Gateways To Joy
Book Reviews
These books don't fit into neat categories.
The Story of Philosophy
The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers

by Will Durant, 528 pages, 1926 (Amazon link).

A popular book for introduction to European philosophy. Chapter by chapter, Will Durant traces important European philosophers from antiquity to modern times in chronological order. The ideas generated by individual philosophers are interwoven with descriptions of their personalities and their sociopolitical circumstances. Some critics don't like this intermingling — they prefer that philosophical ideas be presented by themselves, not in the context of the lives and circumstances of their proponents.

What did I learn from this book? The first thing that struck me was that logic is highly valued in European philosophy! Now Eastern philosophers consider logic or 'reductionism' to be man's forte. They consider 'intuition' or 'holism' to be a woman's forte, with the two of them coming together to form one whole. The ancient Chinese expressed these sentiments via the Yin-Yang diagram. From the Chinese standpoint, by emphasizing logic, European philosophy has created a blind spot for itself.

The second thing that struck me was captured by S Radhakrishnan in the preface of one of his books. He noted that contemporary Western approach emphasizes individualism and novelty; so different philosophers vie with each other with insights into something new that was never explored before! In contrast, Eastern philosophers believe that everything (relevant) was known to ancient seers and sages; so philosophers have great reverence for the past and merely provide expositions of ancient knowledge in modern language. One consequence of these two different views is that a book in Western philosophy tends to be a chronological concatenation of thoughts of different personalities. After reading such a book, one is left wondering whom to believe because different philosophers say different things! However, a book in Eastern philosophy is always an exposition of truth or wisdom of the ancients, with instructions for practices and encouragement for following these practices so that belief in the truths is established through personal experience.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

by Edward Tufte, 197 (2nd Ed) pages, 2001 (Amazon link).

Edward Tufte's books are a must-read for anybody who ever draws a graph in any presentation. His books have large fonts and are full of graphics. So you may easily finish reading a 300-page book on a weekend.

An interesting tidbit from Tufte's book: Do you know when the first graphs were produced? Surprisingly, the graph format that we take for granted today (plotting two variables on X and Y axes) was first conjured by William Playfair in 1786.

Tufte also wrote The Cognitive Style of Power Point (32 pages, 2006), which highlights the shortcomings of Power Point as a tool for making presentations, a must-read for speakers. More books by Edward Tufte: Beautiful Evidence (213 pages, 2006) — Envisioning Information (126 pages, 1990) — Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (156 pages, 1997).

The Triple Helix
Gene, Organism, and Environment

by Richard Lewontin, 144 pages, 2000 (Amazon link).

A collection of essays for understanding limitations of modern biology, especially the 'genes are everything' model.

This book taught me something interesting: The genes of organisms and the environment influence each other in complex ways. Choosing the environment to be the independent variable and genes to be the dependent variable is a matter of convenience!

The Supermen
The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer

by Charles J Murray, 232 pages, 1997 (Amazon link).

This book is a biography of Seymour Cray, an extraordinary computer engineer who envisioned and practically created the supercomputer industry in 1970s. He was well ahead of his times!

What I learnt from this book was Cray's dedication, decade after decade, in picking up increasingly ambitious projects. He never got tired! :)

Ordeal by Hunger
The Story of the Donner Party

by George R Stewart, 392 (1st Ed) pages, 1971 (Amazon link).

The book traces the tragic journey of Donner Party in 1846. The Donner Party was a group of eighty seven men, women and children trying to cross the Sierra Nevada in California in the winters along a new route. The party continued to make progress in bitter cold; roughly half survived the journey; towards the end, group members resorted to cannibalism.

Reading the wikipedia article on Donner Party and reading the book are totally different experiences. The book develops the story slowly, in great detail, explaining the circumstances that led to cannibalism. Plot development of their painful ordeal evokes empathy. The wikipedia is 'matter of fact'.

Curiously, the fraction of women who survived was far larger than the fraction of men who survived. This article attempts to explain why women were far more resilient.

The Endurance
Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

by Caroline Alexander, 224 pages, 1998 (Amazon link).

An extraordinary survival story of 27 men trapped in Antarctica for 20 months in 1915-1916. British explorer Ernest Shackleton was the captain of his ship called Endurance. They were trying to reach the South Pole. Unfortunately, Endurance was trapped and then crushed by ice. Shackleton and his men survived five months on ice floes. Eventually, they were saved when three of them sailed one of the ship's lifeboats almost 800 miles to South Georgia, a 25-mile wide island, in tough conditions.

Endurance is an incredible saga of courage and endurance. Shackleton is remembered for his leadership skills that kept his team together in extreme conditions.

A Mathematician's Apology

by G H Hardy, 154 pages, 1967 (Amazon link).

The Good Earth

by Pearl S Buck, 368 pages, 1931 (Amazon link).

The story of a family through famine, abject poverty and riches. The description of famine, hunger and poverty left quite an impression on me when I read the book in 1990. Pearl S Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for this work in 1932.

Interpreter of Maladies

by Jhumpa Lahiri, 208 pages, 2000 (Amazon link).

A collection of nine short stories on Indian immigrants in USA, caught between two different cultures. For this book, Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000.

Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care (8th Ed)

by Benjamin Spock, 992 pages, 2004 (Amazon link).

A Bible for childcare information.

Positive Discipline

by Jane D Nelsen, 384 pages, 2006 (Amazon link).

Guns, Germs, and Steel
The Fates of Human Societies

by Jared M Diamond, 480 pages, 1999 (Amazon link).

A book that I read several years ago. Don't remember much.

Beyond the Grave
The Right Way and the Wrong Way of Leaving Money To Your Children (and Others)

by Gerald Condon, 480 pages, 2001 (Amazon link).

A very good book that is full of stories pertaining to inheritance. A must read for anybody thinking of wills and trusts.

The Book of Five Rings

by Miyamoto Musashi, 160 pages, 2002 (Amazon link).

The Art of War

by Sun Tzu, translated by Samuel B Griffith, 224 pages, 1971 (Amazon link).

I was amazed at the scope and depth of thinking underlying the Art of War. Like many ancient books, the original is a collection of short passages, which later writers expanded through examples. The Art of War has general principles on strategy that have been adopted by both business managers and sports coaches. Art of War (wikipedia) is high quality.

© Copyright 2008—2017, Gurmeet Manku.
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