Books Read in 2020

This comes in after a quarter of 2021 has already slipped by. I could only draw a blank when I tried to recollect all the books that I read in the past year. It had to wait until I returned to Bangalore and look at the shelves and pull out all of them. Visual memory works better for me.

Vaidya‘s nudge to compile this has had an interesting effect – more insights! In a typical year, I am happy to look up, buy, read and stack the book. Year 2020 wasn’t exactly typical. And, that made me look closely at the books I read in these months. Reading in Hindi remained limited to books that I could access and buy during my visits to Northern states, which includes a memorable evening spent trawling Hindi collection at Patna’s ‘The Books-En-Amee (Pride of Patliputra)’ bookstore. I read a substantial amount of poetry but all of it in digital format. The year also saw a phenomenal spike in podcast listening.

My reading preference is intuition and curiosity-led. I find the annual lists put out by publishers and lit sites a drag. Not because they are lists. Lists are fertile grounds to scout when stepping out of one’s own disciplinary bubble. But they are a drag because of their consideration – ‘best sellers’! It may not yet be the time to read a book that’s becoming a talk of the town (or never!). That cuts the distraction out and one gets all the time to get into rabbit holes of curiosities that the ongoing days and activities present.

The detours triggered by daily life and especially the kind of world we found ourselves into with the pandemic restrictions and lockdowns, partly explain the range of books read in 2020.

When seen together, the titles and subject of books are a proxy to how the year was spent. A lot many evenings at Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram are seen in the two volumes of collected works by Pyarelal and Sushila Nayar. Gandhian thought continued to be the wallpaper of months spent working on the farm in Wardha.

Ecology and Conservation dominated as a subject as we farmed through two cropping cycles of kharif and rabbi. Choice of crops and the whole process of food production led to wider exploration of ideas from Wendell Berry’s thinking on farming to Vinoba Bhave’s ideas of private property.

An intense phase of reading on education, Indian society, inequality and poetry followed during the peak lockdown months from March to May. That is seen in all the ‘Social Inquiry’ titles.

Here’s how I have tagged all the books read in 2020 based on nature of content.

Summary of books read in 2020

The books sit stacked on the table as I write this. There are dozens of thoughts and quotes that I feel compelled to share here and exclaim ‘This it what the author writes!’, ‘Look! How remarkable a thought.’ and so on. But, I must refrain from such out of context quotes. Sometimes, the beauty of a sentence or sparkling clarity of a thought gets the better of me.

