Essay Review – “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin

This essay was referenced to in a podcast that I heard a few weeks ago. The podcast was discussing the difference between public intellectuals and modern day experts of specific areas. The podcast referenced a famous line from this essay to explain the difference: “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’”

I was fascinated by this and immediately read up this essay. It was, to put it mildly, not quite what I was expecting. To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting in the first place. Perhaps more insights from ancient Greece, or a detailed explanation of whether it is better to be a hedgehog or a fox.

What I got instead was a look at the intellectual mammoth that Leo Tolstoy was, and his thoughts about history. The essay is fascinating, not only because it captures some of the challenges with teaching history today, but it is also a lesson in history itself because it broadly discusses the tumultuous history of Europe in the 18th century.

What was very interesting was that some of Tolstoy’s concerns with how history is taught is very reflective of how we think about it even now. Sample this:

‘history will never reveal to us what connections there are, and at what times, between science, art and morality, between good and evil, religion and the civic virtues. What it will tell us (and that incorrectly) is where the Huns came from, where they lived, who laid the foundations of their power, etc.’


‘History is nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles, cluttered up with a mass of unnecessary figures and proper names.’

And why was Tolstoy so concerned about learning from history? Well, because he was somewhat like Elon Musk, in that he believed in breaking things down to the first principles and  living by them. Tolstoy believed that the only way to live is to find out the science and the principles that apply to humanity and live by the values and ideas that emerge out of them. And the only way to learn these ideas is by studying history itself.

The essay then goes on to trace why Tolstoy thought in this manner, especially when he was writing his epic War And Peace. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher author of this essay, masterfully shines a light on Tolstoy’s correspondence and his research to try and find the answers that might benefit humanity as a whole.

This is a beautiful, if academic and densely filled with knowledge, essay that I was glad that I bumped into. Perfect reading for a weekend.

Read more about ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ on Goodreads. Buy a copy here.

Title: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Author: Isaiah Berlin

First Published: 1953

Number of Pages: 96

Price: Paperback – Rs. 599 / Kindle – Rs. 500 (

My Rating: 8/10

(Disclosure: If you buy any book by clicking on the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)



Book Review – “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”

An incomplete story of a self-taught, multi-talented titan


I’ve long been fascinated by Benjamin Franklin, not just because he was one of the founding fathers of the United States, nor because he can be seen on the US 100 dollar bill. The interest stems from the fact that he achieved all the greatness in his life in spite of having very little formal education and having to quite literally teach himself skills which brought him all that success. To quote from a letter (included in the book) that someone wrote to him: “…you are ashamed of no origin; a thing the more important, as you prove how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness.”

The book begins as notes to his son but quickly descends into too many details of his early life. I initially found the details interesting as they had a narrative feel to the “origin story” of Benjamin Franklin. But I soon found myself skimming past events that no longer seem relevant in today’s world. This book is, after all, almost two and a half centuries old!

What did impress me was the frugality and industriousness that was evident in Franklin’s life from a very early age. He first brought this ability of sheer hard work to teach himself writing and debating ideas. He later multiplied his knowledge, thus gathered, by associating and engineering gatherings of erudite people. The work ethic of simultaneously spending long hours at his printing business, reading and studying matters of public importance, discussing and debating with others and setting up of public institutions is immensely motivating.

What is disappointing and disgusting to read is the carefree manner in which women and Native Americans are badly treated and spoken of in the book. Nary a thought is spared for women who are left alone to bring up a child or the human rights of the indigenous people.

I was left a little underwhelmed by the time I finished reading this book. It ends literally mid-sentence and that is pretty much how you feel about the book as a whole. We only get a short look at the inventor and the diplomat, two aspects of his personality that I wanted to read more about. I guess I’ll just have to settle down and read the biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson that I bought a few years ago.


  • “Human felicity is produc’d not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”
  • “Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forc’d by the occasion.”
  • “This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repair’d in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allow’d myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolicks of any kind; and my industry in my business continu’d as indefatigable as it was necessary.”

Books I marked as to-read after reading this book:

Read more about ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Author: Benjamin Franklin

First Published: 1791

Number of Pages: 154

Price: Paperback – Rs. 98 / Kindle – Rs. 77.88 (

My Rating: 6/10

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “Annihilation of Caste” by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Dr. Ambedkar’s radical idea to end the evils of casteism


I can trace back my interest in reading the works of Dr. Ambedkar to the time when I studied civics in high school. What were the thoughts of the man who was the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly which drafted India’s Constitution?

