That 2020 has been a year of upheaval would be stating the obvious. But this singularly unusual year gave me the chance to really catch up on my reading. For the past few years, I’ve rarely managed to read more than 8 -10 books in a year. This year, I ticked 34 books off my reading list. While that still fell short of my target of 52 books, I loved mostly all the books that I read. Mindful of the maxim, “some books are to be tasted, some to be chewed…”, I did not force myself to complete a book, if I wasn’t liking it. Thankfully, there was just one title that I could not get through. But more on that later.
One thing that helped me read more, was maintaining a list of the books that I wanted to read in sequence. This meant, that upon finishing a title, I was never left searching for my next book. I tried to keep the list as diverse as possible as can be seen from the titles above. I also tried to maintain a 2:1 ratio of non-fiction to fiction. This helped in keeping the reading from getting too dense. But enough jabbering. Here then are the top 5 books that I would recommend you pick up in 2021.
AI Superpowers — Kai Fu Lee
Author Kai-Fu Lee offers a fascinating insight into the rise of China’s tech industry and the role that AI is playing in shaping it. The central premise of the book is that by throwing together tremendous resources, China has caught up to the US in the field of AI at an astonishing pace and is well placed to surpass it. Lee does a tremendous job of comparing and contrasting the tech scenes in Silicon Valley and China by offering examples from his personal experiences of leading companies both in the US and in China. While the book is a tad biased towards China, read it to appreciate the role AI can play at the intersection of geopolitics, technology and the modern workforce.
1491 — Charles Mann
I have always been a history buff and thoroughly enjoyed this sweeping narrative of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Author Charles Mann paints a vivid picture of the richness of the cultures of North and South America and how the arrival of the Europeans decimated the local population. An eye-opener for anyone who has been brought up to think of the Native Americans as a simple people, 1491 showcases the grand cities in the Americas compared to contemporary Europe. Anyone who thinks of history as boring will be pleasantly surprised by how engaging the book is. On my reading list for 2021 is the sequel 1493 which takes a look at the Americas post Columbus.
The End Of Competitive Advantage — Rita McGrath
I read a few books on strategy this year, but liked this the best. Professor Rita McGrath makes the case that chasing sustainable competitive advantage in today’s rapidly changing business environment is a futile attempt. Rather any competitive advantage is likely to be transient. Using real world examples, the author argues that companies who are growth outliers today are successful because they can exploit temporary competitive advantages while having a telescopic view of the future. Touching upon themes such as entrepreneurship, innovation, and growth in a VUCA world, the book is a great read for startup founders, product managers and strategy consultants.
Braving The Wilderness — Brené Brown
“You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” — Maya Angelou
This beautiful book is all about having the courage to be yourself and what it means to truly belong to someone or something. The wilderness in the title is a reference to the feeling of being left alone when no one else is ready to stand by you. There is much to be admired in this book, but let me quote a few snippets.
People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.
Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
Hold hands. With strangers.
The Broken Earth series — N.K. Jemisin
For my final pick, I cheated :) because this is not one single book but rather a trilogy. This super expansive science fantasy series is amazing in its scope and story telling. Just look at all the elements the author weaves into the narrative. Super continent? Check. People who can move the earth? Check. Stone eaters? Check. The earth and moon as ‘characters’? Check. This trilogy is unlikely to be anything you would expect it to be. A word of caution though. The author N.K. Jemisin has build a world that is deep and intricate and filled it with characters having complex back stories. I did find the reading a bit laborious at times. However, I still enjoyed the books and would recommend them to anyone interested in science fiction / fantasy.
I found it rather difficult to pick just five books from my list. So I’ve added five more as noteworthy mentions.
Lifespan — Why we age and why we don’t have to — Dr. David Sinclair
With a title like that, this books has a lot to live up to. And it doesn’t disappoint. Dr. David Sinclair takes the reader on a journey to understand ageing and examines what we can do to delay or even reverse the process. While the author doesn’t shy away from discussing medical terms and processes, the book doesn’t get overly pedantic and remains entertaining even.
Nickle Boys — Colson Whitehead
An emotional and powerful read, this won the 2020 Pulitzer prize for fiction. And was named one of TIME’s best books of the decade. A story of two black boys unjustly sentenced for a crime they didn’t commit and sent to a ‘reform school’, Nickle Boys is all the more relevant in today’s times of BLM.
The Broken Empire trilogy — Mark Lawrence
Another trilogy and again a fantasy series that follows the protagonist as he uses all the means at his disposal to become Emperor. Jorg Ancrath who is a teenager when we first meet him is not your typical noble hero. In fact it is rather easy to dislike him. The non-linear storytelling needs getting used to, but all in all an entertaining read. The verbal exchanges are delicious. Just one example —
“Dark times call for dark choices. Choose me.”
The Regiment — Michael Asher
I was gifted this book by my wife, but that is not the only reason why I recommend it. This book essentially looks at how the SAS (Britain’s elite special force unit and the model for special force units worldwide) came into being and the larger-than-life heroes who molded it. The raids and battles described make for a gripping read and it is hard to believe that the narrative isn’t fiction.
HITMAKERS — Derek Thompson
Derek Thompson takes a look at what makes ideas and products go ‘viral’. The author examines the psychology that causes people to take to a movie, song or an app. In an age of distraction, where social media is ubiquitous, people’s attention is the probably the most valuable commodity and Hitmakers looks at the factors that can help create more popular products.
The only book that I could not finish was Raghuram Rajan’s “The Third Pillar”, which I found too dense. Maybe I will try to return to it on a later date.
Do let me know how many of the above books have you read and your thoughts on my choices. I am also looking for recommendations for 2021, so bring them on. I am keen on reading a few more Indian authors (translated works welcome) so would be grateful if you can suggest any.