Non-fiction

last updated on: 18th Feb 2017

BIOGRAPHY/AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts
This extremely interesting autobiography takes you from Australia to India to Afghanistan.  The author tells his life-changing story, starting from being an Australian convict to getting involved with Mumbai underworld and even fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He even acts in several Bollywood films as an extra. 🙂 The only negative of this book – the length, 800 pages or so.

Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson
You will get goose bumps reading this book. This biography tells the true story of a guy who while climbing K2 in Pakistan gets stranded. Some Pakistani villagers save him. He is extremely grateful for their help. He decides that the least he can do for them is assist in establishing a school in that village, when he comes back the next year after collecting funds. And he does come back, and goes on to establish hundreds of schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan.

To Sir, With Love, E. R. Braithwaite
A one line summary – a black teacher changes the lives of kids in a slum. This book will touch you as nothing else you have ever read. Read it and get back to me if it doesn’t. My father gifted it to me back in 1997 when I had completed my first 100 books.

A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
This autobiographical book of a drug addict going through rehabilitation is seriously touching. Frey goes through all the difficult stages of breaking an addiction, fighting his way through and slowly coming out triumphant. On its release, it was constantly mired in controversies with regards to its authenticity. But true or false, it is definitely worth a read.

A Day in the Life of a Minimalist, Joshua Millburn
I am a big fan of the essays by Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus on their blog The Minimalists. This book is a collection of Millburn’s best essays. Do read if you also think that collection of material things will never make one happy.

Start Something That Matters, Blake Mycoskie
A very interesting and successful case of social entrepreneurship – Mycoskie starts a company called TOMS (tomorrow’s shoes), which sells Argentine shoes and for each one you buy, the company donates one. Truly inspirational.

SPIRITUALITY

The Way of the Wizard, Deepak Chopra
This book started it all. I came across it in second-hand bookshop in Ahmedabad sometime in 1999. Deepak Chopra has written a lot of books and articles and I no more read much of his stuff, but I consider this slim volume as his masterpiece. In this book, the young King Arthur learns various lessons of life from the wizard Merlin.

The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
This wonderful book is among the very few ones I have treasured. Eckhart Tolle explains in a very beautiful way what it means to be present in the moment.

J. Krishnamurti: a Life, Mary Lutyens
Ideally this huge book should have been in the autobiography/biography genre, but it is much more than that. It not only covers J. Krishnamurti’s life but other interesting events like how a large group of people expecting a messiah to lead them out of darkness, get disillusioned when he breaks up the group, but who still goes on to fulfil his destiny.

Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
This is not a typical spiritual book, but it definitely has that effect. Dividing the evolution into 2 categories – leavers and takers, Quinn goes on to give reasoning for many social phenomena.

Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
The story of Buddha is told beautifully by Hermann Hesse in this more than half a century old book.

The Courage to Stand Alone, U. G. Krishnamurti
U. G. Krishnamurti has been called an anti-guru. His teachings are more radical than anything you might have read or heard of. After going through his teachings, you can either fall in 2 categories – hate him for his brutal honesty or accept the fact that he is a truly enlightened soul (I fall in the 2nd one). This book captures all his essential teachings.

Steven Harrison

Doing Nothing – Although this book sort of ended the spiritual reading addiction for me, it will always stay on my bookshelf. In this very frank book, Steven Harrison says it as he experiences it first-hand. He can’t be called a Guru, but this book affected me more than so many others I had previously read.

Getting to Where You Are – I became a huge fan of Steven Harrison after reading his book Doing Nothing. It inspired me to significantly reduce my spiritual book reading! But when I came across this one, just couldn’t resist. And true to his form, this book talks about how the effort itself comes in the way of finding peace. Will not say more, go and read it.

The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman
Picked this one up on Derek Sivers’ recommendation. The sensible anti-chocolaty approach of this book about happiness in life appealed to me, especially during difficult times. It focuses on the point that accepting things as they are can bring peace. It covers stoicism, Buddhism, death, meditation, etc.

