correlations, both positive and negative, from a training set, devoid of any notion of causality. Then, they test the correctness of what has been learnt (correlation) on new data – the test set. Finally, if the algorithm performs correctly (i.e., predicts correlation correctly) on the test set, it is used on the live set of data. For several classes of practical problems, this is good enough.

But this is not intelligence, or even learning. It lacks the notion of causation.

Pearl’s book is focused on understanding this discrepancy and the scientific principles for resolving it. He achieves this by introducing what he calls the Ladder of Causation. In the first rung, he looks for simple correlations, or in his vocabulary, “seeing”. He then adds a second rung, by introducing “intervention,” where it is possible to pose and answer questions like “How can I make something happen?” Finally, his third rung is “counterfactuals,” that helps answer the question: What would have happened if I acted differently?

All in all, an extremely timely work of great scholarship. An earlier book by the same author, Causality, published nearly twenty years ago, is a great companion.

If you are looking for something more fundamental, Natural Philosophy of Cause and Chance by Max Born, published in 1949, gives a perspective rooted in physics and mathematics while remaining very easily accessible to the layperson. Born writes in his preface, “A draft of these lectures, written before they were delivered, contained considerably more technicalities and mathematics than the present text. Facing a large audience in which physicists and mathematicians were presumably a minority, I had to change my plans and to improvise a simplified presentation. Though this did not seem difficult on the platform of the Hall of Magdalen College, Oxford, the final formulation for publication was not an easy task. I did not like replacing rigorous mathematical reasoning by that mixture of literary style, authority, and mystery which is often used by popularizing and philosophizing scientists. Thus, the idea occurred to me to preserve the mathematics by removing it to the appendix which could also contain references to the literature.”

If you are interested, you can listen to a very simple five-minute lecture of correlation and causality delivered at TEDx at Delft University.

Management / Economics:

  1. Jean Tirole, Economics for Common Good, Princeton University Press, 2017

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_EconomicsForTheCommonGood-202x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghThis is a theme that has been centerstage in my thinking since I started advising the Tata Trusts Cancer Care Program nearly 18 months ago. The remit of the program is to bring high quality healthcare to the most underprivileged in India. While my focus in the program is on the very practical here and now issues, I have also been thinking about the broader micro and macroeconomic questions of common good – the future of work, technology’s impact on the lower economic strata, access to natural resources, and the balance between the free market and regulation.

In May of this year, I got invited to a small, intimate dinner conversation with Jean Tirole thanks to my friend Lorraine Hariton. Tirole had won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2014. Nick Rawlins from Oxford and Paul Seabright from Toulouse School of Economics joined Tirole that evening in an informal, impromptu panel discussion. The conversation was brilliant, and for me, eye opening. It showed me an area of learning into which I had no window until then.

My formal training in Economics is limited to sitting in on Herb Simon’s guest lectures at Columbia 30 years ago and attending two courses at Rutgers—one each on microeconomics and macroeconomics—nearly 20 years ago. This lack of preparation was no handicap in reading Economics for Common Good. Tirole has an uncanny ability to perform a very generalized principal-axis decomposition of any problem and then explain it in very simple manner – without losing any of the relevant detail.

The book is broadly comprised of five parts. The first two of these parts focus on the influence of economics and economists on society and the role of the market. Part 3 highlights the role of the state as well as social responsibility of businesses – along with the relevant governance issues. Part 4 deals with the broader macroeconomic topics such as global warming, European Union, labor markets, employment and the future of work itself. It also includes the financial crisis of 2008 and the learnings of its aftermath. Finally, Part 5 covers the issues of technology, innovation, intellectual property, and more specifically, the digital revolution.

The author’s motivation for writing this book is evident in how he responded to the following questions in a recent interview:

What is the benefit of making economics ideas comprehensible to a general audience?  

Repeatedly blaming politicians for flawed policies won’t get us very far. Like everyone, politicians respond to the incentives they face, in their case the hope of being elected. Very rarely do they go against public opinion. So we get the policies we deserve. And as I explain in the book, our understanding of economic phenomena is obfuscated by various cognitive biases; we are dependent on rules of thumb and narratives, and we often believe what we want to believe, and see what we want to see. Economics acts as a deciphering key, although of course it has its own shortcomings.

