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The Essential Summer Reading List: 12 books to take on your travels


Summer holidays: that rare occasion when you can settle down with a good book guilt-free. With no chores to contend with or imminent deadlines to meet, it’s a time when you can ignore the ‘to do list’ and instead while away the time on the plane or on a sun-lounger absorbed in a beautifully written, thought-provoking book.

And what could be better than a recommended read – knowing that your time and money will be well invested. Some of our New Generation Thinkers and Theme Fellows have put forwards their suggestions for what to pack in your suitcase this summer.

Prof David Galbreath, AHRC-ESRC Conflict Leadership Fellow, University of Bath recommends:


Void Star, Zachary Mason (Jonathan Cape, 2017)

The summary:

The novel follows three characters through a futuristic reality that we might expect in terms of automated cars, worker drones and endless connectivity. As the book quickens pace, the reader begins to see how technology has played a major role in reshaping society by enabling the masses while stretching inequality beyond what one would imagine possible. Touching on cyber security, Internet of Things, singularity, The Matrix as well as environmental disasters, poverty, extreme wealth and private security, the novel takes our foreseeable technological future and twists it to illustrate how technology, culture and society are inherently linked.

You should read this because...

I recommend this book because of its ability to work within the technology realities that we see operating around us today while taking us down a path of fundamental social transformation. The book sheds light on the challenges of automation and what that means for how culture and technology are connected.

Eleanor Lybeck, New Generation Thinker, University of Oxford recommends:

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris (Faber, 2001)

The summary:

Summer, the season for voyages, is the perfect time to indulge in travel writing. Jan Morris’s final book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, is an ideal choice. Her near 60-year love affair with this strange port city is accounted for in her version of Trieste’s literary, cultural and political history, which is as captivating, eccentric and evasive as the place itself. Caught today between Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, Trieste was briefly among the most strategically important cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Morris’s sensitivity to its faded glory is instantly nostalgic.

The humour with which she attends to its idiosyncrasies and idiosyncratic inhabitants (most vividly, the English diplomat, explorer and orientalist Sir Richard Burton, who was exiled to Trieste by Queen Victoria where he indulged in seemingly scandalous proclivities) is equally endearing, to author and place alike. Morris joins a long line of writers who have been puzzled and enchanted by Trieste: Rainer Maria Rilke, James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Stendhal and Paul Theroux.

You should read this because...

It is the way in which she captures her own story in her reflections on the city that is, to me, most impressive – and inspiring.

Dr Joanne Paul, New Generation Thinker, University of Sussex recommends:

Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears, (Vintage, 2003)

The summary:

In the first sentence, the main character of this brilliant work of historical fiction dies. It is not a mystery, like some of Iain Pears’ other works, but an exploration of the meaning of civilization, and our place in it, which takes place across three moments in history at which we are told civilization was threatened: the fall of Rome, the Black Death and World War Two. What connects them is a single manuscript, making the historian’s craft the real hero of this book. All three stories are captivating in their own right, involving love, betrayal and the dizzying heights of power.

You should read this because...

For me, it is what brings them together that makes this book so impressive. Pears’ writing asks the reader to reflect on the purpose of history and the way in which we think about it. I find myself wondering about my place in history and in building (or destroying) this thing we like to think of as ‘civilization’. In a world where we still speak of the ‘civilized’ and ‘barbarous’, it is worth reflecting on what precisely that means. Maybe it is just beautiful human stories lost to history and recovered in fiction.

Dr Emma Butcher, Leverhulme ECR at the University of Leicester and New Generation Thinker recommends:

Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter, (Faber & Faber, 2016)

The summary:

There are some books that are breathtaking, and this one made me stop and reflect (with an added tear) at the end of every page. Max Porter’s debut book won the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2016 and the Guardian First Book Award for a reason. The part memoir, part novel, part experimental sound-poem is told through the perspective of a father, two young boys and Crow. The plot is based around one event: after the sudden death of his wife, a Ted Hughes scholar tries to cope with his own sorrow alongside bringing up his two grieving children. In this moment of despair, Crow (‘antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter’) comes to stay until they no longer need him. The way that Porter handles death is remarkable, and his use of language is astonishing.

