Saturday, 30 August 2014

Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Non-Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most

(I was "tagged" by a friend on Facebook as part of the "#TenBooksChallenge" that is doing the rounds of late. The idea is to list the ten books that have influenced one the most, and to "tag" one's friends in turn to get them to do the same.

I was delighted to read the names of books that others have listed, and I'm more than happy to participate.)

I'm going to cheat a little. Try as I might, I could not reduce the number of my favourite books to just ten. So I've created two lists of ten, one consisting of fiction books, and the other of non-fiction.

This is my non-fiction list.

1. Physics for Entertainment, by Ya. Perelman (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow)

One of the peculiar joys of growing up in India in the 70s was the availability of ultra-cheap Russian books translated into English. Many of these were on Science and Mathematics, the first "popular science" books that most of my cohort encountered, and parents were happy to buy these for their children. "Physics for Entertainment" was in two volumes, with lots of fascinating facts, and copiously illustrated throughout. This was one of my favourites from a very young age, and I'm happy to see that it's available online

(Later on, I came across a similarly fascinating Russian book on Chemistry called "107 Stories About Chemistry" by L Vlasov and D Trifonov. In many ways, I liked this even better than "Physics for Entertainment", but Perelman's book remains the classic of its genre.)

2. Communism - A Study of Revolution, by Gerald W Johnson (A Pennant Student Edition)

There are three writers I admire and envy. One is Ray Bradbury, whose "prose poetry" is mesmerising (more on him in the companion post on my ten favourite fiction books). The second is the gifted young writer Aatish Taseer, who uses his twin gifts of insightful perception and an inspired turn of phrase to create unforgettable pictures of everything he writes about.

The third writer on my list is Gerald W Johnson. Johnson's skill is in his use of extremely simple English to create a narrative of such gripping intensity that even a non-fiction book becomes a page-turner. I bought "Communism - A Study of Revolution" out of idle interest and began to read it one afternoon. I could only put it down when I had finished. This happened many times. I would pick it up and start reading at some random page, and would not be able to put it down till I finished the entire book.

Consider these early paragraphs.

Karl Marx was a great man. Say that to the next person you happen to meet and the chances are more than even that he will be shocked, because that is not the light in which we have seen him. To most of us the name brings to mind some cartoonist's picture of a wild, bushy-haired creature with fierce whiskers, holding a bomb that he is about to throw. Marx in some ways was terrible, because he made some terrible mistakes. But he was a student such as the world has seldom seen. He read every book - that is, every serious book - he could put his hands on, and he not only read, he remembered what he read. More than that, when he dug up facts that most people had forgotten, or had never known, he could put them together and figure out what they meant.

That is a rare quality. It is so rare, indeed, that we have a special name for a man who can take a large number of facts, put them together, and from the whole collection bring out some important truth that nobody has seen before. We call him a philosopher.
A bit gender-insensitive (aren't there female philosophers?), but then, this was written in the 60s.

3. Ninety Minutes at Entebbe, by William Stevenson (Bantam Books)

Few books have influenced my politics like this one. I read "Ninety Minutes at Entebbe" when I was in Year 10. This is the true story of how Israel mounted a daring rescue of its citizens who were being held hostage by PLO terrorists in faraway Entebbe, Uganda, under the protection of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Against formidable odds, after rigorous planning and training, and a 4000 kilometer flight path that circumvented hostile countries along the way, Israeli special forces stormed the aircraft and rescued almost all the hostages. The commander of the commando team (Yonatan "Yonni" Netanyahu) was killed in the fighting, and one of the passengers who was in hospital rather than at the airport had to be left behind, but other than that, the operation was a stunning success and established Israel's reputation as a country not to be messed with.

For me in particular, this marked the beginning of my admiration for Israel. With the rise in Islamist violence since Sep 2001, that admiration has also grown (tempered a bit by reports of excesses against civilians).

