It’s taken me until Easter to get my stuff together. Here in any case are some of the books that made an impression on me this past year.
- A room of one’s own, by Virginia Woolf
A beautifully written feminist and humanist polemic, this book is also a reflection on the conditions that make great writing possible. The image that sticks with me is of gold and silver being poured in through the roofs of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. As someone tying to make a living through service to universities, I’m increasingly called to ask: How (and wherefore) are these institutions supported?
- In praise of idleness, by Bertrand Russell
Russell argues that everyone should have access to the kind of leisure enjoyed by Oxbridge dons (the Greek root for leisure [schole] provides the root for our word ‘school’). The stand-out essay in this collection, ‘On useless knowledge,’ challenges us to think about what we mean when we say that knowledge is useful – and to whom.
- Sites of memory, sites of mourning, by Jay Winter
Just about every village and town in England lost men to the Great War, and most bear a memorial to them. This book explains the work these monuments performed for people back then, and why they look as they do. In the process, Winter raises questions about how families and societies come to terms with horror and loss.
- Rule of experts, by Timothy Mitchell
This book opens with an account of one of the major battles of the Great War – Rommel’s Africa campaign – seen from the point of view of a mosquito … or a Plasmodium (the malaria parasite) which arrived with soldiers from West Africa, and took advantage of a hungry, disrupted human population. The ambitious aim of the book is to explain modernity without assigning to capitalism a life or force of its own. Mitchell’s focus is Egypt (and a good part of the book is devoted to tracing how Egypt – and by extension most other nation states – came to be constructed as unitary geographical and social constructs).
- How to see the world, by Nicholas Mirzoeff
Nation states have become so much a part of our mental landscape that it’s difficult to see the world as if they didn’t exist. This book explores various ways of seeing the world – starting with the Blue Dot / Earthrise photograph, the first photograph of the earth from space, taken by astronauts in 1968, and comparing it with a composite image of the world pieced together from multiple satellite images in 2012. If (like me) you’re a visual thinker, you may enjoy this.
- Eaarth, by Bill McKibben
This book too is about seeing the world differently. It begins: “Imagine we live on a planet. Not our cozy, take-for-granted earth, but a planet, a real one, with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place.
“It’s hard,” McKibben admits. And yet that’s really the planet we inhabit. We’ve left the old one behind, and we better adjust to the new one.
- Advice and queries, by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain
To meet the challenges we face, we will have to draw on sources beyond any particular framing of religion (e.g. Laudato Si) or science (e.g. the IPCC). And so the Quaker emphasis on receiving “light from wherever it may come” seems fitting here. As do the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, and stewardship.
- Ten million aliens, by Simon Barnes
This book is a sort of hitchhiker’s guide to the animal kingdom – a catalogue of some of the life forms we share the planet with. But catalogue is too dry a word: These creatures are more wonderful than anything science fiction could dream up!
- ‘The end’ and ‘The end, unless…’, by Isaac Asimov (In: Today and Tomorrow)
Business-As-Usual has already decimated the kinds of life with which we share the biosphere, and is leading inexorably to the destruction of our forms of sociality. In ‘The end, unless…’ Asimov identifies ‘wrong thinking’ as a principal cause of these problems.
- A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula le Guin
Though it is fantasy, there’s something about this story that rings truer than many a work of non-fiction.
Le Guin, whose parents were anthropologists, draws on Argonauts of the Western Pacific and other sources to conjure the archipelago of Earthsea. Within it she traces the coming of age of a young man getting to know himself and the world.