Braving The New World
Eight lockdown reads to recalibrate your relationship with the human condition.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari If normality being on hold makes you feel like you’re drifting, untethered, through space, how’s this for a crumb of comfort: all the constants that make up that normality – countries, economy, capitalism, money, laws, brands – exist only because we all concur they exist in our collective imagination. That’s one of the key messages in this, a work which The Guardian listed as among the ten “Best Brainy Books Of The Decade”. Don’t listen to the posturing chin-strokers who resent weighty academic thought that flies off the shelves of WHSmith: this examination of the cognitive, agricultural and scientific breakthroughs of history, and how they’ve shaped humanity itself, will have anyone with an ounce of intrigue rethinking their place in the jigsaw.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams A unique kind of escapism is up for grabs when you pick up the rightly lauded novel adaptation of Adams’ late-70s radio sci-fi comedy, thanks to its author’s credentials as a scientist. Just as you have to be an accomplished pianist or dancer in order to feign being an appalling one to comic effect, the physics-based comedy riffing in this tale of a dressing-gown-clad everyman’s cosmic misadventures with characters including a two-headed hippie megalomaniac and a paranoid android is vastly more hilarious thanks to the soupcon of scientific authenticity in each of the batshit mini-premises that make up Adams’ bizarre parallel galaxy.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley Deserving of the same pop culture cache enjoyed by 1984, The Handmaid's Tale and The Hunger Games, Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel predicted bio-engineered castes and indoctrination programmes, with any impatience to rise through society suppressed by emotion-altering drugs. Without actually coming true, his prophesies remain freakishly prescient. The vast majority of science fiction places humans who are culturally identical to us in a future that is radically different technologically: in terms of complexity and plausibility, then, Brave New World is the anti-Jetsons.
The Body: A Guide For Occupants, by Bill Bryson This splendid precis of all human biology is packed with facts which have profound existential connotations. Such as? Your immune system zaps between one and five cancer cells every day; skin colour comes down to a single millimetre-thick “sliver of epidermis”; and, from a purchasable chemical element perspective, the average person would cost £96,546.79 to build. There’s also news for those who entertain the notion that human evolution is a done deal – our skeletons are still essentially engineered for life on four feet – in this, a welcome antidote to the deluge of banana oil currently being poured into cyberspace by anti-vaxxers, crystal worshippers and 5G conspiracy theorists.
Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut Another devastating broadside pummelling for the idea that we’re the pinnacle of evolution. Vonnegut’s characteristically misanthropic fantasy yarn - set one million years after an apocalypse induced by global financial crisis then infertility-causing disease – sees a small band of survivors evolve, on one of the islands whose wildlife inspired Charles Darwin to transform humanity’s entire existential outlook, into comical sea creatures with flippers. Wonderfully self-deprecating – with “self” here being all mankind.
Human Universe, by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen Even if you share his gargantuan intellect, you'll never have time to read the volume of texts that the eternally effervescent Cox has read before tackling subjects such as how climatic adversity drove us from being Kubrick’s bone-smashing early hominid in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the guys manning the International Space Station. The section of this book on whether we’re alone will have the most narcissistic of readers wallowing, strangely relieved, in their own insignificance.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley The Sun newspaper recently plumbed even murkier depths of idiocy than usual when – safe in the knowledge that its readers’ concept of Shelley’s famous antagonist is a motive-less marauder with a flat-topped green head, attached to its neck with a giant bolt – ran a story whose headline was: “Snowflake students claim Frankenstein's monster was a misunderstood victim with feelings.” Needless to say, the students in question are correct. Mary Shelley’s novel - l Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, to give it its full title – is a philosophical treatise on ambition, alienation and revenge: and, indeed, what constitutes a “human”. The fact that Shelley started writing it when she was 18 is beyond remarkable.
The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, by ETA Hoffmann The word “surreal” is a widely misused one, with even senior academics using it to refer to periods in history that have been disappointingly bereft of dripping clocks, elephant-like mechanical beings and yellow-matter custard dripping from dead dogs’ eyes. No danger of such hyperbolic catachresis with this early-19th Century gem though. The premise is that the autobiography of a bourgeois tomcat has, thanks to a printer’s error, been spliced with a book about grumpy hypochondriac composer Johannes Kreisler. It’s theoretically a treatise about the relationship between art and society; it’s also escapism at its most disarmingly, yet blissfully, surreal.