Summer books: Another selection of hand-picked reads for your summer break

Fri 18 Aug 2023
Posted by: William Barns-Graham

Books on beach with sunglasses

There’s still a couple more weeks left of summer and with the August bank holiday approaching, many of you will be looking forward to getting away from the laptop, hitting the beach and immersing yourself in a book.

In the latest of the IOE&IT Daily Update’s series of summer reads, executive editor William Barns-Graham gives three further recommendations.

Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

Helen Thompson

Readers of the New Statesman and listeners to the London Review of Book’s Talking Politics podcast will be well acquainted with Thompson’s work. She has an incredible ability to see the bigger picture when it comes to commentating on contemporary global and domestic politics.

Her most recent book, Disorder, gives a thorough and compelling account of today’s geopolitical situation through the lens of some of the 20th century’s major events and themes – including the dependence of large economies on oil, the collapse of the post-war Bretton Woods financial system and the slowness of western economies to view China’s economic emergence as a political threat.

It was published after the pandemic but just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2021. It is nonetheless prescient in the picture it gives of today’s world, showing how the fault lines that have existed since the end of World War II have fed in to today’s geopolitical situation, whether that’s Putin’s aggression in Europe, heightening US-China tensions or the tough choices created by the green transition.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

David Graeber and David Wengrow

The late David Graeber was one of his generation’s best-known anthropologists and, alongside archaeologist David Wengrow, he gives an alternative interpretation of human history in The Dawn of Everything that challenges many of the mainstream pop-socio-historical accounts given by the likes of Yuval Noah Harari and Francis Fukuyama. Namely, the book challenges the view that as societies become more complicated and wealthy – or, as some might say, more ‘civilised’ – they tend also to become more unequal.

Their focus is to disprove what they frame as being two-dimensional accounts of primeval human societies. Using evidence from a broad range of pre-historic communities, they attempt to dispel the Hobbes versus Rousseau dichotomy of pre-civilisation people being viewed either as chaotically violent or as noble savages. They also seek to undermine a linear view of human history as being one of unbridled progression (or regression), instead depicting a huge variety of social models among our earliest forefathers.

In so doing, they argue against what they describe as “stagist” accounts of humanity’s fall into inequality. They instead try to use the myriad social models they depict as evidence that the current capitalist situation is not inevitable, pointing to pre-historic man’s creativity and ingenuity as a source for hope that alternative models are possible.

The archaeological evidence they cite is fascinating and while their alternative historical take won’t be to everyone’s taste, I can guarantee most people will find this book to be both thought-provoking and eye-opening.

The Bodhicaryavatara: A guide to the Buddhist Path to Awakening

Santideva (translation by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton)

Buddhist literature has an abundance of practical and spiritual guidance that is as relevant to our times as any. And you don’t need to be a Buddhist to gain great solace and insight from it. Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara is one of the tradition’s most widely read and loved texts – particularly in the Mahayana versions of Buddhism that are popular in China, Japan and increasingly the West – and its message is one of compassion and devotion to it.

He is thought to have lived in India sometime between 685 and 763 CE and his story is shrouded in mystery. He fled a life of royalty to devote himself to spirituality, much like the historical Buddha Siddhartha. Yet, in the monastic university Nalanda, where he studied and practiced, he was typically viewed as being somewhat lazy. It was therefore to the great surprise of his peers that he suddenly recited the Bodhicaryavatara, apparently disappearing into the sky as he spoke.

Whatever the veracity of this mythology, his vision is that of the Bodhisattva’s ideal – to reach enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. As such, it is a guide on how to understand and realise our potential for selfless compassion. This path is challenging and enigmatic, but it is also inspiring and life-affirming. It’s given me great daily insight into how to be a better colleague, manager, friend, partner and person.