Thursday, June 23, 2005


I have been book-tagged by Sumedha and Hirak. Finally...probably the post which I am going to write with the most gusto. However, I am famous for succumbing to the agony of indecision, and because books are so close to my heart, I could keep on writing about them. So I am going to keep this short, because I CAN keep on writing about them forever and nothing about them that I say will be enough for me at least. Suffice it to say that books provide me with the greatest amount of emotional support, sometimes more than those unpredictable human beings ;). So here goes...the tip of the iceberg that it is:

* Total number of books that I own: Never counted, but by broad definition could easily be about five hundred to eight hundred. These include books bought on my own from regular bookstalls, used bookstalls, exhibitions and sales, footpaths (including the trusted man on lakdi pool who used to reserve good ones for me), and others that I have begged, borrowed or stolen for good, and ones which have been presented to me on joyous occasions ( (which does not include the 12th std. results day) by one and all. Ninety percent of the books at my place are 'owned' by my father or me. My mother valiantly tries to make space for her own volumes in the midst of our literary quagmire (like the hundreds of old Reader's Digest issues which I have excluded from my count)

* Last book I bought: Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus. My obsession with J. Robert Oppenheimer continues and I have read all his biographies published so far.

* Last book I read: Probably two, more or less at the same time. 1776 by David McCullough, a great account of the American Revolution. The other one was The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams, a rollicking set of essays penned in his inimitable style.

* One book I couldn't finish: would probably be Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I am ashamed to say that even though I am a big Asimov fan, some bizarre reason found me constantly gravitating away from this famous book in mid stride. I suspect it was probably the temptation of even more interesting books scattered around me. However, I know that the book is a classic, and I hope to gather together enough focus to finish it sometime.

* Five great books I have read: Obviously this is a tough one, and I could list five hundred. But here goes anyway:

1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb: by Richard Rhodes- A Pulitzer Prize winning book with a deceptively simple title. This volume is an epic in the true sense of the word, a journey into all our sadness and triumphs and woe, the timeless history of the twentieth century all rolled into 600 pages. It is very much a work of history, science, and literature, each theme enumerated at its highest caliber. If we had to name two themes which defined the epoch that was the twentieth century, WAR and SCIENCE/TECHNOLOGY can lay fair claim to be the top candidates. This book is a sweeping and unforgettable journey through these themes, and demonstrates their intimate connection like no other book I have come across. Rhodes is a chronicler without peer of the people, places, and events that symbolized a new age, an age which promises salvation and damnation at the same time. Nothing I could say about this book would do justice to it, and I keep coming back to it at least once a week, many times for unforseeable reasons. As the Nobel Laureate and prime participant in the heroic era of physics, politics and science Isidor Rabi said, it is an "epic worth of Milton". This book also should convince any naysayer, that science, more than anything else, is a human endeavor. Meeting Rhodes last year in Atlanta was one of the most fortunate events in my life. It is very rarely that you get to meet the author of a book that is in many ways, the one that inspired you the most and changed your life.

2. Paradigms Lost: by John Casti- The BEST socio-scientific book that I have read. John Casti has become my favourite science writer, and I have read all his works. I first very fortunately came across this book when one of my father's students gifted it to him. In it, Casti, originally a mathematician, takes a wonderful, penetrating, and immensely expansive and entertaining look at six great problems that humanity faces (not in the practical sense of the term; that is trivial compared to these!). Because science and human problems are not really separate (it's only our feeble minds that need to compartmentalize them), every problem has both a profound scientific and social flavour, and the solution of these, if any, actually will define our existence and our sensibilities, and our place in the Universe. These problems are:
a. The origin of life
b. The acquisition of language
c. The acquisition of traits- nature or nurture?
d. Artificial intelligence
e. Extraterrestrial intelligence
f. Is there an objective 'reality' 'out there'?

Casti's style is very novel and creative. He presents each of these great debates as a courtroom trial, first presenting arguments for the prosecution, then for the defense. Finally, he summarizes everything and steps in as the jury to make the final decision. Predictably, for many problems, there is no final decision, no absolute answer. But we don't care because for every one of these conundrums, the process of discovery is much more revealing than the dogmatic nature of any 'final answer'. Not surprisingly, in solving these problems were, and are, involved the most brilliant minds of the century; natural scientists, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists to name a few.
One of the most striking things in the book is the sense of humour. Nowhere, even in popular scientific books, have I seen such fine dashes of humour; sophisticated and glib, sarcastic and endearing at the same time. Those who think scientists to be staid, silver haired oracle-like ivory tower figures will have their beliefs rapidly dispelled upon reading this book. Scientists are prone to the same delights and gauche follies that befall everyone else. More than anything else, research is fun, and John Casti is one of its funniest publicity agents.
At the end Casti seeks to ask one of the most gnawing questions that we have: Are human beings special in any way? It is obvious that an affirmative answer to questions like AI or ETI will negate our unique place in the Universe. But again, what I think we are unique right now, is in ASKING these questions in the first place. Like Casti, I think that more than finding, looking and searching are what science and life are really about.

3. Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman- This book started me on my quest as a scientist; I read it in 7th or 8th std. Since then, Feynman and his philosophy have always been with me and guided me in some of the more somber moments of life, and will continue to do so. Just like for many others, he is my personal hero, and I will never ever forget him.

4. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach- Inspiring in the simplest way possible, it may be the shortest inspirational book ever written. As in his other works, Bach brings a fresh breath of life to our existence in this work, and while it is simplistic, it is worthwhile taking an occasional break from life as we know it, to peruse it.

5. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer- Another earth shattering book that I read at a young age. THE definitive history of Nazi Germany, a thousand page crusade through the story of the greatest evil humanity has ever known. The book is remarkable and unique. Shirer was a war correspondent in Nazi Germany, and one of the few correspondents to leave the country very late. He witnessed the world's spiral into the dark ages first hand. Later after the war, for a very short time, the Allies opened the archives of captured Nazi documents to a select and elite few, Shirer being one of them. From the intensive work that he did during that unique period, Shirer put together this exhaustive and soul wrenching masterpiece, which will truly be the most meticulous account of Hitler's Germany ever written. My father thought that I shouldn't have read detailed accounts of Jews getting gassed at Auschwitz, at such a young age. But I think that the book in some ways, humanized me for life (although it also has made me overly sensitive sometimes to holocaust books and movies). The history of those years is so overwhelming, that for once, the adage of words being inadequate to justify and describe something surely is true. The rest is silence.
The most maddeningly penetrating account I have ever read (and that would likely be ever written) of why those blackest hours of the century should NEVER be forgotten.

OK...couldn't help putting in two more, disguised as one:

6. Giants of Science and Conquest of Disease, two other children's books, that nonethless were key along with Feynman's autobiography in inspiring my scientific interest, as well my interest in the human side of science, at an early age.

All these books are really inspiring for me from a 'lifetime's' perspective. As someone wrote however, many times we are inspired by writers, rather than specific books. Scholars who have recently inspired me include Noam Chomsky and Bertrand Russell. My comparatively recent interests; nuclear and American history, will surely add to such a list down the line.

As can be noted, there is ONE fiction book in there, and it can immediately be concluded that my book ruminations have almost completely leaned toward non-fiction. I am making efforts to read good fiction, and I do have read random and sundry works by Dumas, Wells, Verne, Dickens, and Bronte. I read abridged versions of most classics as a kid, and loved reading some George Bernard Shaw pieces for example. But frankly, I get readily distracted by good non-fiction books that are around. This is not surprising, as my two great interests are science and history. Somehow, I very quickly get inspired by real stories of men and women from different ages. However, my education in fiction will surely continue, thanks to the stalwarts at the Literature Blog

I am spreading the good word...tagging:



Blogger Nikhil K said...

Shouldn't fiction leave a more lasting impressions than nonfiction?
BTW, do you know a guy called Sachet_us Apte, who lives on FC campus and is son of ProfApte ? He had the most astonishing colection of books I had ever seen. Very eclectic.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Nikhil K said...

I see you have recently readThe Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power- Joel Bakan. I had seen the documentary made on it. Pretty amazing but one -sided. The author's bias shines through all the time and that made me doubt even his well-made points.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I guess it depends upon your inclination..some fiction did stir me.
About Sachet_us; yes, me and my family know him and his family well; he is very eclectic, unfortunately, he is even more eccentric...I believe his is a fine mind that could have achieved so much more...

9:48 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

O yes..about The Corporation, the view IS one-sided, but poision does need an equally strong antidote. In the end, we don't need both of them, but do need to know both of them.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

You have almost convinced me that the moment I finish my current backlog of books to be read (i.e. books borrowed but not read) I should read Casti's paradigms.
Have not yet tried BR except his short essay.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Kunal said...

Does Sachet_us always write his name with an underscore?

>>"poision does need an equally strong antidote"
It's the documentary you need an antidote to. When I walked out the movie hall after seeing it, I was a flag waving leftist. But then my head cleared, and I saw Truth again...

It's extra-strength propoganda.

6:21 AM  

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