My Favourite Non-Fiction books

The following are the 10 non-fiction books that I have loved and cherished the most.

10. Freakonomics – Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt

The description says it is a work of a rogue economist who explores the hidden side of everything. The book supposedly merges economics and sociology, but the importance of statistics in all this is what fascinated me about this book. I had scant regard to statistics. I often felt that it supposedly illuminates the truth with data, but too obscure to grasp. This book made me see it in a different light. It may be more sociology than anything else. But it definitely shows us a thing or two about how systematic collection of data is crucial to the pursuit of truth.

9. Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

The tag line says “The power of thinking without thinking”. I am not a huge fan of the word “Intuition”. It is a pretentious word that people use to describe emotions that they have not bothered to place yet and Blink is a book almost entirely about intuition. Gladwell explores how we may not know what we know. I do agree. There are plenty of things our subconscious knows more than the conscious mind. Nice book. I still don’t like that word.

8. Naked Ape – Desmond Morris

This book explores humans as it would explore any random animal and gives wonderful insight into many things we take for granted. This is the first book I ever read on the topic and I have a soft corner for it. The most interesting part for me was getting to know the territorial behavior in animals. There was a part about rearing the young that went clearly over my head when I read it first. Maybe I should give this one a try again.

7. Tell-tale brain – V.S. Ramachandran

V.S.Ramachandran makes topics like Capgras syndrome, mirror neurons more approachable. As someone who loves shades of colors with a passion, I found synaesthesia quite fascinating. People with synaesthesia can see sounds, taste colors and have other perceptions that a normal person does not have. After doing some cursory browsing on the given topics, I found that what Ramachandran has said in his book about mirror neurons has faced a certain extent of criticism. But then again, who wants to read a book that hasn’t faced enough criticism.

6. Cosmos – Carl Sagan

Cosmos is less a book about the cosmos and more a book about the men who made sense of the cosmos. We learn a lot about the men who first thought that the earth was spherical and those who found that the Sun was the center of the solar system. While we are at it we learn something about ancient beliefs. Sagan had the knack of being profound without sounding like a bore.

5. Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens begins around the Ice age and guides through the major historical events. We have come to equate history with wars, but Harari guides us through the beginnings of agriculture (which he deems a bad thing), domestication of animals, the advent of money, religion and other things which we now take for granted.

4. Red Queen – Matt Ridley

So Zog, the alien, lands on earth and learns all about sexual reproduction. They just clone themselves when they feel like having a baby and they are fascinated by our world of love, marriage, attraction, sexual jealousy etc., which are frankly… alien to them. Before giving her a top rating, her boss asks her what sex is for. Why is it any better than asexual cloning? Zod admits that even the humans did not know the answer for sure. From there the first third of the book, tries to go to the world when sexual reproduction first made its mark on planet earth. Ridley himself admits that this part maybe boring for most people, but was a fascinating read. Later the book treads regular Mars-Venus arguments but with more élan.

3. How the mind works – Steven Pinker

This book has taken up a rather sprawling subject and you’d think that it would struggle to find a direction. But this book was a wonderful journey in facts and thoughts. He begins explaining what robots do and then explains how even simple human tasks are much more complex than what the most complex robots can do. This is of course a given. We all know that even simple organisms are more complex than robots. But it is not a straw man argument. He kind of uses it to explain the complexity of the stuff we do on an everyday basis. He moves on to more familiar territory of how evolution shaped human emotions to be what they are.

2. Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins

Definitely the best book Dawkins ever wrote. My #1 favorite is also by Dawkins but technically, this is his best. Selfish Gene was not easy to understand as I involuntarily objected to everything Dawkins was saying. Molecules of DNA acting as if it has a mind of its own and individual animals and plants being merely steps DNA’s progress to immortality is not something I could grasp immediately but it is a powerful allegory to explain something rather difficult to understand. But once I did understand what he was getting at, I felt a sort of ephemeral happiness.

1.     Ancestor’s Tale – Richard Dawkins

The book starts with modern humans taking a journey to the beginning of life. We meet our ancestors –Ape-like ancestors, Monkey-like ancestors, early mammalian ancestors and fish-like ancestors and then the journey continues into invertebrates and finally those proto-creatures than were neither plants nor animals. It is safe to assume that most people aren’t very interested in worms or fungi. But Dawkins makes it all sound so fascinating and I do plan to read it one more time when I can.


Baby steps in Meditation

The decision to give meditation a shot came when I saw an image in Pinterest that said, “You’d never know what you are missing in life until you meditate 20 minutes a day.” It was the beginning of January when I was eager to clean up my act so I thought “Why not?”

I did not exactly take to meditation like fish to water. I was (and am) suspicious. So here is what I learnt.

The beginning was the easiest. Pick a place, wear comfortable clothes, dim lights to a certain extent, make sure you are happy with the fan’s speed and the air conditioner’s settings and off you go to the land of deeply breathing in and slowly breathing out. You breathe slowly and all you think is “Woo hoo, look who is meditating” but with a calmer quieter inner voice. This is simplicity itself. I was sure that this is one of those things that I just did naturally well. The next day was even better but I was getting slightly aware that my lungs were not used to this workout and was asking me what the hell I was playing at.

But soon the power of concentration and meditation decreased. I don’t quite know why this was so. Maybe I was not approaching meditation with sufficient reverence anymore. I started getting hungry during meditation time. I hardly found the time and when I did find the time, it did not feel good anymore. I was losing the meditation mojo I already had.

I had to add a few more rules like light snacking before meditating and not attempting meditation when too sleepy. But what are the tangible benefits that I can speak off? Is it really worth my time to spend close to 20 minutes?

Frankly the main point of meditation seems to be that you are not checking Whatsapp messages or twitter feed or Facebook feed, so instead of the outside world telling the mind what to think, the mind is permitted to be itself. At this time my mind doesn’t become less active. It becomes more active and reviews the parts of my life that needs more thought. I remember friends I need to catch up with, I remember that it is high time I visited my dentist and I remember that it has been some time since I returned blogging. But I also get time to reflect that what someone said was probably not what they meant. I take time to read between the lines. Delightful parts of my childhood pops in and in this process the thoughts get in line and the innards of my mind appears to be clean and dust free.

Is there any practical use? Yes. As I was saying, commitments you have been procrastinating and pushing aside will haunt you more and you will get more done. You’d review yourself and that will result in small changes. Perhaps you will find that you consciously drink more water or that you consider keeping away from someone who has been a gossipy presence in your life. Or may be you’d decide to enroll yourself in a Karate class after all these years. I am not sure what you will change after you start meditating. But something will change.