There are 3 parts to this essay, a longer one on what I enjoyed reading (across books and podcast transcripts) this year, as well two shorter ones on what I enjoyed listening (music) and watching (web series).
Book reading is a competitive sport for some. Some want to read 52 books, one for every week. Some are more ambitious, going for 100 books. There was a time when I had such ambitions though I now strive to read fewer books. It is a realisation arrived after a year of book bingeing when I arrived at the end of the year, and stuggled to remember what I had absorbed. I almost had no memory of what was in those books. That is when I decided, I would strive for ‘fewer but better’ when it came to books.
I ended up with 17 books this year, just over half of what I read last year. Now, I do skim through or rush through a quarter of these books. It doesn’t pay to be OCD about reading each page, I have figured. This is not the lowest I have read in a year (have gone to as low as 14 books in some years), but this is below the average annual number (23) I have read in the past two decades. Low is good, and that makes me happy.
I read five works of fiction this year. I have been trying to increase the number of fiction works I read, and this was in the right direction. I have also been trying to read older books, and here I failed. I read far too many newly published works this year. A key reason for reading older books is that they are likely to be better, going by the Lindy principle.
This year’s best fiction read was Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. I had heard about the book but what spurred me to buy it and read it, was a comment by my colleague Ria, in an interview that it is her favourite book, and one she rereads every year. I had high expectations going in and wasn’t disappointed. It is an extraordinary read, covering the story of the transgender Calliope / Cal Stephanides, and the three generations of the American-Greek Stephanides family. It is funny, but also bittersweet, and tragicomic and utterly riveting. Most of all, Jeffrey Eugenides is a magician with the language, using arresting metaphors and analogies to build out a highly readable arresting classic. As with some of my previous fave reads (like A Suitable Boy), I had to ration myself on not reading faster, for I wanted to make it last.
Two other works of fiction delighted me. One was Vivek Shanbagh’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar’, a translation from Kannada. It describes an economically ascendant family that grows steadily dysfunctional with their shift to new house and shifting power equations within the family. Shanbagh is a genius at steadily building up atmosphere and claustrophobia, with economical use of language and a tight narrative arc. The book is a tiny masterpiece, the entire book is only about 117 pages long.
The other was ‘Roman Stories’ by Jhumpa Lahiri (one of my favourite writers). Jhumpa Lahiri’s book is a collection of stories set in Rome, featuring nameless immigrants and locals, but richly wrought out, each wrestling with unrooting, alienation, the uncertainties of memory etc., her typical themes but now dealing with non-Indian characters in the Italian landscape. I find it fascinating that Ms Lahiri now writes in Italian (having moved to Italy to learn the language), and that this piece was a translation (also like Ghachar Ghochar).
Another translation this time in faction / non-fiction, was my favourite non-fiction read of the year. This was ‘Papyrus’, by Spanish writer, Irene Vallejo, an eclectic, wide-ranging exploration of the origin of books, and early book culture (Alexander to Romans), and a celebration of the written word. Runner up was Pulak Prasad’s ‘What I learned about Investing from Darwin’, his rules for public market investing and how it resonates with ecology & biological principles (fascinating both for the comparison and a glimpse into the public market investing style employed by Nalanda).
A lot of the time allocated to book (and articles) reading was replaced by podcast transcript reading, typically tech / venture podcasts. Yes, I never watch podcasts on Youtube, and only rarely listen. My preferred consumption style is reading text, and I have optimised for that by downloading transcripts as pdfs on my Remarkable device. I can mark it up and transfer highlights from that to my notes app easily. Given most startup and venture podcasts publish transcripts these days, I don’t need to put much effort into getting the transcripts. For the ones that don’t do, I get my assistant to transcribe it via Rev, and edit it a bit for formatting.
Why less books (or articles) and more podcast transcripts? Well, regular readers of my writings know about my views on podcasts as well as how I see tech and venture podcast transcripts as having amongst the highest insight density per page of all forms of writing. So, I am very happy with the shift to reading more podcast transcripts.
On podcasts, I find that there are six I find frequenting more than the others – they are 20VC by Harry Stebbings, Colossus’ Invest Like The Best, Lenny’s Podcast, Dwarkesh Podcast, Acquired, and Venture Unlocked. All six publish transcripts now. For each, I picked one representative episode. Here they are
- 20VC – Rob Go of NextView Ventures giving you the inner mechanics and dynamics of raising a venture fund.
- Colossus’s Invest Like The Best – Scott Davis & Rob Wertheimer, authors of ‘Lessons from the Titans’ detail learnings from their book covering high-performing industrial companies such as Danaher, Roper, Honeywell, and draw out lessons from their success while contrasting them with high profile failures such as GE.
- Lenny’s Podcast – Andy Raskin describes how to create a strategic narrative, a simple story to help people understand why to use / back your product.
- Dwarkesh Podcast – riveting exposition of military strategy or specifically grand strategy, and associated concepts by Dr Sarah Paine, Professor of History and Strategy at US Naval War College.
- Acquired – Enjoyed this long but riveting deconstruction of Costco’s strategy by Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal including the interconnected choices, and intentional tradeoffs, that have led to one of the most formidable and valuable retail companies today.
- Venture Unlocked – Kyle Harrison of Contrary Capital covers emerging themes in the venture business such as shift in power from firm to superstar partners, and implications of that.
Watching and Listening
Writing, and reading mean something must give and that was watching. I didn’t watch too much to be honest. As to listening, given it can run parallel to other activities, it doesn’t get compromised as much.
Watching: Recently I liked ‘Slow Horses’ (Season 1), a spy thriller on Apple. Before that Raj & DK’s ‘Guns & Gulaabs’ and ‘Farzi’ (Vijay Sethupathi is sooo good in Farzi!) I also liked ‘Class’ the remake of Spanish hit ‘Elite’ (the music is incredible – especially love Nayantara Bhatkal on ‘Girta Sambalta’). I possibly watched and liked a few more but can’t recall now!
Listening: Beach House, and shoegaze / dream pop was my big discovery this year. Beach House was my most listened to band. Cocteau Twins came a far second. If you like music like Cigarettes After Sex, then you will like Beach House, though it has far more variation than Cigarettes After Sex. It is joyful, buoyant, wistful, nostalgic, sad, full of longing, ambient and so on. Beach House was the background music for much of my Indus Valley Annual Report work, filling in those cold winter nights.
What were your favourite reads or watches or listens this year? Comment here or email me your recommendations at email@example.com – if I get enough I will add them here with due credit to you.
Finally, I wish each of you a very happy new year, and hope you are able to make substantial progress this year towards your long term and short term goals.