Readers Write In #319: What I read in 2020

Posted on December 31, 2020


(by Eswar)


சென்றாண்டுக்கு நீ மற்றொரு ஆண்டு
நேற்றைக்கு நீ இன்னது ஒரு நாளை
மணிக்கு வெறும் நொடி
மனிதனுக்கு மட்டும்
நீ தனி

(New Year
To last year you are but another
  Just another day for yesterday
To an hour you are only a second
  To us you are always special)

In order to comprehend this timeless eternity that we live in, we punctuate time with occasions and anniversaries, celebrating them with a variety of rites and rituals. To me, New Year is one such occasion and I mark it with a modern-day ritual, making year-end lists.

This is a list of books that I have read in 2020. Reading lists can be very personal and reflect one’s interests. So this list might be super boring or exciting to you depending on the overlap in our interests. The intention behind sharing this list is to merely point out that these books exist. With that in mind, I have kept the descriptions to a minimum. 

Haunted by Fire: Essays on Caste, Class, Exploitation and Emancipation – Mythily Sivaraman

After the release of the Tamil film Asuran, The Hindu newspaper ran an article about the Keezhvenmani massacre with a reference to ‘Haunted by Fire’. In addition to the essay on the infamous incident, the book also covers a wide variety of subjects – Tamil Nadu politics, trade union strikes, China, Gandhi, Engels to name a few.

Money Master the Game – Tony Robbins

I received this book, along with JL Collins’s ‘A Simple path to wealth’ as an introduction to personal finance and Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE). It’s an exhaustive book with useful information and interviews from financial leaders. This also means the book can be a long read.

Vekkai – Poomani (Tamil)

I was excited when Vetrimaaran announced the adaptation of Vekkai. I am hoping that the success of a mainstream movie adapted from a book would lead to many more such adaptations being made. To say Vekkai is a story about oppression, violence and class dispute wouldn’t be incorrect. But it would be more accurate to say Vekkai is about the effect of these social aspects on a family rather than the aspects themselves.

Thanneer – Ashokamitran (Tamil)

Dialects are often a challenge when reading Tamil books. But in Ashokamitran’s ‘18vathu Atchakodu’, the urban backdrop and the dialect were familiar to me. With Thanneer it was even more familiar with the story set in Madras at a time when people used to queue with kudams waiting for the corporation water tank. Though the story is not just about water scarcity. 

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – Jonathan Haidt

In ‘The Righteous Mind’, Haidt presents a Moral Foundation Theory which he uses to explain the Liberal and Conservative worldview. Quoting Rodney King, Haidt attempts to make a case for a more meaningful discussion between the Left and the Right — “we’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out”

The Foolish King – Mark Price

The Foolish King is a fictional story about the origins of Chess. The story, the illustrations and the cleverly explained rules are a great introduction to the game.

Koveru Kazhuthaigal – Imaiyam (Tamil)

The story traces the life of Arokiyam, a vannaathi (washerwoman) in a village setting. Koveru Kazhuthaigal and books like it, are important cultural artefacts as they provide an anecdotal micro-history of a region.

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

At 36, Paul Kalanithi was on course to become a successful neurosurgeon. But life had other plans. Profound and moving, ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, is a meditation on death. This book seems so relevant for 2020.

The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy – Thomas J. Stanley, William D. Danko

“Wealth is what you don’t see”, wrote Morgan Housel. In ‘The Millionaire Next Door‘ Stanley and Danko show from their research the characteristics of a millionaire, particularly the ones that a non-millionaire never gets to see. While some parts of the book feel very academic, it is a surprisingly easy read with some great insights into the life of millionaires, especially the first generation ones.

Velli Nilam – Jeyamohan (Tamil)

Having liked Jeyamohan’s ‘Pani Manithan’, a book that he wrote for his son Ajithan, I chose to read Velli Nilam, another adventure with officer Pandian who featured in Pani Manithan. While I liked Pani Manithan better than Velli Nilam, this is still a likeable book. 

Reset: How to Restart Your Life and Get F.U. Money – David Sawyer

Another book on Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE). It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that this book is the UK version of Tony Robbins’s ‘Money Master the Game’ barring the interviews.

Envy – Joseph Epstein

I was introduced to Joseph Epstein’s Envy by Gurcharan Das in ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’. In about a hundred pages, Joseph Epstein paints Envy in broad strokes, holding a mirror long enough to view one’s envies. The book is not prescriptive, so expect no solutions.

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing – John C. Bogle

In the world of index investing, Vanguard is a name difficult to miss. John C Bogle is the founder of Vanguard. In this little book, John C. Bogle makes his case, again, for index funds. This is a great book to learn about investing from the creator of the first index fund.

Status Anxiety – Alain de Botton

This is another book mentioned in ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’ where Gurcharan Das talks about Karnan. Unlike Envy, this book does attempt at solutions to deal with Status Anxiety. One of them being Memento Mori – “Remember that you [have to] die”. I had just finished reading this when the news about Sushant Singh Rajput emerged and suddenly the meaning of Memento Mori became quite apparent.