Of the many hats that Dr. Ambedkar wore, none was more prominent than when he spoke up against the evils of casteism. It only takes a mild scan of the news reports today to see the injustices meted out to those who are considered from a “lower caste” (I’m cringing with disgust at having to write this). I can only imagine how much worse it was a century ago, in Dr. Ambedkar’s time, when he had to personally suffer indignation.

Annihilation of Caste is the speech that Dr. Ambedkar was invited to give at a conference in Lahore in 1936. However, the group that had invited him, on receipt of the advance draft of his speech, felt his ideas were too radical and requested he change a portion of the text. Dr. Ambedkar refused and preferred to have the conference cancelled rather than stand down on his principles.

The speech is an insight into the practices of untouchability and violation of civil and human rights that the Scheduled Castes (as they were later called) were subjected to. It tells us of the injustices and tortures that were commonly meted out to a group of people, only because they were considered to be unclean and born into a certain caste.

Dr. Ambedkar follows this up with demolishing one-by-one the various justifications used to defend the caste system. The scholarly breadth of his defence is breathtaking: from historical and social examples ranging from various parts of the modern world, to Greek and Roman empires, to sociology and science. He liberally quotes from the French Revolution and the Irish Home Rule movement, and explains the structure of government in ancient Rome to explain how a caste system is unfair.

He then takes the flame to the religion. Dr. Ambedkar attacks Hinduism and Hindus (Brahmins in particular) who have used the system to their advantage to keep others impoverished socially, martially and economically. The Manusmriti gets special mentions for the divisions that it created in society. Dr. Ambedkar argues that the only way to get rid of this evil is to discard Hinduism in toto and throw out the scriptures that Hindus consider holy, including the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagawad Gita and others. (I wasn’t using the word ‘radical’ lightly when I wrote the title of this blog post.)

The book then includes Mahatma Gandhi’s response to Dr. Ambedkar’s publishing the speech and the contents thereof. Gandhiji makes a few thoughtful arguments, but I did feel that they were missing the main point of the speech. Dr. Ambedkar says as much in his response to Gandhiji’s replies. There are clearly very strong differences of opinion between Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar, but what is revealing (almost refreshing, given today’s times) to see how both respectfully disagree with each other and attack the topic rather than the person.

I did find myself scratching my head at times when I was reading Babasaheb’s arguments, but all in all, I finished this book a little more aware about the evils that existed and the residue of which can be seen till today. I don’t think Dr. Ambedkar had any delusions that he had found an easy solution, but in trying to explain his opposition, he gives us an idea of what it means to treat all people equally with respect.


  • “He, who will not reason, is a bigot; he, who cannot, is a fool; he, who dares not, is a slave.” – Sir William Drummond
  • “To sum up, let political reformers turn in any direction they like, they will find that in the making of a constitution, they cannot ignore the problem arising out of the prevailing social order.”
  • “Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men.”

Books I marked as to-read after reading this book:

Read more about ‘Annihilation of Caste’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: Annihilation of Caste

Author: Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

First Published: 1936

Number of Pages: 415

Price: Paperback – Rs. 300.20 / Kindle – Rs. 363.85 (

My Rating: 8 out of 10

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “The Hero Within” by Carol S. Pearson


Caution: You might not recognise these heroes


If ever there was a case of “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover (or by it’s title)”, this was it.

When I was browsing Goodreads a few weeks ago, I stumbled across this interesting title and thought here was something that appealed to me. I should’ve researched better.

Dr. Pearson is a therapist who draws upon the works of Carl Jung and says that there are archetypes that our subconscious minds know of, and if we call on these, they can be a source of unleashing our potential.

Unfortunately, the book draws largely upon Christian and Greek mythologies to drive home the point. Most of the examples are from stories which people in a Euro-centric world would be familiar with. As an Indian, these had very little impact for me. This made me think how different cultures around the world might be at a loss to connect with it. What of people from countries in Asia and Africa who have a treasure load of mythologies from their own cultures? This idea of “hero by templates” wouldn’t stand for them.