4. Marketing Warfare, by Al Ries and Jack Trout (McGraw-Hill)

Two books were the rage during my MBA days, both by the same duo of authors. The first was "Positioning - The Battle For Your Mind". This was a revolutionary book that introduced a number of new ideas, for instance, that the battle by competitors is not fought "out there" in the marketplace, but inside the prospective customer's head, and that placing second in a contest is as good as losing.

As good as "Positioning" was, it dragged in places and wasn't a very easy read. The book that followed, "Marketing Warfare", was an absolute masterpiece. It had all of the authors' trademark sarcastic humour, revolutionary ideas and simple writing style. Even better, this book was a breeze to read, an absolute delight. I got a number of takeaways from this book:

- A defender only needs to be 70% as strong as an attacker to thwart an attack.
- A market leader must constantly attack itself to keep ahead of its potential competitors.
- When attacking a competitor, a company must not attack a weakness that is a weakness. It must attack a weakness that is inherent in the competitor's strength.

5. Platoon Leader, by James R McDonough (Bantam Books)

McDonough's narration of his experiences as a young lieutenant during the Vietnam war affected me at several levels. At one level, this was a book on leadership, and the author's personal anecdotes of the times he had to pull himself together in spite of his fears challenged me to show courage and stand up to the many difficult situations I faced at around that time. At another level, I began to respect and admire the author for his moral position on many difficult situations that he faced during that messy conflict. But the main impact that the book had on me was in instilling in me the conviction that men in uniform must never be granted untrammelled power over a civilian populace, because atrocities are bound to occur.

McDonough writes,

Some men in combat will commit war crimes, just as some men in combat will fail to take care of themselves. They will experiment with drugs, steal property, abuse women. When this happens, it destroys the discipline of a unit, making it easier for others to follow suit. War is, at its very core, the absence of order; and the absence of order leads very quickly to the absence of morality, unless the leader can preserve each of them in its place. [...] He must allow no cutting of corners. A bottle of soda stolen from an old peasant woman leads gradually but directly to the rape of her daughter if the line is not drawn in the beginning. [...] The commander was the link to order and civility, and he had to be humane. At the same time, he had to be uncompromising to protect the lives of all. The job was not easy.

One of the heartrending incidents mentioned in the book concerns a group of American soldiers who raided a village at night and forcibly abducted a young girl before the eyes of her helpless family. (They later killed her after raping her.) As they were dragging the girl away, the girl's mother ran after them, holding out a scarf to her daughter to at least protect her from the cold.

The memory of that passage still shocks me, and the thought of that forlorn act of love and care of a helpless mother still brings me close to tears. That's why, no matter which country we are talking about, I cannot accept the standard "patriotic", right-wing rhetoric about "our boys who are risking their lives to protect our freedom". This is also why I am totally against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that indemnifies the Indian army during its operations in Kashmir, Manipur and elsewhere. Men in uniform must always be held accountable, otherwise atrocities are bound to happen.

6. Fundamentals of Database Systems, by Elmasri and Navathe (Benjamin/Cummings)

In 1990, I enrolled for a one-year part-time diploma program in software technology (This was before I went back to school for my masters degree in Computer Science.) I had a couple of years of experience with the Ingres relational database, but lacked a knowledge of formal database theory. The diploma program taught me how to design database systems ("data modelling"), and I learnt a new skill - that of drawing Entity-Relationship Diagrams.

When I did enrol for my masters in 1992, my thesis was on "Designing for Performance in RDBMS-based Systems", and I proposed an extension to the Entity-Relationship Diagram to incorporate elements of access patterns and load. You can download my thesis from here.

Even today, after more than 27 years of experience in various IT functions, my love for Linux and Open Source, my many years of experience with Java, and the last decade of my career as an architect, I consider myself to be fundamentally a "data person".

If there is one book that has made me what I am professionally, that has to be "Fundamentals of Database Systems". Thank you, Ramez Elmasri and Shamkant Navathe.

