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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My 5 favourite reads in 2013

2013 was an insane year, in the sense that I finally got back to my reading ways, which had long deserted me, following my choice to attend BITS Pilani, over 4 years ago.

Here are my five favourite reads from 2013.

[NB: These are NOT books which were published in 2013, but ones which I read in 2013]

5. Flatland : A Romance of Many Dimensions - by Edwin A Abbott.

Flatland is a marvelously imaginative book, which could be classified as math-fiction. My interest in this book was piqued by some personal ideas that I had about dimensions and dimensionality, and while this book didn't further my ideas in that field, it didn't contradict them either.

Published in 1884, and written by an English schoolmaster, this novella recounts the life story of A Square (no really, that's a name). The story is set in a two dimensional universe, where the third and subsequent dimensions are unheard of. This universe - or Flatland as it's called - has some very quirky features, as Mr Square explains. For example, all the citizens are planar polygons, and the social strata that a citizen belongs to is governed by the number of sides he has. So a square citizen is considered to be middle class person, while triangles are a class lower. Again, even within a class of polygons, the ones with equal sides are considered to be the elite, like squares among other quadrilaterals, and equilateral triangles, among other triangles. Women however, are looked down upon, because they are line segments, and owing to their sharp pointy ends, and near invisible nature, are considered to be a menace to society.

The real story however begins, when Mr Square dreams of a zero and a one dimensional universe respectively. He is fascinated by how restrictive such lower dimensional universes are, and considers himself to be blessed to be a resident of Flatland. Till, he is visited by a superbeing from the third dimension who claims and gives visual demonstration to prove that there are higher dimensional universes.

The overall plot isn't really exciting -  that which I described above pretty much gives you the whole story - but what is particularly awesome about this book, is how the author describes life in Flatland. He talks about how the houses are, and how citizens climb the social ladder - (Here's how : a certain percentage of the male progeny of an isosceles triangular male for example, has his vertex angle increased by a definite amount with every passing generation. This way, a lineage of oppressed isosceles can hope to reach the respected social status of an equilateral, in future). He talks about why there aren't any colours in Flatland (save for black and white), and relates a stunning historical event - the chromatic revolution - to explain why having any more shades of colour would be a potential threat to the civic structure of this land.

From a different perspective, the book can be considered to be rather interesting commentary that describes a dystopian society, with lots of social taboos and bigotry.

Overall, if you can tolerate some 90 odd pages of slightly archaic English, it's a fun read. It made me think, and even brought back nice memories of geometry class from school.

Recommended, if you have the slightest inclination towards math and such things. And if you have an affinity for boundless imagination.

4. The Emperor of all Maladies : A biography of cancer - by Siddhartha Mukherjee

If there was one subject that I loathed in school, it was biology. Hence, save for the rare book on genetics (for example, Matt Ridley's Genome), I never really ventured into biological non-fiction.

The Emperor of all Maladies was nothing like what I had expected it to be. It was, in one word, mesmerizing. Dr Mukherjee doesn't simply give you the history of cancer. He manages to humanise a seemingly non-humanisable object and invoke feelings in you. Just like a biography of any real human hero (or villain) would have.

For one, this gargantuan read (it's over 500 pages) gives you a sweeping overview of the history of medicine. For someone who is majorly ignorant in biology and its related fields, that is a big plus. Dr Mukherjee brings to life, tales of doctors and surgeons right from the dawn of civilization (eg. Imhotep in Ancient Egypt), through the chaotic and appalling operation theaters of 18th century England to the ultra-modern cancer wards in the first world of today.

Moreover, as the book primarily deals with cancer, the reader is treated to an in-depth tour-de-force, that takes him through a whirlwind of basic oncology, while managing to be lucid and extremely readable at the same time. Dr Mukherjee picks up some of the most groundbreaking events that are strewn throughout the intricate evolutionary story of cancer, and uses them to drive home the major ideas about the disease. He thus alludes to the earliest recorded reference to cancer in human history, and tells us how, for over two thousand years, cancer was never heard of again, till it resurfaced and took the whole world by storm. He gives a pedantic insight into every major step that mankind has taken to combat cancer, from the early days of crude radical mastectomy practiced by William Halsted, to the brilliantly advanced "targeted therapy" and immunotherapies of today. He tells us stories about the people who have, over the years, championed the fight against cancer - men and women like Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker who took upon their shoulders, the responsibility to bring cancer awareness to the masses, and the topic of cancer research to the legislators' desk.

Vividly written and insanely insightful, The Emperor of all Maladies is one of those rare books, which you are skeptical about before you start reading, but then grow enough to fall in love with while reading it. In the end, with the disease still not systemically extinguished, even after centuries of prolonged struggle, the book makes you feel weirdly sad; not about the victims of the disease. But for the disease itself; cancer almost appears to be like a misconstrued hero, who is fighting on, and never giving up, even as the whole world is trying to eliminate him, once and for all.

All in all, this is one the best non-fiction books that I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

3. The Last Lecture - by Randy Pausch with Jeffery Zaslow

I generally yawn at self-help books that try to instill morals into readers because I've always found this idea of "becoming a good person by reading books" to be a fundamentally wrong. Morals, I believe are meant to be instilled into you while you are a kid. Once an adult, any remaining ethical lacuna cannot be filled anymore.

