1. The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman, Basic Books. Simply beautiful book, forces a person who designs something for someone else to appreciate the object-user dynamic in a wholly new light. Drawing from Cognitive science and psychology and a whole lot of empathy, this is a must read for all engineers and anyone who wants an insight into how the mind works.
2. Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich, online PDF. Nobody has gone about dismantling our illusions about what our social institutions really are like Illich. Health care, Education, Law, Public transportation, nothing escapes his view, as he goes to show how these have transcended the scale below which they can be controlled by humans. Awesome!
3. Ka, Roberto Calasso, Vintage Books. Have never really read anything like this before, so I cannot really say whether it is awesome or the exact opposite. ‘Ka’ is Sanskrit for ‘Who?’ which apparently was the question that started it all, and Calasso weaves a sometimes brilliant piece of literature which tries to draw a single continuous thread from the creation of the world till the death of the Buddha. Indian mythology, philosophy and ethics rolled into a novel.
4. Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek, Academy Chicago Publishers. This is a revised version of the original and is still quite old, from the eighties. However, nothing really about the book is dated, with most things that Papanek complains about still being around. He takes apart the advertising and industrial design community for designing what are essentially ‘toys for adults’, when there are people with real needs around. Provocatively written, with plenty of examples from the author’s own work, which justifies the fact that the design community is seriously lacking any sense of direction or responsibility. Part of my ongoing set of readings about the interaction of humans with cultural objects.
5. Gandhi’s Khadi – A History of Conciliation and Contention, Rahul Ramagundam, Orient Longman. Probably the first of its kind to focus on the history of khadi as a fabric, an institution and a value system, and how this evolved over time. It weaves an interesting narrative about how Gandhi had to fight off opposition from within and without to keep the idea of khadi alive, and what social, political, economic and psychological factors contributed to its demise as the answer to the poverty of India. Excellent.
6. Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley, Vintage Classics. Thought that it would be a very close description of a mescalin trip that Huxley took, but turned out to be deeper than that. Shame for not expecting more from Huxley.
7. Ooru – Keri, Siddalingaiah, Sahitya Akademi. An interesting autobiography of one of the leaders of the Dalit Movement in Karnataka and a poet. Interesting since it shows dimensions of dalit personality which are not framed by anger and class/caste hatred.
8. A History of Economics, J. K. Galbraith, Penguin. This is Galbraith’s view of economics as it progressed from before Adam Smith to Friedman. As usual, excellently written, and makes a strong case for both viewing economics and politics together and viewing economic life as an ever-changing object which must necessarily cause changes in economics as well. Will be appreciated even more if one already has some ideas about economics and its problems.
9. What is Life?, Mind and Matter, Autobiographical sketches, Erwin Schrodinger, Canto. Two books and a small sketch of his own life by the great physicist. What is Life? is an extraordinarily prescient book which tries to understand biology or ‘life’ from a physicist’s perspective. Mind and Matter is his examination of the phenomenon of consciousness and how Eastern philosophies of the Mind (Vedanta is his choice) seem to answer the question far better than any Western contender. Lovely collection, bit too pricey though.
10. How much must a person consume? Ramachandra Guha, Permanent Black. A comparison of the Indian and American environmental movements and an attempt to trace what they are depending on from where they came from. Then, biographical sketches of Lewis Mumford, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Madhav Gadgil, and finally a chapter trying to formulate a world-view that takes the best of both worlds. Interesting set of essays, worth it just for the comparative history.
11. The Tell-Tale Brain, V.S. Ramachandran, Random House India. Awesome book, reads smoothly as well, considering the complexity of the subject matter. Ramachandran brings in his experience as a doctor to bear on questions of fundamental interest, bridging the gap between theory and practice. All kinds of interesting disorders and their neurological basis are discussed enroute to gaining a better understanding of the brain.
12. Vivekananda – The Living Vedanta, Badrinath Chaturvedi, Penguin. Though well researched, it reads very well and very personal. The premise of the author is that Vivekananda must be brought out of the pooja rooms and be understood as a person, not a Swami, a patriot or any other one dimensional interpretation. It also brings out the huge contribution various women, most Western had in making him what he is today. This is quite ironic considering the Ramakrishna Mission’s ‘Developing Leaders of Tomorrow’s India’ type of program explicitly excludes women. A very up and close portrait of a very interesting person.