Another shortcoming, although not a fault per se, was the fact that the book is old. Examples seem dated, and the realities mentioned seem from a lifetime away (which, in this case, is the 1990s). The book hasn’t aged well, and I constantly felt like the author was speaking in generalisations.

I have to say that there were some portions which did make a lot of sense, as is evidenced by the highlights and notes I made while reading this book. Yet, these were too far and few in between to make me want to continue struggling. I usually don’t give up on a book till I’m at least 20-25% done with it, and in this instance, I read up to 40% of it. Sadly, no more.

I’d much rather go back to reading about achieving my potential with the hope that I can get better at anything and hard work.

Read more about “The Hero Within” on Goodreads.

Title: The Hero Within

Author: Dr. Carol Pearson

First Published: 1986

No. Of Pages: 338

Price: Paperback – Rs. 1271 / Kindle – Rs. 293.42

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “Mindset” by Dr. Carol Dweck


It’s official: Nothing is impossible

If you have always felt that there are some things that you could never be good at (mathematics, science, drawing, dancing, chess…) because you’re “wired” a certain way, then this book is here to challenge that notion.

“Mindset” makes the claim that *anybody* can get good at *anything* they put their mind to. The author does not claim that you will definitely become the world’s best at your chosen activity or skill, but if you work diligently and scientifically, there’s almost nothing that you can’t become better at. This “growth mindset” is in contrast to the “fixed mindset” where one believes that we are born with a set of skills and that there is no way we can become better at other things.

A couple of caveats, though. The author points out that there are always going to be the 1-2% people who do have skills which would make us label them as geniuses. Then there might be the 1-2% folks at the other end of the spectrum, who might have learning disabilities and hence find it more difficult and take longer to pick up a certain skill. However, for the remaining 96-98% of the population, there is tremendous scope for improvement.

The other thing one needs to watch out for is that people who have a “growth mindset” in one area of life might have a “fixed mindset” in another. This was akn interesting wake up call for me.

I identify myself as someone who largely believes in the growth mindset, although I was barely knowledgeable of the term before I picked up this book. However, even I was surprised to learn that a skill like negotiation could be learned. This jolted me a bit and now I find myself questioning everything that I thought I couldn’t learn or be good at.

The book also touches on thei issues of sexism and racism. Negative labels can limit women and communities to feel that they canonot achieve excellence in certain disciplines; STEM or financial management, for example. I was glad the author mentioned this because it tied in directly to the essay “We Should All Be Feminists” that I read just last week.

The one criticism that I do have of this book is that the examples are mainly American. While I do understand that the book was largely aimed at an American audience, the success of it’s subject matter surely deserved an international comparison.

This book made me go back to “Grit” and made me realise how well that book was structured. In it, the author listed four reasons how grit could be cultivated: interest, passion, purpose and hope. This book addresses that last factor, hope. If people realise that they can get good at anything provided they put in systematic effort, they will tend to apply themselves to a job or a task for a longer period of time.

I cannot recommend this book enough, especially to parents and teachers. The book shows how vulnerable young kids are to labels and fixed mindsets and how making them believe from an early age that they could achieve almost whatever they put their mind to is much more empowering than feeling helpless and trapped.


  • “It’s ironic: The top is where the fixed-mindset people hunger to be, but it’s where many growth-minded people arrive as a by-product of their enthusiasm for what they do.”
  • “Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.”
  • “Later, at a meeting of Hewlett-Packard engineers, Packard gave the young man a medal “for extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty.” ~grins~

Read more about “Mindset” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: Mindset

Author: Dr. Carol S. Dweck

First Published: 2006

Number of Pages: 301

Price: Paperback – Rs. 330 / Kindle – Rs. 215.60 (

My Rating: 8 out of 10

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For some time now, I’ve been thinking of reading up on the topic of feminism. I’ve always believed in the equality of the sexes and strongly disapprove of any unfair action or behaviour that women have to put up with. But I had a couple of questions for myself: What precisely makes one a feminist? How do I show support to the idea of equality of the sexes?

In this powerful essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie answers those questions and more. Based on a TEDx talk she was invited to give, Chimamanda speaks about her own experiences while growing up in Nigeria and of some of her friends in Nigeria and America. These experiences, however, are Universal. Even as a man living in India, I found myself shaking my head at a couple of places, recalling the casual sexism that exists in our society.