Quiet, Susan Cain
I have read very few books where the author undergoes some problem, dedicates her life understanding it and writes an extremely inspiring book. Susan Cain, herself an introvert, explains the what and why of the world of an introvert and how they can thrive (she mentions that nearly 1/3rd of people are introverts). I could identify with everything she wrote and for the first time understood why I preferred and actually enjoyed solitude, despite the fact that I usually love people and their company more than many I know. Her TED talk is among the most watched ones ever (2.5 million+ views).

The Joy of Laziness, Peter Axt
How can one not like such a book? 🙂 In this over-driven, over-connected world, I think such books should be circulated more. Although I didn’t find the ideas new or life-changing, the premise is what makes it interesting. It was a surprise hit in Germany though.

TRAVEL

Falling off the Map, Pico Iyer – A book from one of my favorite authors, Pico Iyer visits the least accessible and closed places in the world, not just physically but culturally too. He covers North Korea, Argentina, Paraguay, Bhutan, Cuba, Iceland, Australia and Vietnam. Immensely interesting with a peaceful charm. Slightly outdated since it was written 20 years back.

Bill Bryson

Neither Here nor There – This extremely funny travel book tracks the journey of the author through Europe starting from Hammerfest, Norway and ending at Istanbul, Turkey. From cloudy and cold northern Europe to the sunny southern, he brings forth interesting trivia for each place he visits. He finds the Italian town of Capri the most beautiful.

Down Under – Once a fan, always a fan of Bill Bryson. 🙂 Bryson visits Australia during 1997-98 and writes about his adventures. As usual, you will fall down laughing at his writings. Along with humour, there is a lot to learn, including interesting bits of trivia – did you know that the majority of the most poisonous living beings on earth are in Australia (including 6 of 10 most poisonous snakes)? Did you know that the Aborigines people have the oldest continuous culture in the world? Australia is among the most sparsely populated countries in the world with ~80% occupying the southern parts. And the longest earthworm is found in Australia and is 8 metres long!

A Walk in the Woods – Extremely humorous, Bryson tracks his journey on 1,200 mile long Appalachian Trail in eastern US. He and his childhood friend Stephen Katz hike the trail and come across all kinds of funny incidents and people. Along with lots of interesting trivia, I found many parts full of wisdom. One of my favourite quotes from this book: “But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for the wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.”

Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – In this autobiographical book, Bryson recalls his childhood days in Des Moines, Iowa during the 1950s. As is his style, this book is funny with titbits of information about how people felt in those days. I could actually relate to many things although we are countries and generations apart.

Paul Theroux

The Pillars of Hercules – Paul Theroux must have traveled more than any else in the world (other than my travel guru Ian Wright)! In this book, he catalogues his journey across the various towns and cities situated on the banks of the Mediterranean sea. Starting from the 1st pillar of Hercules – the rock of Gibraltar, he describes the lives of people, their stories, the histories and picturesque scenery as he passes through the Mediterranean countries (Spain, France, Italy, Albania…) and completes a full circle ending at Morocco. I have definitely become a fan of his writing.

Dark Star Safari – After The Pillars of Hercules, I picked this fat volume up where he describes his journey through Africa by land from Cairo to Cape Town (the book was published in 2003). The beautiful way he wrote made me think that I was actually traveling with him! I kept checking Wikipedia and Google Maps to learn more about the countries he travels through – Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa.
He is extremely vocal about his dislike for charity in Africa. He says that many decades of charity in Africa has changed practically nothing, making them dependent on foreign aid. Instead he sees dignity in rural Africa, where people turn to subsistence farming during times of wars and political and economical collapses.

The Great Railway Bazaar and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
Theroux travels across entire Asia and Europe in trains in these 2 books. He makes the first journey in 1973 at the age of 33 and repeats the same in 2006 at 66, to see how the world and he himself have changed. The first book made him a celebrity. There is a lot of interesting trivia and personal viewpoints in them – from Tajikistan’s dictator’s eccentricities to Thailand being the cleanest Asian country as compared to Japan, which is more like an airport – clean, hygienic but lifeless. He meets other friend writers like Orhan Pamuk in Turkey and, Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan. There is humor and sarcasm in these huge books which you might not find agreeable, but the details and immensity of coverage make for great reading.

