Year-end book review: 2019

For all its political and economic turmoil, 2019 was a good year for me. I managed to get through 25 books including 6 audiobooks. This was a marginal improvement over 2018’s tally of 22 books. As a standard from now, I’m going to be using the rigorous FPOS-BOTY ratings scale developed retrospectively over several minutes:

Best of the yearBOTYThe bestest, most truly impressive work of the year. Generally, a work of pure genius or profound understanding. Not to be trifled with.
Not quite best of the yearNQBOTYA truly outstanding work, but for whatever reason wasn’t as impressive as the BOTY. Has some flaws, sure, but who doesn’t really?
Good, great or whateverGGWA work so good, I thought it was good and made a mental note of some good ideas. Points were probably docked for bad writing, excessive length etc.
Fun readFun!Works that made me laugh, cry (unlikely), emotional in any way or contributed to my growth, improvement or general wellbeing.
Great idea; could’ve been betterGI;CBBThought-provoking, but no more. I remember bits and pieces of how I felt reading it, but the book didn’t leave a strong impression. Either that, or I’ve forgotten all about it.
Orl KorrectOKWorks that deserve the equivalent of a consolation prize for valiant effort but pathetic execution.
Fine read; but don’t botherFR;BDBEither it started good and went to shit later, or took a good idea too far. Either way, just read an online summary or something.
Meh.Meh.A work of true mediocrity. In spite of all my efforts, I couldn’t find one reason to recommend this book. But at the same time, if you’re stuck in a room with nothing else, I wouldn’t really hate you for reading it.
Tiresome, repetitive or unnecessaryTediousA frustrating read. More than likely that I gave up midway and picked up something else.
GarbageTrashI have strong opinions about this, and will remember why I hated it so much. Express any admiration for the book and I’ll come at you.
Flaming piece of shitFPOSAn unmitigated trainwreck of a book that I wish never existed. I hate the author for wasting my time with this horrendous attempt at writing, and my views on the matter have soured my relationship with whoever suggested it in the first place.

With that out of the way, here’s the full list of books (I understand that audiobooks can be affected by several factors such as narration, editing, production quality, recording quality, pacing etc. that have nothing to do with the writer. So, I’ve tried to be fair by only rating the content of the audiobook)

Title (A: Audiobook)GenreRating
Silk RoadsHistory, Military HistoryBOTY
Ideology and IdentityPolitics, HistoryNQBOTY
The LaundromatEconomics, Finance, PoliticsGGW
The Idea of IndiaPolitics, HistoryGGW
Lord of The FliesFictionFun!
1Q84 (A)FictionFun!
Bad BloodBiography, BusinessFun!
Origins of Political Order (A)HistoryFun!
Discovering BengaluruHistory, CultureGI;CBB
The Future of CapitalismEconomics, Politics, BusinessGI;CBB
Gita Press and The Making of Modern IndiaHistory, PoliticsOK
Fall and Rise of China (A)HistoryOK
In My Father’s House (A)Crime, PsychologyOK
Mughal WarfareMilitary History, HistoryFR;BDB
HungaryHistory, PoliticsMeh.
The Future is AsianEconomicsMeh.
Greatest Love Story Ever Told (A)BiographyMeh.
This Unquiet Land (A)History, PoliticsMeh.
Elephants and KingsMilitary History, History, EconomicsMeh.
State of AfricaHistory, GeopoliticsTedious
Strategy (A)Military History, HistoryTedious
1421Historical Fantasy*Trash
How to Win Friends and Influence People (A)Self Help, BusinessTrash
The Moral LandscapePsychology, History, Self HelpFPOS
* 1421 is based on historical figures such as Zheng He, and captures some of the personalities’ lives very well, but veers off into speculative reasoning using some very flimsy evidence. There’s a whole world of actual historical evidence to rebut some of the points made in the book. But since it’s impossible to prove the absence even in the absence of proof, I’ve had to label it “Historical Fantasy”.


Books in each genre
  • As expected, fiction didn’t really figure in my reading decisions. The lone exception – ‘Lord of The Flies’ – is because it’s now considered a modern classic and essential reading. So, it was almost inevitable that I’d read one or two
  • The range of topics I’m interested in appears to have shrunk a lot over last year. This is easy enough to explain: I tried to read fewer books on philosophy this year because I felt like I was done going over the famous works, and the rest seemed either too esoteric or just unreadable (eg. Kant, Hume etc.). So, I realized that there’s only so much my casual interest in philosophy can get me and I simply moved on.
  • History and Politics dominate like never before, and it’s come at the expense of books on Science and Business. My tastes are what they are, and I don’t try to control which direction I should take my mind in. So, while the lean towards history is very interesting and somewhat surprising (even to me), I’m not going to consciously correct it.
  • My reading got decidedly more diverse this year, encompassing cultures, histories and personalities from China and India to Africa and Easter Europe. This is soemthing I’ve been trying to achieve, and I’m glad that I’ve made some progress towards having a more cosmopolitan understanding of my place in society.
  • As usual, I still hate Self Help, Biographies and preachy books on “Psychology” that have no (or extremely flimsy) factual evidence to support their thesis.
  • Recent bestsellers are prominently absent, which is something I’ll have to work on in 2020.

What made ‘Silk Roads’ 2019’s BOTY?

There’s so much that’s great about Silk Roads that I just have no idea where to begin. For one, it completely shakes up the traditional understanding of history as a mostly Eurocentric process that began with democracy in Athens and ended with the rise of the USA after the end of the Cold War. Silk Roads takes a sledgehammer to that silly notion and shows that actually, world history has always revolved around the silk roads that passed from China to the cities of Venice, Acre and Vienna in Europe.

From the dawn of civilization in Nineveh, Ur and Akkad to the plunderous raids by the Huns, Mongols, Visigoths and Timurids in the middle ages, the Silk Roads have dictated which people rose and who fell. From the ancient flow into Europe of silk, metals and porcelain from China, lapis lazuli, gold and spices from India to the recent flow of oil, arms and migrants, these same silk roads have also shaped the choices that nations and cities have made.

‘Silk Roads’ as a book is so beautifully crafted that it leaves the reader in doubt that history as we’ve learned it is completely wrong and useless. It also serves as a clear example of why the study of history is valuable, and gives you an idea of how to teach history: as a great story involving imperfect people making flawed choices in pursuit of relatable objectives. Not a simple procession of people, kingdoms and objects with no clear beginning or end.

A note about this year’s FPOS: ‘The Moral Landscape’

No other book has disappointed me as much as ‘The Moral Landscape’. The book not only managed to completely miss the whole point, but also completely unironically became its own caricature. At times, reading it felt like some sort of penitent self-flagellation for having considered myself a fan of Jordan Peterson many many years ago. From the first line, the author never tires of using outdated metaphors, offensive characterizations and completely fallacious arguments. Name a logical fallacy (follow link for big brain intellectual names given to commonplace mistakes people tend to make) and you can find it in ‘The Moral Landscape’. Ad hominem? It’s there. Straw man? Yep. Big Lie? Oh, yessir!

The thing is, Jordan Peterson is actually trying to show that “liberals” are the fools. In the process, he reveals how much of an airhead he is. For all his professed calm, calculated nature, he comes off as an unhinged lunatic fanatically opposed to giving an inch to anybody, whether on the right or on the left. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the evidence: my (relatively) detailed notes about why I hated it so much. Enjoy. And have a wonderful 2020 by avoiding this book at all costs.

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