Bookshelf - Fall 2019 - Part I

6 minute read |

This fall I decided to get back into reading. It seemed like a good way to spend some of my free time I have after work and focus my energy on something constructive. I came across the reading lists in Gates Notes and that felt like a good place to start. Now that I am happily enjoying my new hobby in the new year - :tada: Happy New Year! :confetti_ball: - I wanted to reflect on what I’ve read so far. So, here are some of the books I read in Fall 2019.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari
There is no doubt that Prof. Harari is an extremely strong thinker. It is no small feat to squeeze in an introduction of 21 (no less!) of the most complex and perplexing issues that the world faces today into a surprisingly accessible and popular book. One of the key realizations I had this fall was the importance of such issues to exist as hotly debated topics in public discourse. More often than not, people are forced to take a stand on issues they don’t really know or worse, don’t care about. The lack of public discourse on such issues paves the way for misinformation and post-truth actors to win! 21 Lessons aims to solve just that by briefly introducing the various issues that plague our world today ranging from the increasingly intrusive and authoritative nature of technology in our modern lives governed by algorithms, challenges to our very notion of nations as our species faces global problems - climate, immigration, war, terrorism, and religion - to the effects of the information onslaught all of us constantly face leading to ever-growing ignorance in an ever-increasingly complex post-truth world. The sheer coverage of this book makes it an essential must-read for someone looking for a good survey of key problems our society currently faces in the 21st century. However, that is exactly what it is - an introductory survey. I found the treatment on certain topics to be a bit too superficial, which felt more like a half-hearted attempt to add up to the target number of 21 Lessons. Further, at times Prof. Harari either offered a one-sided, often westernized or his own, view of the topic, or gave an over-simplified answer to a complicated multi-layered nuanced topic without acknowledging it properly enough.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson
NDT is definitely one of my favorite science celebrities! Of course, no one can beat Carl Sagan and I have a feeling that NDT would agree. One of the qualities I highly admire about Neil deGrasse Tyson is his ability to articulate some of the most complex topics in Science in a very accessible manner, tightly coupled with his passion for being an educator. With this book, NDT aims to bring our modern understanding of the deeply humbling cosmos to the common folk and succeeds at it really well! He talks about the Big Bang, the early cosmos, the universality of the laws of Physics and his encounter with a defiant barista featuring everyone’s favorite - whipped cream and coffee, the static in our TVs starring the Universe’s cosmic background radiation (CMB), dark matter and dark energy, the hidden connection between the periodic table and the dinner table, the electromagnetic spectrum and why what you see isn’t everything that’s there to see, and ends with his take on the cosmic perspective. In his writing, you can truly feel his deep spiritual connection with the cosmos. The book works exactly as advertised - an introduction to the field of Astrophysics for people in a hurry! It refrains from throwing numbers and equations around and yet does not lack in its intellectual depth and impact in sparking curiosity about the cosmos, science, and technology.

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
A long-standing NYT Bestseller and rightly so! This book is an absolute essential in today’s world to shield us from our misguided and misled instincts and biases. The barrage of information that we are subjected to on a daily basis overwhelms most of us. Hans with his longtime collaborators - Anna and Ola - walks us over 10 Instincts that distort our perception of the world around us. To gain attention, posts and stories attempt to trigger instincts like the Fear Instinct, the Destiny Instinct, the Urgency Instinct, the Straight Line Instinct among others, effectively controlling our emotions and reactions. Hans argues, that by practicing Factfulness and being aware of these instincts, we can take back control of our reactions and make more coherent rational informed decisions such that we do not lose focus on the real problems that threaten us. Full of personal anecdotes, tear-jerking stories, beautiful graphics, and eye-opening facts, it brings a worldview based on data and facts into the center of your awareness potentially transforming your perception of the world around you. For instance, the Gap Instinct bifurcates the world into an arbitrarily defined developed and a developing one, instantly creating a metaphorical border between us vs. them. Hans, in his book, shows that the situation is much more complicated than that and proposes a more meaningful and useful division based on average per-capita income levels that correlate strongly with quality of life and other important metrics. The world, as you’ll see through Hans’ eyes, is certainly improving. However, Hans is quick to also note that this does not mean that the world has been rid of problems - far from it! I certainly found the book insightful and bubble-bursting, although I felt at some points that the author had hand-picked certain examples or portrayed a single side of a multifaceted complex story. Regardless, it does help a lot to be Factful and protect yourself from your own instincts!

Shiksha, by Manish Sisodia
With the new government, that came to power with a landslide victory in the early 2015 Delhi elections, came remarkable reforms in the education sector. The Delhi Deputy Chief Minister, Manish Sisodia, also heads the education department and has been provably making it his personal battle to improve the state of Delhi government schools beyond that of even private schools - a feat previously thought to be nearly impossible. His new book captures some of the work and experiments he has delivered. What stood out to me most were the initiatives made to improve the attitude towards the government schooling system of teachers, students, and as well as their parents. A central theme of his administration seems to be to convince and really uphold the belief in these stakeholders that the government is listening and actively wants to participate in this shared education reformation project. This has resulted in higher self-esteem, dignity, interest, and hope in all those involved. The first pivotal change that the Delhi government made was to significantly increase the education budget that made all of this possible. This opened up opportunities for much-needed infrastructure projects, hiring, salary improvements, and training programs among other things. An admirably notable step was the empowerment and inclusion of parents and school principals in improving staff accountability, financial responsibility, and enabling them to formulate policies tailor-made for their specific schools. However, the most ambitious and striking experiment conducted was the introduction of the Happiness Classes and the Entrepreneurship Mindset Curriculum. Happiness Classes, in particular, aim to teach students how to embrace and thrive in a coexistence model rather than the conventional competitive model of education. They involve mindfulness meditation, story-based discussions that trigger critical thinking, and activities that encourage students to analyze and evaluate their thought processes. It was heart-warming to read about the progress and trajectory that the education reforms are taking. It will be interesting to see how it shapes the entire education sector and the effects of these reforms on students in their adult lives.