In the book you talk about economics for the common good. What exactly is the common good?

Economics for the common good is an ambition: to suggest policies that help our institutions align social and private interests. The invisible and visible hands –  the market and the state – are complementary; to function well, a market economy needs an efficient state to correct its failures. But sometimes the state does not work for the common good. For example, many countries are leaving their children unemployment, unfunded public debt, a degraded education system, inequality, and a lack of preparation for digital upheaval. And the world does little to contain climate change. The book therefore pays particular attention to what is going wrong with governments and how this can be remedied to promote the common good.

If you are interested, you can watch Tirole’s Nobel Lecture of 2014.

If you find the topic of general interest to you, Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl is a must read. Posner and Weyl’s work attempts to debunk the misconception that much of today’s economic inequality stems from the free market. Counter to the populist sentiment of reining in the market, Posner and Weyl outline practical ways to organize markets so that that can in fact serve the common good.

[Glen Weyl is Lorraine Hariton’s son. I met him in Boston in 2014 shortly after Lorraine introduced us. My highlight from that breakfast meeting: learning about quadratic voting. And wondering how a 29-year old has such a breathtaking range of knowledge.]

  1. Merve Emre, Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Doubleday, 2018.

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_PersonalityBrokers-200x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghIn the words of Adam Grant, “This is a sparkling biography – not just of a pair of remarkable women, but of a popular personality tool. Merve Emre deftly exposes the hidden origins of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the seductive appeal and fatal flaws of personality types. Ultimately, she reveals that a sense of self is less something we discover, and more something we create and revise.”

Why, then, do I place this book in Management section? There are several reasons.

First, the specific phrase above, “… sense of self is less something we discover, and more something we create and revise,” rung true with me. This is of very specific importance in today’s work environment – comprised of fast pace of change and multiple gigs, or even careers, often concurrent ones, in one’s professional lifetime. Understanding ourselves and our peers is a long, tedious process. A couple of decades ago, when you would change your career once, may be twice in your life, you had enough time in any given setting to understand the personalities around you and develop ways to work with them. In my children’s generation, gig-switch, job change, or even career change, is much more frequent.

Second, I recall taking the Myers-Briggs test in the late 90s. I was taught that the purpose of the test was not to pigeonhole, but rather to inform—so we could be empathetic to personality types that we are very different from our own. While I have used MBTI occasionally in the companies I have led and coached, I see it as too reductionist. Hence, I have found myself constantly devising approaches that are more holistic and context-sensitive in understanding personalities (I am reluctant to use the term ‘personality types’). For instance, in job interviews I rarely ask questions. Instead, I encourage the candidate to ask me questions. I learn more about them through the questions they ask than the answers they give.

According to the New York Times reviewer, “The Personality Brokers is history that reads like biography that reads like a novel — a fluid narrative that defies expectations and plays against type.”  I was completely immersed in the book from the first page onwards. I also thought if I should add a new category to my book review, Business Thrillers, and place this book there.

In the odd chance you are unfamiliar with MBTI, the indicator was first published during the Second World War, even though its early renditions can be traced back to the 1920s. Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Myers, built upon the ideas of Carl Jung and wrapped a practical, implementable framework around it. The project, however, had its origins in a very personal exercise. Soon after Isabel was born in 1897, Katharine, fascinated by children’s personalities and what shapes them, had her living room double up as the “cosmic laboratory of baby training.” Her “subjects” were Isabel and other children from the community.

If I could give a simple-minded summary, Emre’s book is part biographical, part meta-analysis of MBTI. (I know I am being a bit unfair; the book has many more facets.) On both counts, she does a remarkable job of being brutally candid without being unfair. She has an eye for detail and an uncanny ability to describe it without the tedium. On the biographical side, Emre is able to give a very nuanced account of Katherine and Isabel’s personas – with all their contradictions, vulnerabilities, and triumphs. As for the MBTI itself, Emre’s prose is a scathing critique—a 360-degree sweep covering its lack of scientific merit, its ill effects of promoting conformity, and its perils of people-sorting and fascism. While Emre doesn’t trust the tool, her reasoning is logical: much the way humans as complex, inconsistent, and fallible, so is the tool that type-casts them.