Road to Nowhere – Wildlife Conservation in India -1Pabla HSWildlifeA short and sincere account and reflection from a Forest Services officer with 35 years of service. ‘As long as I was a field officer, I never thought there was a problem with our laws and continued to implement them with gusto.’ – How man ex-bureaucrats would have the honesty to admit this. Book organised around the question – ‘Why preserve dangerous wild animals if you cannot even see them, forget hunting?’. Discusses forest acts and politcs.
Indian Forestry Through The AgesNegi SSWildlifeA wide sweep of history of Indian forestry. forest legislation and forest management by a Forest Services officer. Textbook-ish and dated information. Interesting in its historical contextualisation.
Himalaya – An AnthologyBond Ruskin, Gokhale NamitaMountaineeringBeautiful collection of essays on Himalayas over the century from various people – adventurers, travelers, mountaineers and all varieties of people who seek company and solitude of the mountains. Lama Angarika Govinda and Viki Mackenzie quoted here – . VM – “Sometimes I would stand at the edge of my patio and look out across the mountains and think, “If you could be any place in the whole world, where would you want to be?” And there was nowhere else. Being in the cave was completely satisfying.” LAG – “When every detail of our life is planned and regulated, and every fraction of time determined beforehand, then the last trace of our boundless being, in which the freedom of our soul exists, will be suffocated.”
Moving Mountains – Lessons on Life and LeadershipMessner ReinholdMountaineeringBook is designed as a motivational/self-help kind. Set of Messener’s thoughts patched together crudely. But worth reading because Messner’s views and reflections are interesting and different. “Today, we all live more in a world of machines and technology. On our battered planet, there is scarcely space left where we ccan forget our civilized society and, undisturbed, put to the test our innate powers and abilities. In us all the longing remains for primitive conditions in which we can match ourselves against nature, have the chance to have it out with her, and thereby discover ourselves. And this is the real reason that for me: There is no more fascinating challenge than this – one man and one mountain.”
View From The SummitHillary EdmundMountaineeringThe classic Everest book recollecting the first climb with Tenzing and other details.
Tiger FireThapar ValmikEcology and ConservationCollection of writing on tiger over 500 years. Very wide sweep and phenomenal diversity of authors From Abu’l-Fazl to Schaller and Raghu Chundawat. Offers a glimpse into the national parks and conservation history of the 80s and later. Valuable insight and big picture perspective.
The Himalaya – Aspects of Change – AnthologyLall J SEcology and ConservationFascinating little collection and perhaps rate. Scholarly articles on changing patterns of life and biodiversity in the Himalayas from Sikkim to Nepal. Lall – ‘For those who have walked in the Himalaya for days on end without meeting a soul it will come as something of a shock to be told that there is a problem of population at all,, which in fact is much acute than in the plains.”
Bring It To The Table – On Farming and FoodBerry WendellEcology and ConservationOne of the finest authors read this year! Remarkably different and grounded perspective that doesn’t sound unreal or incompatible. Perhaps, more elevated in its thinking than current on Industrial agriculture and farming. Farming is a conversation. WB writes – ‘…an agriculture using nature, including human nature, as its measure would approach the world in the manner of a conversationalist. It would not impose its vision and its demands upon a world that it conceives of as a stockpile of raw material, inert and indifferent to any use that may be made of it. It would not proceed directly or soon to some supposedly ideal state of things. It would proceed diectly or soon to serious thought about our condition and our predicament. On all farms, farmers would undertake to know responsibly where they are and to “consult the genius of the place”. They would ask what nature would be doing there if no one were farming there.’ Earlier post on him here –
Ecology of WisdomNaess ArneEcology and ConservationNaess is a deep thinker. This is eco-sophy. Recollects his experience living in a hut on a mountain. Writes on long range deep ecology movement, non violence, Gandhi, Spinoza and problems in contemporary world with respect to nature and ecology and human condition. AN writes – ‘The way of liberation through “natural history” is different: very little abstract thinking, very much seeing, listening, hearing, touching.” Description of a morning on Tvergastein – ‘ The early morning sun also lightens up a faraway (thirty miles long) string of metallic electric masts and thick wires – hydroelectric power destined for Oslo, two hundred miles away. Each mast is an elegant structure revealing much love and ingenuity on the part of the engineers, but such a string of masts transforms the landscape. (…) What does a gallon of boiling water mean in the cities? Nothing. At Tvergastein, it is a formidable luxury, enough to satisfy a host of essential services, a gift of nature of the most atonishing character.’
Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern LandscapeLopez BarryEcology and ConservationA very fine reading on natural history, travel and ecology. Moving account of what the author experiences and observes in his travel. BL – ‘At the heart of this narrative , then, are three themes : the influence of the arctic landscape on the human imagination. How a desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it. And, confronted by an unknown landscape, what happens to our sense of wealth.’ Earlier post on Lopez here –
Nature’s Spokesman – M Krishnan and Indian WildlifeGuha RamachandraEcology and ConservationDuring the mornings rides around the farm, the landscapes brought in a whole variety of thoughts about biodiversity, man-nature relationship, wildlife (on the morning that at blackbuck jumped across the road) and the question – if all of it will survive, and what have we lost. M Krishnan’s columns have been a window into a country, forests and countryside that was in earlier decades of 20th century. Guha does a fantastic job of collecting these writings of Krishnan together and bringing it as a volume with his own admiring essay on Krishnan.
A Pedagogue’s Romance: Reflections on SchoolingKumar KrishnaSocial InquiryKrishna Kumar’s reflections on what’s wrong with the Indian education system drawing from his work at the NCERT. Nuanced insights and beautiful language.
Annihilation of CasteAmbedkar B RSocial InquiryEssays on caste and untouchability.
Ancient Futures – Lessons from Ladakh For a Globalizing WorldNorberg-Hodge HelenaSocial InquiryAn anthropological account of mapping changes and development of communities in Ladakh region. Maps out the transition well and reflects on what the future might look like. Key idea – ‘social and environmental breakdown is not inevitable or evolutuionary but the product of conscious political and economic decisions.
Understanding Indian Society – The Non-Brahmanic Perspective (Edited)Dahiwale S MSocial InquiryIncludes authors like Surinder Jodhka, Satish Deshpande. SD writes on ‘Confronting Caste Inequality: What Sociologists Must Do To Reorient Social Policy and Jodhka’s fascinating paper on Nation, Anthropology and the Village. TK Oommen on Understanding Indian Society SD questions ideological and conceptual preconceptions in understanding of caste inequality in India
CultureWilliams RaymondSocial InquiryA monograph on the idea of ‘culture’.Pedantic and clinical. RW – ‘There is some practical convergence between (i) the anthropologial and sociological senses of culture as a distinct ‘whole way of life’, within which, now, a distinctive ‘signifying system’ is seen not only as essential but as essentially involved in all forms of social activity, and (ii) as ‘artistic and intellectual activities’, though these, because of the emphasis on a general signifying system, are now much more broadly defined, to include not only the traditional arts and forms of intellectual production but also all the ‘signifying practices’ – from language through the arts and philosophy to journalism, fashion and advertising – which now constitute this complex and necessarily extended field.’
Democrats and DissentersGuha RamachandraSocial InquiryIncludes essays on Benedict Anderson, Erich Hobsbawm, Andre Beteille,
Mahatma Gandhi – Volume 1 The Early PhasePyarelalHistoryThese are huge volumes. Only began reading it selectively.
Mahatma Gandhi – Volume 5 India AwakenedNayar SushilaHistoryDr Sushila Nayar’s POV on Indian freedom movement, Gandhi and people around them.
The Non Fiction Collection – 20 Years of Penguin IndiaPenguinSocial InquiryNani Palkhivala’s essay on ‘education and the art of reading’ – short and scathing.
Where Some Things Are Rememebered – Profiles and ConversationsMoraes DomBiographyOn Indira Gandhi – his essay is nuanced
Leela – A Patchwork LifePinto JerryBiographyJerry Pinto’s writing is perceptive – on mental health, complex personalities and human condition
A Fearless Heart – Why Compassion is the Key to Greater WellBeingJinpa ThuptenPhilosophyOn kindness and compassionate living
The Fiction Collection – 20 Years of Penguin IndiaPenguinFictionIntroduced to writings of authors writing in other Indian Languages – Mamang Dai, Kamleshwar, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
Pandit Deendayal UpadyayaSharma Hari DuttBiographyAvoidable! Discusses DDU’s death for 80% of the book.
Kavve Aur Kaala PaaniVerma NirmalShort StoriesDeeply perceptive and inner looking
Des PardesKamleshwarShort Stories
Mera Jeevan PravahaHari ViiyogiBiographyA tormented, deeply reflective man trying to live out his failures, examine them and leave an honest account of his life.
Bahukm-e-Vazire AzamUpadhyay RameshwarShort StoriesRefreshing contemporary writer from Hindi belt
Meri Priya KahaniyanRai PratibhaShort StoriesBrings alive India of 50s and 60s
Bhookh (Translation of Knut Hamsun’s Norwegian Book ‘Sult’Grover TejiFictionNorwegian writer Knut Hamsun’s story translated in Hindi. Style reminds of Mulk Raj Anand’s.
Books Read in 2020. The spreadsheet with titles, year, some quotations and my notes is here.

Not all the books were finished. I also abandoned a lot many of them in addition to not starting a few. A lot of time was also spent on reading research papers and reports related to work and academic work that I did over the year. Probably, a bit of that overflowed here.

4 thoughts on “Books Read in 2020

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