Best Books of 2013

As the year comes to a close, I see so many people producing their list of ‘best books’ of 2013. I could, as a consequence, not hold myself from flogging my own list.

On an average I take 24 long haul flights every-year. That gives me an opportunity to read at least 24 books but I am unusually promiscuous with my reading and therefore keep switching between 4-5 books at any point in time. That takes my purchase to about 100 books a year. Half of them are unreadable so I trash them or gift them to people who I know would not read them anyway – and yet keep them on their book shelf.

A book a week is not an awful amount of reading given serious reading requires about 200 a year. In’ Book-less in Baghdad’ Shashi Tharoor recounts how he would devour a book a day, averaging 400 books a year, when he was still at school. That is my benchmark for anyone who dares to call himself a reader. I fall miserably short of that target.

My favorite subject is economics. So my list has to start with economics. But other subjects I read are – philosophy, technology, history. Reading fiction is limited to ‘Indians writing in English’.

1. The trouble with billionaires by Linda MaQuaig and Neil Brooks is a searing indictment of the super-rich. It challenges the idea that inequality is the result of merit and reveals how the economic system has been hijacked by a few people at the top with disastrous consequences for the masses at the bottom.

2. False Economy by Alan Beattie is filled with examples and anecdotes ranging from religion, diamond mining to growing cocaine that challenges our assumptions on why economies can go right – or go wrong.

3. Prosperity without Growth – Economics for a finite planet by Tim Jackson reminded me of ‘Small is beautiful’ by EF Schumacker – my all time favorite on sustainable economics. It awakens us to the possibilities beyond the narrow confines of economic growth.

4. Stuff Matters by Harry Bingham is a glowing tribute to the role of entrepreneurs in creating material prosperity that allows human beings to experience and enjoy a better quality of life. An Oxford economist and a Wall Street Banker, Harry Bingham left his job with JP Morgan to write an entertaining and thought provoking account of the spirt of enterprise.

5. India’s Tryst with Destiny by Jagdish Bhagwati a Nobel aspirant and Arvind Panagriya his colleague at Columbia University provoked a war of words with Dr Amartya Sen, the Indian who has a Nobel and the attention of policy makers in New Delhi. On the face of it Dr Bhagwati wrote to counter arguments that Dr Sen made on how India’s economic policy should be conducted but it turned into the merits of Modi-led Gujarat style development of BJP against Sonia Gandhi led Subsidized Food kind of Congress welfare economics.

6. Civilization by Niall Fergusan, the brilliant historian, identifies six killer applications ( borrowing from the contemporary computer vocabulary) that converted Europe, a miserable backwater in the 1412 into a western superpower. These are competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society and work ethic and there is a chapter on each of them justifying their right to be called killer applications.

7. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, a statistician and political forecaster who successfully predicted the results of every state in the 2012 US Elections, is about filtering useful knowledge from the vast mounds of information that we encounter in our daily lives. He makes the case that prediction is possible provided we look at the right information and not the data that often crowds it out.

8. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, another Nobel laureate demonstrates how our power of introspection and deep reflection get moulded by our ability to think on the foot – what we usually consider as unreflective, intuitive and unthoughtful.

9. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty – How we lie to everyone – especially ourselves by Dan Ariely presents interesting research on what prompts us to be dishonest and why we cannot do much about it. Contrary to our own image of ourselves we lie far more than we are willing to accept and admit.

10. Serious Men by Manu Jospeph is a dark but entertaining fictional account of a research scientist falling in love with his protege, a young intern and the ensuing battles of power, emotion and very betrayal of their research ideas.

I am tempted to add to the list ‘ David and Goliath – Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants’ by Malcolm Gladwell, The Undercover Economist strikes back by Tim Harford and ‘Start it Up – Why running your business is Easier than you think’ by Luke Johnson and will stop at that.

Choosing just 10 out of a wonderful set of books that you have read throughout the year could be outright tyrannical but I must follow the convention and respect the ‘Ten Best Books’ list rule if only to ensure that such restrictions will force me to read more and read better.

Baljinder Sharma

Acknowledgement: News on Sunday