13. Vinoba, Nirmala Deshpande, National Book Trust. A small little biography of a great person.
14. Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome. Interesting little comedy from the 19th century. Sometimes you feel two different people have written different parts of the book. The narration style reminds me of stand up comics of today.
15. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Penguin. It deserves its reputation, seems very well researched and extremely well written as well. Wish more books written on science were of this literary quality. The amount of data thrown at you may put you off or atleast succeed in making you paranoid or suicidal, but it is true.
16. What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy, Penguin. Tolstoy tries to put forth his view of what constitutes good/bad art. His main take is that good art is understandable to all, whereas bad art can only be understood by people within a certain group. Further, he argues that all art must further the religious consciousness of the time, which for him was promoting universal brotherhood. He dismisses most that we consider to be great artists as bad by his criterion. Even if you don’t agree with his views, many questions he raises are very pertinent.
17. Civilization and Capitalism 1: The Structures of Everyday Life, Fernand Braudel, Harper and Row. Simply magnificent. A must for any person interested in history.
18. Kanthapura, Raja Rao, Oxford. Apparently one of the first novels by an Indian in English, it retains the narrative style of a lady from the Western Ghats. The story in itself is very well done, but the book is also useful for its depiction of life in a small village a hundred years ago.
19. Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater, Picador. A superb travel book about following the monsoon as it advances over India, seeing what changes it brings to the Indian temperament, and what the monsoon means to various people from various sections of society. It is as funny as it is inquisitive and sometimes scholarly. Don’t know of any other book of its kind, so a should read.
20. Flatland, Edwin A. Abbott, Oxford Classics. An interesting novel about a creature in a two dimensional universe meeting another from a three dimensional universe and learning the ‘Gospel of the Third Dimension’. Great imagination and social satire rolled into one very nice book.
21. Finding Jesus in Dharma, Chaturvedi Badrinath, ISPCK. Im aiming to read most of Badrinath’s books, I like his writing as well as content. This is an interesting read about the meeting of two civilizations and in a rough sense, religions. What can Christianity contribute to India? What aspect of ‘Dharmic Society’, as he puts it, can it enrich? Many interesting questions and a lot more around the theme.
22. Kim, Rudyard Kipling, Collins Classics. Simply beautiful book, with intimate portraits of late nineteenth century India, and her people. Apparently it has been criticized for propagating stereotypes, who cares. Strong story, excellent writing, can’t do any better.
23. Empire and Information, Chris Bayly, Cambridge University Press. Simply brilliant book about information gathering and social communication in India during the period 1780-1870. Gives way more than promised, if you are able to withstand the density of the book. Not a first book in history, though, it assumes quite a bit.
24. The Honourable Company, John Keay, Harper Collins. A great narrative history of the East India Company from 1600 to 1800. It does not do too much analysis, so can be read without too many headaches (unlike the previous book in this list), but does enough analysis to help you make sense of what is happening. A useful first read in understanding European role in shaping India and South-East Asia.
25. Western Science in Modern India, Pratik Chakrabarti, Orient Blackswan. Excellent book, which tells the story of how European science came to dominate modern India, starting from Europeans studying India to Nationalist scientists and the post Independence nation building via science. The focus is mainly on the nineteenth century, how the Europeans looked at India and how Indians looked at themselves, and what influenced their perceptions of India. It was his PhD thesis, and like all such works, tends to read somewhat slow in some parts. But overall, quite good.
26. Maya, Jostein Gaarder, Phoenix Books. Gaarder is great as usual, with the great mix of philosophical reflection and awesome storytelling. About life, universe and everything, only seen somewhat more seriously than the Hitchhiker’s Guide.
27. Our Stage, Akshara Prakashana. A collection of papers read at a seminar in Ninasam, Heggodu. Interesting when theatre people talk about their perceptions and problems, not very when they are theorizing. And a good paper by Shiv Visvanathan as well.
28. Mr. Sampath, R.K. Narayan.
29. The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes, Harper Press. A fantastic bit of science writing, way better than most I have read. Probably due to the subject and the author’s brilliant writing style. The book deals with how science in the Romantic Age (around the eighteenth century) influenced society and the arts, especially poetry. It is a detalied portrait of the greatest scientists of the generation — Herschel, Davy, among others and their influence and interaction with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley among other Romantic poets. Sets the bar for science writing as far as I’m concerned.