Merve Emre is an associate professor of English at Oxford. Her earlier book, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, is also a powerful read—lucid, gripping, and written with a biting economy. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and The New Republic, among other publications.

History/Politics 

  1. Yuvan Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Spiegel and Grau, 2018

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_21Lessons-199x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghWhen Harari’s Sapiens was released, I decided to read it mostly because the back-cover reminded me of an old BBC documentary anchored by Robert Winston, Human Instinct, that I had watched in my early 20’s. It wasn’t until Homo Deus that I understood the full brilliance of Harari, enough to make me go back and re-read Sapiens. The two books had an impact of the same magnitude on me as Atlas Shrugged.

Sapiens was about our past. Homo Deus dealt with our future. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is about present – societal issues of here and now that need to be understood with some urgency, so that we can begin to device means to address them, a task that could take decades.

Net net, I felt disappointed after reading 21 Lessons – partly because of the expectations set by the originality of Harari’s earlier books, and partly because of its inconsistency of depth across chapters. Yet, it is an extremely important book – for its sheer ability to provoke thinking and to engage the readers in a discussion that’s long overdue.

Here is a glimpse at the chapters:

Disillusionment       The end of history has been postponed

Work                       When you grow up, you might not have a job

Liberty                    Big Data is watching you

Equality                   Those who own the data own the future

Civilization              There is just one civilization in the world

Nationalism             Global problems need global answers

Religion                   God now serves the nation

Immigration            Some cultures might be better than others

Terrorism                Don’t panic

War                         Never underestimate human stupidity

Humility                  You are not the center of the world

God                         Don’t take the name of God in vain

Secularism               Acknowledge your shadow

Ignorance                You know less than you think

Justice                     Our sense of justice might be out of date

Post-Truth               Some fake news lasts forever

Science Fiction        The future is not what you see in the movies

Education                Change is the only constant

Meaning                  Life is not a story

Meditation              Just observe

The book has received some excellent reviews but also sharp criticism. In the words of Gavin Jacobson from New Statesman, “Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a banal and risible self-help book. Like an undergraduate struggling to reach the word count, Harari writes in pointless asides and cringeworthy platitudes of fortune-cookie quality.” Jacobson goes on to add, “The point about lousy prose isn’t just one of style…. rhetorical fluency doesn’t always signify originality or depth of thought. But hesitant, digressive and mediocre writing does indicate an impoverished argument or analysis.”

I can’t argue against Jacobson, especially since so many of Harari’s insights are simply restatement or a minor “upgrade” of the works of earlier thinkers.

However, 21 Lessons has two important redeeming values that must be mentioned.

First, it is Harari’s ability to provoke thinking by the breadth and the boldness of his claims. For example, he contends that fake news is not a new problem, “Homo Sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. For millennia, much of what passed for ‘news’ and ‘facts’ in human social networks were stories about miracles, angels, demons, and witches with bold reporters giving live coverage from the deepest pits of the underworld… When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion.” Similarly, in arguing about the future of work, he says, “… it is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” The thought is simple in its expression, but profound in its scope.

Second, it is the nature of his ambition—to integrate the seemingly very disparate issues that afflict our society. Even if the effort was not entirely successful, Harari scores high marks for taking on the complexity.

If you are unfamiliar with his work and need a quick primer in order to get started, you can turn to his TED talk or his interview with Russell Brand. 

  1. Joseph Ellis, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, Knopf, 2018

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_AmericanDialogue-205x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghThere are four historians—James Flexner, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Joseph Ellis—whose works I have read without exception. I have covered several of their books in my Top-10 reviews of the past years, including Ellis’s American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won him the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer-winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

According to Kirkus Reviews, American Dialogue is “A lucid and authoritative examination of America’s tumultuous beginnings, when the Founding Fathers grappled with issues of race, income inequality, law, and foreign policy—all issues that still vex the nation. . . These and other salient questions inform Ellis’ vivid depiction of the controversies swirling as the Constitution was drafted and ratified. … a discerning, richly detailed inquiry into America’s complex political and philosophical legacy.”

Ellis turns to the past and examines the four most pressing issues of contemporary America—racism, inequality, law, and foreign policy—from the lens of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and George Washington. He does this by dividing the book into four distinct sections.