This isn’t a scholarly work where the author enumerates the societal and economic costs of not treating men and women equally. This is a personal insight into the experienced injustices and frustrations that women all over the world have to deal with.

What is important to realise is that it would be foolish to assume that these do not affect the world of men. We share the same planet, remember?

My favourite part of the essay was when she listed one by one the reasons how we have over the years been normalising sexist behaviour, and follows that up with reasons why these justifications do not stand. “Why just feminism, why not human rights?”, “Look at the animal kingdom”, “But that is our culture” are some of the most commonly (and immensely flawed) arguments that people who do not want to challenge the status quo use. Like sexist behaviour, these justifications too seem to have a Universal presence.

In summary, this is a VERY important essay. I will argue that it is much more important that every *MAN* reads this essay than every woman. If we have to build a society whose culture is based on equality and meritocracy, we need to get the voices of women to be heard by the current establishment who will find it loath to let go of their comfortable seats.


  • “I am angry. We should all be angry.”
  • “There are far fewer guides for men about pleasing women.” Legit thinking of writing a post titled “A man’s guide to pleasing women.”

Read more about “We Should All be Feminists” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: We Should All Be Feminists

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

First Published: 2014

Number of Pages: 64

Price: Paperback – Rs. 202 / Kindle – Rs. 148.15 (

My Rating: 10 out of 10

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan

In this classic book, Carl Sagan is simultaneously teacher, guide and storyteller, weaving together a tale to try and answer the question so many have asked: Who are we and where have we come from?

In a journey that spans 15 billion years, from the Big Bang to the immediate future as he saw it in the early 1980’s, Sagan gives us not only the story of evolution, but also glimpses of world history and scientific breakthroughs which helped us understand our home planet, our immediate neighbours in the Solar system and the worlds beyond.

He does veer sometimes into mathematical proofs and scientific details, but more often than not, I understood the broader concepts because the language has been deliberately kept simple. As someone who is reading a book on astronomy for the first time, I was able to grasp most of the ideas that were discussed.

A note however must be made of the lovely story-telling skills employed. The book is scattered with historical tales, myths and legends from different cultures and even bits of fictional musing. If you enjoy reading chapters which start off with a tale, explain mind boggling ideas in a simple language and then wrap it all up neatly, you will enjoy this book.

A descriptive language also come in handy when the words on the page give seeds to breathtaking visuals in your mind’s eye. For instance, in the chapter on Mars, I felt like I had landed on the rocky, red surface of the planet; in another chapter, I could easily picture myself on the moon Titan, looking at the faraway Sun, with Saturn and Jupiter two magnificent, huge globes in the sky.

If you’re a person who is even a little curious about the Earth, or about our Solar System, or what it would be like on Mars, what adventures we might encounter on inter-planetary travel, and if there are intelligent, alien civilisations in the wide expanse of the Universe, this book is for you. The fact that you’re a lay person who only read some science way back in school is not going to be a hindrance.


  • “The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land” – T. H. Huxley
  • “We live on a mote of dust circling a humdrum star in the remotest corner of an obscure galaxy.” I think it were these words of cosmic perspective by Carl Sagan which prompted me to change my phone wallpaper to that of The Pale Blue Dot.
  • “A book is made from a tree… One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of year. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you… Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.”
  • If you, like me, are a fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, be ready to jump with excitement at certain passages in the book.


Read more about “Cosmos” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: Cosmos

Author: Carl Sagan

First Published: 1980

Number of Pages: 432

Price: Hardcover – Rs. 1041 / Paperback – Rs. 399 (

My rating: 9 out of 10

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth

Title: Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Author: Angela Duckworth

First Published: 2016

Number of Pages: 352

Price: Paperback – Rs. 400/ Kindle – Rs. 274.86 (

My rating: 5 out of 5

Remember the fable about the hare and the tortoise, and how the lazy hare lost the race to the slow but persevering tortoise? Well, they weren’t kidding.

Dr. Angela Duckworth starts this book with the premise that socially and culturally, we attribute a lot of success to talent whereas a larger proportion of that credit should go to perseverance. She goes on to show how various longitudinal research studies show that grit and constantly striving to become better is a far greater contributor to success than raw talent. Examples of this range from success stories at National Spelling Bee to military schools and from sportsmen to regular office goers.