In Xanadu, William Dalrymple
At age of 22, William Dalrymple shot to worldwide fame with this book. He visits the exact same places that Marco Polo does, on his trip from Jerusalem to Xanadu (in China) more than 7 centuries ago. Mixing both his own experiences and bits of history as he passes various historical landmarks, he describes them in a witty way in this interesting travel book.

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, Pankaj Mishra
This Indian travel book written 20 years ago, became a surprise hit. Mishra, then just 23 years old, traveled through small towns in India taking notes on how things were changing in the backdrop of the 1991 globalization and liberalization.

Dancing in Cambodia, Amitav Ghosh
This is a MUST READ. A collection of short stories describing his experiences visiting places in Southeast Asia like Cambodia, Vietnam, Andaman islands, Burma, etc. Whether it is the tsunami which destroyed lives of many in the Andamans or the Cambodian ladies who survive the worst of Pol Pot, you can’t help but feel their pain and suffering. The first story Dancing in Cambodia is especially heart-rending.

Smoke and Mirrors, Pallavi Aiyar
Aiyar goes to China in early 2000s to teach English and journalism. And stays for 5 years, seeing the changes happening in the world’s fastest growing economy of the time. I found the book very honestly written, covering all aspects, right from the extremely rapid economic and infrastructure development, to the minutiae of how life was for the average person.
There are also obvious comparisons with India, the significant difference being – the Chinese Govt. finishes projects very quickly without public approval, whereas the Indian Govt. acknowledges inputs from various stakeholders but hardly makes any progress! Many ask her where she would prefer to live and her answer is – it is easier to live in China if you are very poor, but India is the place to be if you are middle-class and above.

HEALTH

Food Rules, Michael Pollan
Read this e-book when I came across it in a post by Derek Sivers. This very slim volume captures the essence of Pollan’s decades-long research on food and converts it into 64 simple rules. If you need the message in 1 line, he gives it as this – ‘Eat food, not much, mostly plants’.

Move your DNA, Katy Bowman
In this difficult-to-read but very insightful book, Bowman writes about ‘movement nutrition’. In case you have never heard of this term, it implies that when there is a lack of movement (just like nutritious food), various illnesses appear. She says that exercise is just a small subset of movement, and that continuous movement throughout the day is more important than spending 45 minutes exercising and then doing nothing!
She also suggests flat soled shoes, squats, hanging from overhead rods and a variety of poses which seem to me like Yoga. This is a definite read. I only wish it was written in a simpler way.

Hurry Up and Meditate, David Michie
This slim book is for the meditation sceptics. Simple, clear and convincing. Would definitely recommend if you are interested in this direction.

MANAGEMENT AND SCIENCE

Maverick, Ricardo Semler
This book is the true story of a complete revamp in the culture of a Brazilian manufacturing company Semco, through the eyes of its CEO and owner, Ricardo Semler (one of the people I truly admire). Semler joins his father’s company and brings in some radical changes – flexi work timings, flexi work locations, employee-decided work profiles and salaries. Yes, completely unimaginable, especially in a manufacturing company. But he implements these changes and has managed to keep Semco profitable even in the fickle Brazilian economy. A definite read.

Nassim Taleb

Fooled by Randomness
A cult hit, Taleb trashes all financial modeling rules and brings in the concept of the Black Swan – a once in a lifetime event which can reverse all gains made till date (like the 1920 depression, the October 1987 stock market crash or the recent recession). As the name suggests, he says that humans have a tendency to see patterns where none exist and get fooled on the way. His investment solution – 95% in extremely safe assets, 5% in extremely risky ones.

Antifragile
I really liked Taleb’s earlier books – Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, so was after this one for a pretty long time. Antifragile systems are those which benefit from chaos, i.e. uncertain outcomes make them stronger. The concept is especially true for all natural systems (like evolution), but doesn’t hold for most of the man-made ones. Which is why Taleb rings alarm bells – slight disorder somewhere can bring the entire system crashing down.

Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
If there is a book which answers a lot of childhood questions, this is the one. Requiring slight in reading, Jared Diamond attempts to explain various sociological events like why did the Europeans go and conquer the American continent and not vice versa, why did civilization start in the Crescent valley, why are cannibals found mostly in Papua New Guinea and similar ones. Interesting, isn’t it?