Each of these four sections has a past perspective that reminds us of the view of the relevant president in full rigor and nuance, and a present perspective where Ellis presents the current American narrative. His primary line of questioning is: What would the Founding Fathers think? The book is as thorough as it is lucid. Add some exercises at the end of each chapter, and it could be a text book. Subtract the references, and it reads like a novel.

The following four paragraphs give a quick summary:

On the issue of racism, Ellis begins with how Jefferson saw it and the extreme dichotomy between his principles and his practice. While on one hand he wrote, “all men are created equal,” and spoke of slavery as an evil, he was able to justify the exact opposite in his personal conduct. He owned slaves, had intimate relationships with slaves, and as the Y-DNA analysis conducted about twenty years ago shows, had children with slaves. Of more significance is the fact that he failed to prevent the expansion of slavery into the new territory after Louisiana Purchase. Ellis argues that we can attribute America’s volatile racial divide of today, at least in part, to this hypocritical beginning.

Similarly, for economic inequality, the author turns to John Adams, and finds relatively easy explanations for today’s state-of-affairs. Adams had explained the impact of free markets in his foundational work and noted that the freedom to pursue wealth in the marketplace will invariably lead to unequal distribution – attributed to differing skills and passions of people – even if they had equal rights.

For the third issue, law and constitution, Ellis takes on the doctrine of original intent and shows how it has led to a divided Supreme Court for the past several decades. He turns to James Madison to answer the question at the fault-line: should we strictly deploy the original intent, as it existed in the time of the Founders, when interpreting the Supreme Law? Or did the founders meant for it to be a dynamic, living thing that must be interpreted in the present-day context. By the very fact that Madison’s own understanding of the Constitution changed before and after he signed it, Ellis argues that any assertion about the original intent would in fact be misguided. In this section Ellis makes no attempt hide his own personal bias on the issues on which there is a schism in the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia’s opinion on the Second Amendment, for instance.

Finally, on foreign policy Ellis reminds us of George Washington’s counsel to “avoid foreign entanglements.” This is in exact contradiction to the American foreign policy in the 21st century.

The book couldn’t have arrived at a more apt time.

If this genre is of interest, check out this comprehensive resource that can guide you in selecting further readings. Also, check out the video, Founding fathers in the age of Trump. Finally, Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers From the Experts About Our Presidents by Talmage Boston is a great collection of interviews. 

Science:

  1. Michael Pollen, How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Penguin Random House, 2018

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_HowToChangeYourMind-197x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghThis book was a birthday gift from my new friends, Rachel and John. It is through interactions with people of their aptitude that I get to constantly explore new intellectual territories.

Bill Maher’s interview of the author might help you decide whether this book is for you. If the title doesn’t, that is.

According to the Boston Globe reviewer, “Pollan’s deeply researched chronicle will enlighten those who think of psychedelics chiefly as a kind of punchline to a joke about the Woodstock generation and hearten the growing number who view them as a potential antidote to our often stubbornly narrow minds.”

The Table of Contents goes as follows:

Prologue: A New Door

A Renaissance

Natural History: Bemushroomed

Coda

History: The First Wave

The Promise

The Crack-Up

Coda

Travelogue: Journeying Underground

Trip 1 – LSD

Trip 2 – Psilocybin

Trip 3 – 5-MeO-DMT

The Neuroscience: Your Brain on Psychedelics

The Trip Treatment: Psychedelics in Psychotherapy

One: Dying

Two: Addiction

Three: Depression

Coda: Going to Meet My Default Mode Network

Epilogue: In Praise of Neural Diversity

In reading this book, my primary lens was that of neuroscience. The illusions that psychedelics create—are the really illusions? Why should we work with the assumption that our “normal” consciousness is more real than the one that is psychedelic-induced, the latter having been reported as more “boundary free” and “spiritual” by those who have been on psychedelics.  Second, if it is true that we learn, and our mind expands when we are exposed to new stimuli of experiences – conversations, travels, exposure to diverse cultures – is it not conceivable that psychedelics catalyze such learning and mental growth?