You should read this because...

Quite frankly, it is unlike anything that I have read before, or think I will read again. The feelings that you experience whilst reading are revelatory and fraught. My favourite passage has to be where the two young boys describe their father, in his youth, going to a Ted Hughes lecture in Oxford. It is here where Porter’s command of humour is faultless: ‘He’d never been to Oxford before and he was shocked that there were normal shops, McDonald’s and stuff […] He thought there would only be professors mulling things over’. This laughter rolls into sadness when abruptly you are reminded ‘Ted Hughes died, and so did our Mum’. This passage, like so many others, leaves you feeling strange, and stunned, and utterly in awe. Read it now.

Dr Christopher Bannister, New Generation Thinker, University of London recommends:

Soldiers of Salamis, Javier Cercas, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010)

The summary:

Causing somewhat of a literary sensation when it was released in Spain in 2001, Soldiers of Salamis offers a rumination on the role of memory and forgetting in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. At once a sweeping historical epic and a small, intimate story of mercy and humanity; the novel follows a fictionalised version of the author in his attempts to discover the truth about how Rafael Sánchez Masas, a fascist poet, was saved from execution by a merciful enemy soldier in the desperate, final days of the war.

Split into three sections, the novel first introduces us to the cynical 'Javier Cercas' documenting his attempts to find out the truth behind Sánchez Masas' ordeal for his own literary gain. The following section provides an account of events according to 'Cercas', but leaves the reader (and author) with more questions than answers. The final section focuses on the Cercas' efforts to track down the merciful soldier, to ask him why he did what he did. Each part of the triptych offers new insights not only into the tale itself, but of the travails of the Spanish nation during and after the Civil War.

You should read this because...

The result is a novel with an original postmodern approach that provokes timeless questions about the writing of history and nature of heroism.

Dr Hetta Howes, New Generation Thinker, Queen Mary University of London recommends:

The Power, Naomi Alderman (Penguin Books, 2017)

The summary:

Who runs the world? In this dystopian re-write of patriarchal history, the answer is: girls. But not as we know them. These are girls who wake up one day to find that they can electrocute a man with a single touch, and for whom the possibilities of using this new power seem to be limitless, at first. Because, as the plot unfolds, the devastating burdens of this power begin to reveal themselves. Whether it’s in the hands of men or of women, this book reminds us, power is something that can be stolen, perverted and misused, with disastrous and terrifying consequences.

You should read this because...

Naomi Alderman’s Bailey’s prize-winning novel – the first science fiction work to ever claim the title – does not take the easy road when looking power, and gender dynamics, square in the face. If you’ve been enjoying the new televised version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood herself recommends The Power) then this one’s for you.

Professor Andrew Prescott, AHRC Digital Transformations Theme Fellow recommends:

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr (first published in 1959)

The summary:

A nuclear war has destroyed civilisation and unleashed a backlash against knowledge and technology. Books are systematically destroyed and anyone who can read is killed. An engineer called Leibowitz tries to rescue books and science. His followers become the ‘Albertian Order of Leibowitz’, dedicated to preserving the writings which survived the destruction of civilisation.

Miller’s novel opens with the discovery by a young member of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz of some charred fragments of writing, apparently parts of a shopping list. The monks speculate that they are perhaps relics of Leibowitz himself. Miller was inspired to write this book by his participation in the bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino in the Second World War.

You should read this because...

Although it is more than 50 years old, Miller’s exploration of the role of knowledge and science in society is more pertinent than ever. His description of attempts to reconstruct lost knowledge from fragments resonates with the experience of a humanities scholar trying to understand distant periods and places. For all our knowledge and technical aids, do we do better than the Albertian Order of Leibowitz?