The 4-hour Workweek, Timothy Ferriss
This book can be held responsible for bringing in a mini-revolution in recent times. Timothy Ferriss leaves his extremely stressful 80 hour workweek and brings revolutionary changes in his life. Lifestyle design is how he defines – working 4 hours a week and earning more than before.

The Goal, Eliyahu Goldratt 
This novel became a cult hit in the world of operations management when it was published nearly 30 years back. Goldratt introduces the Theory of Constraints in this book through a story – how an industrial plant manager saves his unit from being shut down by applying this concept. Extremely interesting and easy to read.

The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham
This book is the Bible of investing. Many top investors swear by this one. Written 60 years ago, the basic rules still hold. Summary – if you have time to spend on stock market and the emotional stability to stay calm during wins and losses, then follow the company fundamentals and news in sectors you are well versed with (value investing) and if you don’t, then invest on a regular basis in an index fund. This books requires patience – it is nearly 600 pages with lots of data.

Chaos, James Gleick
Is there a pattern behind various natural phenomena? What about cloud formation, weather changes, water dripping from a tap, leaves on a tree? Can we have a mathematical formula to model them? In this science book, Gleick explains all these, bringing in the Fractal concept of the famous scientist Mandelbrot.

In Praise of Slow, Carl Honore
Why does everyone keep hurrying? Isn’t progress in science supposed to make life comfortable and free our time to do more of what we really want to? Honore travels the world and comes across various movements to slow down the pace of living – slow cities, slow exercise, slow food.

The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz
It talks about how more choice doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness. I do agree with that to some extent! Malls paralyse me and I end hardly buying anything! Another important point which Schwartz mentions is – happiness always returns to a set point, whatever maybe the event. Meaning, extreme happiness or extreme sadness doesn’t usually stay.

Rework, Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
This is perhaps the best business book I read after Maverick by Ricardo Semler. Written by the founder of Basecamp, an IT product company, extremely practical things are discussed in this book with very short chapters and lots of illustrations. You might not agree with everything they say, but you will agree that all the points do make some sense. Read more from them at their blog Signal vs. Noise.

The How of Happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky
This is among the very few books on happiness which has a solid scientific research backing. And also, one of the very few books I actually felt HAPPY reading. The author’s research reveals that 40% of our happiness is dependent on our action. She suggests 12 simple steps, most of us are already aware about. You can try any 4 which suit you, and from personal experience I can tell – she is right.🙂

Tribes and The Dip, Seth Godin -These are perhaps the MOST inspirational books I read this year. In Tribes, Godin inspires us to start leading tribes of our own, what with the internet now giving us the tools and power to connect with like-minded people across the world. In The Dip, Godin says something we all know but still is very important – people are valued for the difficulties they overcome in their respective fields  (i.e. the dip in the curve) and succeed.

Paul Arden

Whatever you Think, Think the Opposite – A book of quotes, thoughts and pictures by the advertising guru Paul Arden. As the title suggests, this book is very out-of-the-box. Many of his statements seem to be quoted all over the internet. The one I liked the most was – “Everyone is an artist”.

God Explained in a Taxi Ride -My second Arden book, this one takes hardly an hour to read. More illustrations than written text, but highly recommended. What is God? Explained in just a few pages. Summary – if you appreciate the beauty of the universe, you do believe in the higher power, whatever you wish to call it.

The Monk and the Riddle, Randy Komisar
I picked up this book by chance. And I must say this was definitely a very good decision. A venture capitalist, Komisar tells the story of his life and mixes fiction to teach what he has learnt over the years. For starting a company or anything for that matter, he says that we should ask just one question – “Do I want to do this work for the rest of my life or am I doing it for money or fame?” If the answer turns out to be passion, go ahead and start the company. And it doesn’t matter if the decision changes further in life, because after all, change is life.

Michael Lewis

Panic – I had become a great fan of Michel Lewis, after reading his first book Liar’s Poker. This second book is a collection of essays related to all financial events in the last 30 or so years. Read it if you are a finance buff.