Sure, everyone who reads this is bound to feel motivated. But Dr. Duckworth cautions us that the route to such success is mostly daunting and might appear to be boring and full of struggle. In a sense, she is saying that although not fashionable, good old hard work trounces talent which hasn’t worked hard enough.

The book tells us practical ways in which grit can be cultivated. And this has big implications not only for leaders at multi-million dollar companies and sports teams, but also for parents trying to get their kids to succeed at school. She outlines how we should approach the “10,000 hour” rule, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively.

I must add that I couldn’t help but think of marathon training. Almost all the skills and attributes that the author spoke of are present in people who train for endurance sports, even at the amateur level. And I’m speaking not only about traits like not giving up when one is mentally and physically exhausted but also a sense of camaraderie towards your fellow runner by motivating them to push harder and putting another step forward.

In summary, this is a book which would give a lot of people hope in the belief that with hard work and perseverance, they *can* change their life story.

Read more about “Grit” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “The Way I See It – A Gauri Lankesh Reader”

(Click on the picture to purchase a copy)

Title: The Way I See It – A Gauri Lankesh Reader

Editor: Chandan Gowda

First Published: 2017

Number of Pages: 278

Price: (Paperback) INR 295 (

My Rating: 5 out of 5


This is an exceptional book that traces the writings of Gauri Lankesh and her evolution as a journalist over almost a quarter of a century, from 1993 to 2017. We witness first hand her change from the ‘elite’ English reporter to the hard hitting Kannada journalist that she eventually became.

Even in her early writings, her strength shines through in an article about a serial murderer who terrorised Bengaluru (then Bangalore). We see the writer exploring the story from different angles, pursuing even the criminal’s point of view to try and give the reader a complete picture.

As the years roll along, her writing becomes more personal and purposeful. Take for instance the article where she outlines her efforts to publish the autobiography of a transgender woman whom she considered her sister. Lankesh makes us sympathise with the woman and forces us to ponder at the ill treatment and lack of opportunity the transgender community has to put up with even today. This theme of exploring the 360-degree view of the marginalised and of the people on the opposite side of the table was to become a hallmark of her writing, as I noticed.

Her writing became more political too in the later years. The second half of the book consists of translated articles where she takes political stands and doesn’t mince words while doing so. What I particularly liked was how well she expressed the multiple complexities that shape the political landscape and debate of a particular region. I realised I had had almost no idea about the dynamics of Karnataka politics before I read this book.

And then there are some beautiful non-political articles that just captured the heart. For instance, this is an excerpt from her article on the English language vs. Mother Tongue debate:

One of the English rhymes sung by children studying in the English medium is ‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day, little Johnny wants to play.’ Kids studying in the Kannada medium sing ‘Huyyo, huyyo, maleraya, baale totakke neerilla’ (which roughly translated to ‘Rain, please pour and pound the earth, there is no water in our banana plantation’). The first rhyme, which is of British origin, reflects the miserable English weather which is of no consequence to us in India. The second, which is entirely local, tells us that ours is an agrarian society, that we depend on rains and that banana is grown here – all of which enhance the knowledge of our children.

For this, and many more such lovely little nuggets, I would encourage you to buy this book and give it a read. Not to mention, the fact that Gauri Lankesh was brutally gunned down in 2017, and this book is a way of keeping her political legacy alive.

Read more about “The Way I See It” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin Lefevre

This disguised biography of Jesse Livermore has been highly recommended by stock market pundits over the years. One can see why, given the fact that the observations about human nature and stock trading ring true almost a century after the book was written and first published.

What however might make this a cumbersome read is the fact that most of the practices and anecdotes mentioned here are no longer relevant today. Institutions have been replaced and there are strict rules against “manipulating” stocks.

The book does give you a glimpse into the kind of courage and daring required to make big bets in the stock market. Apart from that, for the general learning, I recommend reading through the quotes from the book on Goodreads.

Read more about ‘Reminiscences of a Stock Operator’ on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: Reminiscences of a Stock Operator

Author: Edwin Lefevre

Published: 1923

Number of Pages: 308

Price: Kindle – Rs. 60, Paperback – Rs. 890 (

My rating: 3/5

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)