Pollan has achieved a remarkable blend of history, neuroscience, medicine, and a great personal memoir. His goal of understanding LSD and psilocybin’s practical utility in treating depression, addiction and anxiety led him to eventually experience these psychedelics first hand. This, along with his numerous interviews with therapists and medical practitioners who use psychedelics in their practice, as well as their clients has resulted in a comprehensive study – scientifically rooted, yet very intimate. Written in third person as well as first.

Michael Pollan’s earlier books The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food were all bestsellers. He has also written several pieces for the New York Times Magazine and for Harper’s Magazine. One of my favorite writings by him is his article Edible Ethics, where he discusses ethical eating in the context of modern day society. Pollan was also a consultant to the documentary Food, Inc and co-starred in it. A film version of In Defense of Food is available on PBS. 

Mathematics:

  1. Geoffrey West, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, Penguin, 2018

Blog82_AjitTop10Books_Scale-195x300 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit SinghI attended a short course that the author gave at the Santa Fe Workshop earlier this year. It only reinforced my fascination with the field of complexity. My interest in the subject was triggered by my mentor Erich Reinhardt and was built over the years by reading the works of Stuart Kauffman, Mitchell Waldrop, Harold Morowitz, Ed Regis, John Gribbin, James Surowiecki, and Melanie Mitchell. I have covered their books in my Top-10 since 1998. Geoffrey West’s Scale is a most worthy addition to this repertoire.

According to the Sunday Times Reviewer, “This is the sort of big-ideas book that comes along only every few years, the kind that changes the conversation in boardroom, common room and dining room….A book full of thrilling ideas.” Nature magazine calls Scale “…a grand synthesis of topics [Geoffrey West] has studied for several decades, makes an important and eloquent case for the significance [of universal laws of size and growth] in an ecology of the natural and human world — and in understanding whether the two can fit together.”

In 1997, West co-authored a paper, “A general model for the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology.”  In applying his training as a physicist to the questions of ageing and death, he came upon several unexpected insights on scaling.  For instance, the size of a mammal could predict parameters such as food intake, efficiency, heart-rate, life-span, etc. Specifically, with every doubling of weight, a species gets 25% more efficient, and lives 25% longer. At root of these insights is the fractal geometry of biological structures. In later years, West went on to demonstrate that the same “laws” of scaling applied to cities and corporations.

In the present book, drawing upon a multi-disciplinary war-chest of insights – from physics, evolutionary biology, architecture, organization of corporations, physiology, even aging and death – West presents a unified framework for scaling and growth. He shows how it applies to biological organism, cities, ideas, and corporations alike. His approach is narrative, analytical, and prescriptive all at once – whether the topic he is tackling is how companies succeed and fail, or it is the sustainability and survival of our society at large. The breadth of the book is remarkable and is evident in the following Table of Contents:

The Big Picture

The Measure of All Things

The simplicity, unity, and complexity off life

The fourth dimension of life

From the Anthropocene to the urbanocene

Prelude to the science of cities

Towards s science of cities

Consequences and predictions

Towards a science of companies

The vision of a grand unified

If you would like a quick video introduction, check out Geoffrey West’s TED Talk: The surprising math of cities and corporations.

 

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Are there others you would add? Let us know in the comments below. Even better, if you love books and want to talk about them with others, you can do so on Konversai—a global knowledge platform that allows for one-on-one live video conversations with anyone, anywhere, about anything. Knowledge providers on the platform have the opportunity to make extra money sharing the things they know and love, while knowledge seekers can enjoy personalized sessions with a live human being catered to exactly what they’re looking to learn on any topic. Sessions are scheduled at times that are mutually convenient for both parties, and neither has to leave the comfort of their home.  All users are encouraged to both knowledge providers and knowledge seekers on any and as many topics as they wish. Any and all knowledge, skills, and experiences have a place on Konversai—the only limit is your imagination. Konversai’s mission is to democratize knowledge, put the human connection back into the heart of technology, and make the world better by enabling meaningful and authentic conversations that can improve people’s lives. Don’t miss the opportunity to be part of realizing this mission. Join Konversai today!

You can learn more about Ajit in his Konversai interview from October 2016, and you can book a session with him on Konversai.

 

Edited by Pavita Singh

Please follow and like us:
follow_subscribe 2018 Top-10 Book Review: Guest Post by Ajit Singh

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)