Braving The New World

Eight lockdown reads to recalibrate your relationship with the human condition.
Marlon Brando, 1949. (Photo by Ed Clark courtesy of Getty Images)


Sapiens:A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Ifnormalitybeingonholdmakesyou feel like you’re drifting, untethered, through space, how’s thisfora crumb of comfort:all theconstantsthat make upthat normalitycountries, economy, capitalism, money, laws, brands – exist only because we allconcurthey exist in our collective imagination.That’s one of the key messages in this, a work whichThe Guardian listed as among the tenBest Brainy Books Of The Decade”.

Don’t listen to the posturingchin-strokerswhoresentweighty academic thoughtthat fliesoff the shelves of WHSmith: this examination of the cognitive, agricultural and scientific breakthroughs of history, and how they’ve shaped humanity itself, willhaveanyone with an ounce ofintriguerethinkingtheir place in the jigsaw.



The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,by Douglas Adams

Auniquekind of escapism isup for grabs when you pick uptherightlylaudednovel adaptationof Adams’late-70s radiosci-ficomedy, thanks to its author’s credentials as a scientist. Just as you have to be anaccomplishedpianist or dancer in order tofeignbeing an appallingone to comic effect, the physics-based comedy riffing inthistale of a dressing-gown-clad everyman’scosmic misadventures withcharacters includingatwo-headed hippie megalomaniacanda paranoid android is vastly more hilarious thanks to the soupcon of scientific authenticity in each ofthebatshit mini-premisesthat make upAdams’ bizarre parallel galaxy.



Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Deserving of the same pop culture cache enjoyed by1984,The Handmaid's TaleandThe Hunger Games, Huxley’s1932dystopiannovelpredicted bio-engineered castesandindoctrination programmes, with any impatience to rise through society suppressedbyemotion-altering drugs.Without actually coming true, his prophesies remainfreakishlyprescient.

The vast majorityofsciencefictionplaceshumanswho areculturallyidentical to usinafuturethat is radicallydifferent technologically:interms of complexity and plausibility,then, Brave New World isthe anti-Jetsons.



The Body: A Guide For Occupants, by Bill Bryson

This splendid precis of all human biology is packed with facts which haveprofound existential connotations.Such as?Your immune system zaps between one and five cancer cells every day;skin colourcomes down to a singlemillimetre-thicksliver 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 thathuman evolution is a done deal– our skeletons arestillessentially engineeredforlife on four feet– in this, a welcomeantidoteto thedeluge of banana oil currently being poured into cyberspace byanti-vaxxers, crystal worshippers and 5G conspiracy theorists.



Galápagosby Kurt Vonnegut

Another devastating broadside pummelling for theideathat 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 wildlifeinspiredCharles Darwin to transformhumanity’sentireexistential outlook, into comical sea creatures with flippers.Wonderfully self-deprecating – with “self”here being all mankind.



Human Universe, by Professor Brian Coxand Andrew Cohen

Even if you share his gargantuan intellect,you'll never have time to read thevolumeof textsthat the eternallyeffervescentCoxhasreadbefore tackling subjects such ashowclimatic adversity droveus frombeing Kubrick’s bone-smashingearly hominidinEast Africa’sGreat Rift Valleyto the guysmanning the International Space Station.The sectionof this bookon whether we’re alone will have the mostnarcissistic of readers wallowing, strangely relieved,intheirown insignificance.


Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

The Sun newspaper recentlyplumbedeven murkier depths of idiocy than usual when – safe in the knowledge that its readers’conceptof Shelley’sfamousantagonist is a motive-less marauder with a flat-topped green head, attached to its neck with agiant boltran a story whose headline was:Snowflakestudents claimFrankenstein'smonster was a misunderstood victim with feelings.

Needless to say, the studentsin questionare correct.Mary Shelley’s novel -l Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, to give it its full titleis aphilosophicaltreatiseonambition, alienationand 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, witheven senioracademicsusing it to refer to periodsin historythat have been disappointinglybereftofdripping clocks, elephant-like mechanical beings and yellow-matter custard dripping from dead dogs’ eyes.

No danger ofsuchhyperboliccatachresiswith thisearly-19thCentury gem though. Thepremise is thattheautobiographyof a bourgeois tomcathas, thanks to a printer’s error, been spliced with a book aboutgrumpyhypochondriaccomposer Johannes Kreisler. It’s theoretically a treatise about therelationshipbetweenart and society; it’salsoescapismat its most disarmingly, yet blissfully,surreal.




May 2020


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