Raghu Srinivasan


The Best 10 Books I read in 2017

Happy New Year!

In many ways 2017 was when I truly rebooted my reading habit because this was the very first year I tried out Audiobook CDs. Too many distractions had reduced my book reading speed and taking a month or more to get through a book wasn't conducive. However, the 45 minute drive each way to and from work meant I could get through books in under two weeks - sometimes even finished a book a week! My car's CD slot has gotten near continuous use since then! I read 20 books in 2017 - many multiples, I am ashamed to say, of prior years.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

When Steve Jobs died in 2011, I was surprised by my reaction - I felt a genuine sadness. This was for a man who I obviously did not know in person but had left his creative imprint on my own life and on those of millions - hundreds of millions - others' around the world. Walter Isaacson is an absolute master of biographies and this one was written by him at Jobs' request. It takes us from Jobs' adoption through to his youth and to Apple and beyond. It is a best seller for the very good reason that it is an excellent book that takes us behind the public persona of the man and shows his victories, his defeats and his singular focus on what he thought was the best possible user experience. Isaacson manages to capture the larger than life feel of Jobs without completely white-washing his personal behavior either. An amazing porait of a man who could be a real jerk to close friends and family (especially the latter) but also someone given to true creativity. Highly recommended!

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

At nearly 1000 pages, this is one of the longest books I've ever read. In fact I read several hundred pages and then dropped it for a gap of a few years and then came back to it and read it again from the very beginning . This is up there with one of my favorite books of all time. Vikram Chandra uses the city of Bombay as the backdrop for an epic tussle between a cop, Sartaj Singh, and a gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde. But in telling the story of these two he weaves in some wonderful backstories both for the two of them as well as for other characters in extended sub-chapters (thus the 1000 pages!) and I loved every page of it. He touches on the police-gangster nexus, Hindu-Muslim relations, the caste hierarchy, India-Pakistan and the partition to boot. The Netflix series by the same name is based on the book but is sped up 10x. I read the book before the show came out and I was disappointed by how much is glossed over in the Netflix version and how few characters get meticulously developed like in the book. Of course it would take way too many seasons to get through every little nuance of the book. To me, the book was like a lovingly cooked elaborate meal while the TV show was like getting drive-through fast food. An absolute must-read.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This one is a classic. I was recommded this by my CEO who I happened to be sitting next to in a meeting about customer and user behavior. I was hooked from the first page. This book is a tour de force and gave birth to the field to behavioral economics. Throgh dozens and dozens of experiments, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky estabish how humans act in ways that seem counter-intuitive and even irrational and how the assumption of rational behavior is often erroneous. We all possess, according to Kahneman, a System 1 that acts impulsively which is at odds with a System 2 that is deliberative. No book has been referred to as much in my experience as this one - hardly a few months go by without me reading a book that refers to the work Kahmenan and Tversky did. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Another absolute must-read.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

This is a much shorter book. Dr. Atul Gawande is a heart surgeon and this book is about the importance of using simple checklists to master complex workflows. Once again with multiple examples, Gawande lays out how in times of high stakes, high pressure situations, having a clear checklist of actions helps in avoiding many common mistakes and the resulting death or damage. In one example, the fatality rate is cut by a third! The book helped me think about my own work in technology and about the importance of relying on procedure and checklists rather than on just memory and experience. It's short enough to read over a weekend but yet full of great insights.

Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

I read this in the months after Donald J Trump's 2016 election win. A result that was simultaneously stunning but also seemingly inevitable. This books goes into the 'seemingly inevitable' side of the story though it isn't a book about Trump at all. Hochschild is a UC Berkeley professor who moves to the South to live among the (admittedly, mostly white) people there to gain insight into their perspective on the country and where it is headed and, frequently, the role of government in that journey. She seeks to understand and then explain how a region that is ravaged by corporate greed and excess leading to rampant pollution and unsually high incidences of cancer for example, can also be simultaneously populated by people who hate the government and very regulations that seek to protect them from such problems. It's a really well-written book and while it glosses over some of the institutional and generational bias and racism (after all isn't the Deep South the 'own land' even of African Americans?) still manages to bring out some very thoughtful points on how the region and the country voted the way it did in 2016.

Half-Lion by Vinay Sitapati

I was at an impressible age, in college, when P V Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister of India and with his Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, brought about economic reforms that took India from the brink of fiscal default to the rising economic power it is today. This book is a biography of the man who was barely known nationally (and almost forgotten) before he became the PM, one who managed to stay in power 5 years when people doubted he'd last 5 months (or weeks!) and changed the trajectory of the country very firmly and permanently from the decades of Nehruvian socialism towards a more modern market economy. And, it must be said, the sad end he came to. It also talks about his foreign policy chops and how he navigated the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Funnily for me, it showed how the Congress party yet again (after doing so once with Indira Gandhi) picked a leader who they thought would be a temporary warm-the-seat candidate while the party bigwigs figured out what to really do and found themselves thoroughly outmaneuvered. It seems like a sure fire way to be a conseuqential Prime Minister of India is to have the congress graybeards have a dim view of you! I found this book fascinating because I was eager to learn more about what happened in those early 1990s that changed the direction of the country and it was in the un-put-down-able category for me. I will concede that this might not be the same for everyone ;-) Still, I have a strong conviction that history will judge PVNR as someone who was infinitely more impactful than he got credit for during his life.

1984 by George Orwell

I finally got around to reading this book after hearing references to it maybe a million times in popular culture and all I have to say is - it's worth the hype. It's a short book, you can read it in one day and you shoud.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Of course, once I read 1984 I had to read Animal Farm and I'll spare you all the millionth review of this book by saying the same thing I did for 1984. It is a classic and given how short it is, you can be done with it in a day. Read it!

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

I read this after my wife recommended it to me. Even if Sandberg's star has dimmed a bit, the book iself is a great read. And it is not just for women to read, it is a great book for men too (perhaps especially?) to read to gain some really valuable insight and perspective.

Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra

I admit I picked this one up because of how much I liked Sacred Games. I've always loved short stories and this is a collection of five such stories. All of them set in Bombay. Each of them with a theme - Dharma, Shakti, Kama, Artha, and Shanti. Kama was my favorite as Sartaj Singh makes an appearance which had me more excited than was appropriate for a grown man. If you liked Sacred Games you should read this one. Heck! You should read this one anyway!

I would love to hear any book recommendations you may have. Thanks in advance!

email: raghu@raghusrinivasan.com