And so based on this one belief, I took an aversion to books that attempt to do the same.

"The Last Lecture" however, did the intellectual equivalent of sending that belief flying out through the window.

This book has a (probably more famous) video counterpart (called Achieving your childhood dreams), in which Randy Pausch (former computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon) gives his "last lecture" after having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and after being told that he has at most six months of good health left in him.

The book touches upon all of that which he had delivered in that lecture and expands on several of the topics, while maintaining the general sense of humour and positivism that he had been known for. He talks about his childhood dreams, about never giving up on his dreams, and uses anecdotes from his entire life to illustrate the points that he stresses upon.

In fact, he said that his lecture (and the book) was a means of imparting education to his three children, after his death, as they grow older. To put it in his words - “If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.”

The life lessons don't appear to be preachy or sermon-esque, but are shown as being extremely practical achievables. From a literary point of view, the book is very well written, albeit unintentionally emotional at times. And it brims with a thousand and one enriching ideas that are guaranteed to open your mind.

Net-net, even for someone who has never read self-help books, and finds them to be unnecessary and boring (like myself), this is a must-read. It even pips An Emperor of all Maladies to be my favourite non-fiction read of 2013.

2. The Sentinel (collection of short stories) - by Arthur C Clarke

When it comes to books in general, I'm a science fiction nerd. And by science fiction, I do not refer to the soft science fiction of Star Wars or Star Trek, but technical, true blue, hard science fiction. As a result, I swear by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. In fact, I even rate Asimov's Foundation as the greatest trilogy in English literature, over and above The Lord of the Rings. And I still would, every single time you asked me to.

Arthur Clarke is one writer who comes close to the galactic levels of brilliance that is Isaac Asimov. Maybe he's as good, or even better, but I've read just too much of Asimov as compared to Clarke, and hence the bias.

The book in question at the moment is a collection of short stories by Clarke. It is named after the eponymous short story 'The Sentinel', which in itself, was the precursor to Clarke's masterpiece novel "2001 : A Space Odyssey" which in turn, was immortalized by Stanley Kubrick's cinematic marvel decades earlier. Almost all the stories in this collection have all the makings of the classic hard science-fiction genre: thought-provoking, reflective, futuristic and completely devoid of aliens engaging humans in interstellar combat with laser guns.

It's not just "The Sentinel" which makes this compendium so very memorable. The other stories are as good, if not better. There's an intensely hopeful story of human chauvinism in "Rescue Party", the story of contact between a Utopian human colony and the residents of a doomed planet in "The Songs of Distant Earth", and yet another story of trust and betrayal between two men, trapped in an interstellar module with little oxygen in "Breaking Strain" - and a number of others.

If science fiction is your cup of tea, this collection is simply top notch stuff. If it is not, then this could very well make you love that genre. In either case, if you like reading between the lines, and drawing your own conclusions from what's there in print, then you are going to love this book.

1. Logicomix : An Epic Search for Truth - by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

Logicomix is the clear and undisputed winner. To bring in a Community reference (whose fifth season premieres tomorrow. W00t. ), it is streets ahead of the rest of the books that are  there in this list.

Here's why: it's a graphic novel, which is a fancy name they use these days for comics; it's about the very roots of logic. Lastly, and most interestingly, it's coauthored by someone who wrote my textbooks in college.

I stumbled upon this book after I fell in love with Turing machines during my senior year in college. The love was followed by some aggressive Googling, which led me to this book, and promptly found the same on Flipkart and ordered a copy right away.

Needless to say, it lived up to all the hype that I had conjured up in my mind.

Beautifully illustrated by Alecos Papadatos, Logicomix has a very unique way of communicating to its readers. The first character to be introduced is Apostolos, one of the authors himself. He takes his dog on a leash out for a walk and introduces the reader to the other author, Christos. They then mull over the idea of the book in general, and then introduce the reader to the artist, Alecos. After this pleasant, albeit circuitous prelude, we are introduced to the protagonist - none other than the legendary mathematician Bertrand Russel. From then on, the story delves deeper and deeper into Russel's lifelong attempts to "complete" and "unify" all of mathematics.

It begins with Bertrand's troubled childhood, his parents' deaths, his early suicidal tendencies, and his slow but gradual entry into the two fields that intrigued him the most - religion and mathematics. His relentless pursuit throughout the rest of his life, for the very foundation of logic and mathematics forms the bulk of the content of this radical book. Extraordinary illustrations and memorable dialogues aside, the pages are fraught with tales of personal and spiritual triumphs and heartbreaks - of jubilation and frustration, of angst and euphoria.

In the end, Russel is almost driven to insanity by the futility of his attempts, when he meets a young Kurt Gödel...

I wish I could complete the story here, but that would be unfair at several levels, and I wouldn't want to rob you, the reader of the wonderful climax that this book has in the end.

But in the end, it is its uniqueness, and sheer singleton nature, that puts this book at the very top of this list.

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Wishing you a very happy 2014. Signing off, for one last time, this year.
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