The Essays of Warren Buffett – Edited by Lawrence A. Cunningham

I think I wanted to read this book to test if I can understand investing one level deeper. It turned out I can’t. But outside the investment technicalities, there is wisdom in these letters.

Moin and the Monster – Anushka Ravishankar

This is one of the books recommended by Jerry Pinto in The Hindu for Children’s day 2019. Moin and the Monster is a fun read with some very Crazy Mohan’esque dialogues and ‘My Dear Marthandan’ style Monster rules.

Naivethyam – Poomani (Tamil)

Writer Jeyamohan’s blog is where I find most of the Tamil titles to read including this one. In an answer to a reader’s question, Jeyamohan observed that Poomani has written Naivethyam with the ethics(Aram) of an artist and a love for humanity. Naivethyam is the story of Sankar Iyer. The story of a falling Agraharam. A story of human frailty. One doesn’t need to be part of a group to empathise with their plight.

Democracy – Madan Mohan

If the name Madan Mohan sounds familiar, it is not just because it is the name of the music director, but also a regular commenter and contributor in this space. Inspired by Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ and Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, Democracy is a novella or a “long story” (as Madan calls it) set in a jungle background.

A Velocity of Being: Letters to A Young Reader – Edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Zoe Bedrick

I usually struggle reading books that don’t follow the standard structure, say an epistolary work for example. So when I picked A Velocity of Being, I decided to read one letter a day. Though I didn’t practice this strictly I finished reading the book over 4-5 months. With 121 letters and associated artwork for each one of them, this is easily what one could call a ‘Beautiful Book’ – both in content and form.

The Richest Man in Babylon – George S. Clason

In the world of personal finance literature, ‘The Richest Man in Babylon’ is a title that is frequently mentioned. Written in 1926, the stories sound like what one would hear from a wise ancestor about earnings and savings. Simple and easy to listen, yet difficult to practice.

Nine Rupees an Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods of Tamil Nadu – Aparna Karthikeyan

I got introduced to ‘Nine Rupees an Hour’ through this blog. Having grown up mostly in towns and cities, my exposure to rural livelihoods is through literature. While those are semi-fiction, ‘Nine Rupees an Hour’ are real stories of these practitioners. These are stories that must be told and problems that must be addressed.

Flyaway Boy –  Jane De Suza

This is another recommendation in ‘The Hindu’ for last year’s Children’s day. As Paro Anand wrote in her recommendation, “Although it is such an easy read, it stops you dead in your tracks with empathy and self-reflection”.

Arogya Nikethanam – Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay – Translation Tha. Na. Kumarasamy (Tamil)

Told through the life and times of Jeevan Mashai, an Ayurvedic practitioner, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s Bengali novel ‘Arogya Niketan’ beautifully depicts a particular period in the history of Indian medicine when Ayurveda meets Allopathy. The novel is a window to the world of Bengali Kaviraj’s views on illness and death. The Tamil translation, published by Sahitya-Akademi, is challenging at times but it is only a minor inconvenience.

The Illustrated Sálim Ali – The Fall of a Sparrow

This book made it into my reading list when I learnt that Pakshi Rajan’s character in 2.0 was inspired by ornithologist Sálim Ali. This is an abridged version with stunning illustrations. This book is a testament to Sálim Ali’s love for birds.

Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children – Dorie McCullough Lawson

After completing Maria Papova’s book of letters ‘A Velocity of Being’, I wanted to pick another book that I could read in small increments. In a time when writing letters has become non-existent, ‘Posterity’ is a reminder to our past and what the current generation will be missing. A large number of the letters included in this collection are profound, inspiring and insightful.

The Psychology of Money – Morgan Housel

In ‘The Psychology of Money’,Morgan Housel lays out our relationship with money. The stories Housel narrates are simple but powerful. If there is only one book I need to recommend from what I read in 2020, it would be ‘The Psychology of Money’ for, as Housel writes, “Two topics impact everyone, whether you are interested in them or not: health and money.”

Piragu – Poomani (Tamil)

There are some common characteristics in Poomani’s novels. His characters emote in a measured and a matter-of-fact tone. His stories beautifully weave the interaction between village communities and classes. Piragu is no exception. This time the milieu is Sakkiliyar kudi and we get to know Azhagiri Pagadai.

Special mention

A subset of writings that I am glad to have read this year but in a non-book format.

Maria Papova

Maria Papova writes at ‘Brain Pickings – An inventory of the meaningful life.’ Her writings about life, art and books are lyrical and magical. They are a testament to the title – An inventory of the meaningful life.

Paul Graham

A friend observed that Paul Graham is one of the original thinkers of our time. Having read his essays on various topics, I don’t think that statement is an exaggeration. And it’s not just the ideas but also the way he presents them. Consider these two essays for example.

Shane Parrish

Shane Parrish writes at ‘Farnam Street’. His essays are usually about mental models, biases and deconstructing the world around us.

I usually read a fictional work followed by non-fiction, a book in English followed by a book in Tamil. This year I am experimenting with selecting books from a chosen subject, which is why the list has a disproportionate number of books about personal finance. I hope there is something interesting in this list for you. Thanks for reading. I am keen to hear what you have read recently.

Wishing you all a very Happy and Healthy New Year!