The Big Short – Lewis’ books are insightful with an element of humor. This one covers the global financial meltdown of 2008 from the angle of the people who bet against the system like Michael Burry and Steve Eisman. (A short is when you bet that something will go down or fail in future.) The amount of ripping off which led to the recession is clearly explained in this book. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Breakout Nations, Ruchir Sharma
A top-shot in the investment banking world, in this book, Sharma writes about which countries might become a success story in the coming years from an investment point of view. Very engrossing with a lot of stats and interesting trivia like how Brazil and India are high-context cultures whereas Germany and US are low-context. Which explains to some extent why Indians are more family and culture oriented and less time-driven and punctual. By the way, the richest country in the world per capita? Not US or Brunei, it is Qatar and will probably remain so for the next 80 years. Where does India stand as a breakout nation? A 50/50 chance as per him.

Eerie Silence, Paul Davies
Do you think that life exists elsewhere? Do you think SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is worth the effort? One of my favorite topics since childhood, this book doesn’t answer that question but it suggests a variety of ideas for finding life, especially intelligent life and reasons why we have not found anything yet.

The Drunkard’s Walk, Leonard Mlodinow
A riveting book on the history of probability and basic statistics. I couldn’t stop reading it! It also covers 2 things – how order exists in chaos, an example being the bell curve – error in measurements for most kind of data follows this curve. And vice versa, how humans try to see patterns or order in chaos when there is none – 15 years of mutual fund success is statistically possible to be pure luck.
To explain the asymmetry between the past and future, he gives the example of molecules moving randomly (which can be applied to anything, including human lives). You can’t predict which fellow molecules a molecule will hit due to the millions of possibilities, but you can always look at its past path and tell how it reached its current position. As per the author, chance thus plays a big role, but the way to be more successful is the old adage – to keep trying.

The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel
This slim book is very heavy in matter. Patel discusses the question – what is the real cost of food? The current way of managing food is causing severe damage to the environment. Further, there is more than enough for everyone and still 1 in 9 goes hungry daily. Older traditional cultures understood the importance of taking only how much they needed from nature.
One example he gives is of the fishing industry in coastal Pakistan. After the Govt. allowed mechanized trawlers, not only did the fish population reduce and destroy the century-old livelihood of the fishermen within a decade, but also a majority of the fish caught was wasted and thrown back dead, thus helping none. He also mentions compelling initiatives in South America where farmers are taking steps to develop sustainable systems for food production and usage.

Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely
We are not really as rational as we think. In this book, Ariely gives us many instances of how irrational we are and the thing is, we can actually predict when we will behave irrationally. He suggests that instead of ignoring our irrational behaviour, we should make our systems and processes incorporate this unavoidable trait of ours. Examples – we really don’t know the real price of any object till we have something to compare it with, and we behave completely differently when we are under high-emotion states which we might not even consider in normal circumstances.

On Writing Well, William Zinsser
My friend Kiran suggested this classic by Zinsser, who passed away in May. There are so many useful points here and that I might keep coming back to this gem of a book. I like that he calls writing a craft which can perfected with practice, and that it isn’t something that only “literature” people do. I think this book should be made mandatory reading everywhere, for everyone interested in writing.  Btw, you can download it for FREE from archive.org.🙂

The Billionaire’s Apprentice, Anita Raghavan
This is the true account of the insider trading scandal which rocked the financial world in 2012, involving Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta. Well written and descriptive, it also tracks how people from the Indian subcontinent have done extremely well since the US opened up the job market for outsiders in 1960s.

Genghis Khan, Jack Weatherford
There are so many stories around Genghis Khan that it is difficult to actually make out who he really was. This book will give you this insight. Known for his ruthless ways of destroying enemies, he was also the first to create a truly integrated global empire stretching from Europe to China.
Many contemporary social and political laws and economic systems were originally established during his and his descendants’ reigns. Also, most of the empires in Middle East and Asia did originate from his lineage. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen
This controversial book was written back in 2007 when the internet began blowing up with free unregulated content. Keen says that this amateurish content is destroying the internet and culture, leading to professionals losing their livelihood. Though I tend to agree with a few of his points, I am of the opinion that the Web 2.0 has brought more positives than negatives.

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