7. The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder (Little, Brown and Company)

Very rarely, a book comes along that makes one feel like a hero by association. Tracy Kidder's true story about the development of Data General's Eclipse MV/8000 minicomputer reads like a racy spy novel. Indeed, it has elements of espionage in it, as when Data General's Tom West (the main designer of the Eclipse) impersonates a Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) technician at a DEC customer site to sneak a peek at the insides of the early VAX minicomputer to estimate how much it must have cost to build.

All of a sudden, the computer industry was "cool", and we were all part of a brave new frontier. My employer (CMC Ltd) often used VAX minicomputers, and when I once visited a client's data centre, I saw a Data General machine there, and the thrill I felt cannot be described. It was more than a feeling of living history. I felt like I had been catapulted right into a action-packed novel. I was standing face-to-face with an Eclipse MV/8000, the main character in "The Soul of a New Machine".

8. Adventure Capitalist, by Jim Rogers (Random House)

Jim Rogers is a well-known name in Wall Street circles. He was an early partner of George Soros, and his investment style is unique. He has made at least two trips around the world using very unconventional means of transport, and has looked at countries and societies up close from the viewpoint of a potential foreign investor. I have not read his first book "Investment Biker" about his trip around the world on a motorcycle, but his second book "Adventure Capitalist" was delightful and informative, peppered with little-known facts and consequent insights about dozens of countries.

For example, I remember his contrasting pictures of China and Japan. In China, the waitress attending him at a restaurant would run, not walk, across the room when she sensed he wanted something. In Japan, the waiters claimed there was no rice on the menu even though it was a sushi restaurant and every dish had rice in it. Rogers's investment decisions followed his assessment of the countries' cultures, especially their attitudes towards customer service, as a predictor of future economic performance - buy China, sell Japan.

The book was written in 2004. In the decade since then, China has surged, while Japan has stagnated. There is quite possibly some method in Jim Rogers's idiosyncratic investing style.

9. Double Your Wealth And Halve Your Worries (without the mumbo-jumbo), by Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon (Wilkinson Publishing)

There was a phase in my life when I read many books on personal wealth, and three of them stand out. One is Robert Kiyosaki's "Rich Dad, Poor Dad". The second is "The Millionaire Next Door" by Thomas J Stanley and William D Danko. But if I had to nominate just one, it would have to be Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon's practical guide "Double Your Wealth And Halve Your Worries", written in the typically no-nonsense Aussie style and packed with common sense tips and advice. I have benefited a great deal from following her financial advice.

My heartfelt gratitude, Ms Pedersen-McKinnon.

10. The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel Huntington (Simon & Schuster)

Geopolitics has always fascinated me, and Huntington's seminal book explains it all. It is a sobering, somewhat disconcerting book. If what Huntington says is true (and I must say I think it is more than plausible), then the idealist vision of a world where we all dance around a fire singing Kumbaya (or L'Internationale) is a pipe-dream.

The world consists of five (or perhaps six) major civilisational groups, and all of human history is a result of the competition between these civilisations. Western civilisation is the dominant one at present, although it was not always so. Even within Western civilisation, there are in-groups and out-groups, as James Bennett further details in his book "The Anglosphere Challenge".

I have been coming to a similar conclusion for years, and when I read Huntington's book, it was an awful confirmation. I now know that there can never be one world, nor even a peaceful and harmonious world. Civilisations strive to express themselves, to extend their power and to influence others. At the very least, they struggle to prevent other civilisations from dominating them. When civilisations rise, they threaten the dominance of others, and their rise will therefore not go unchallenged. This means that conflict and strife will be our companions forever.

"The Clash of Civilizations" has influenced my thinking greatly. For instance, I can no longer look at India and China as countries. I now see them as the flagship nation-states of the Indic and Sinic civilisations, respectively.

[If you liked this post, you might like these other autobiographical pieces as well:
Ten Things Teachers Taught Me
Ten Great Epiphanies Of My Life
Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most]

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