Dr David Higgins, AHRC Leadership Fellow, University of Leeds recommends:

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi, (Night Shade Books, 2012)

The summary:

The Windup Girl imagines a grim future in which the world is severely afflicted by environmental catastrophe: rising sea levels, resource depletion, and rampant diseases caused by scientific experimentation. The real power in this world lies in the huge ‘calorie companies’ that benefit from the crises for which they are partly responsible. A complex web of political conflicts frames the story of the relationship between a company man and the Windup Girl: an android engineered for slavery.

You should read this because...

I’ve chosen this text because it creates a remarkably vivid depiction of a devastated planet. I found myself initially confused and alienated, but the novel’s vision quickly became compelling and frighteningly plausible. The novel also draws richly on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – a text that I have been writing on recently – in imagining the possibility of a posthuman species arising from biotechnological experimentation.

Joe Smith, Professor at the Open University recommends:

Findings, Kathleen Jamie (Sort Of Books, 2005)

The summary:

Poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie is one of a crop of what have been called ‘the new nature writers’. Britain has a rich and longstanding nature writing tradition, and Findings confirms that the genre is alive and well, although Jamie has suggested she doesn’t want the book to be so easily categorised. This book of essays is perfectly suited to the distinctive pace and demands of summer holiday reading. She calls for 'the care and maintenance of our web of noticing, the paying heed' (19). Whether discussing birdlife (‘if you’ve seen the hawk, be sure, the hawk has seen you’) or ancient human settlements, these meditations on, and mediations of, humanity’s relationship with the non-human natural world are both moving and motivating.

You should read this because...

It manages to be both enchanting and challenging. Jamie’s book quietly insists that you look harder, and in so doing, care more.

Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, The Science Museum recommends:

The Gradual, Christopher Priest (Gollancz, 2016)

The summary:

I hadn’t heard of Christopher Priest until I read a Guardian review of The Gradual last year. How can it be that this author of at least 15 well-received novels, listed amongst the famous 1983 20 Granta Best of Young British Novelists, should come fresh to a committed reader? The answer must be genre: Priest’s work is published as sci-fi.

The much wider readership he deserves will be entranced by this beautifully-written, thoughtful story set in the ‘Dream Archipelago’, the location for several stories since 1981’s The Affirmation. There, the many islands of his imagined world may well be the hallucination of his central character’s flight from breakdown. But here, it is a real-world setting – although an elusive one – where one key physical feature is different: this world has tides of time.

You should read this because...

The narrative and philosophical implications of this conceit could not be more beautifully and pacily worked out.

Professor Charles Forsdick, AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow, 'Translating Cultures', University of Liverpool recommends:

For some time, I have been interested in the potential of graphic fiction for innovation in life writing. For summer reading, I recommend two recent titles that harness the resources of the graphic form to cast new light on their complex biographical subjects whilst providing striking visual entertainment.

The Abominable Mr Seabrook, Joe Ollmann, (Drawn and Quarterly, 2017)

William Seabrook (1884-1945) is now remembered primarily as an American travel writer and early gonzo journalist. Often associated with his lurid claims to have participated in cannibalism, he also popularised the term ‘zombie’ in English through his writings on Haiti. In The Abominable Mr Seabrook, Joe Ollmann takes the life of this complicated, troubled figure – ‘writer, explorer, alcoholic, sadist, cannibal’ – and seeks to recount his adventurous existence and diverse travels. It is the story of a self-obsessed and self-destructive protagonist, aspects captured perfectly in Ollmann’s striking artwork.

Josephine Baker, Catel Müller and José-Louis Bocquet, (Selfmadehero, 2017)

Josephine Baker recounts another exceptional American life. This is a substantial graphic biography of over 550 pages, now translated from French into English, recounting the story of Baker (1906-1975), the entertainer and civil rights activist. Like Ollmann’s work, it draws on extensive research, in this case tracking its subject’s trajectory from early twentieth-century St Louis via Broadway to interwar Paris, where Baker was one of the most celebrated performers of the jazz age. It covers her contribution during World War II to the French Resistance and the mixed fortunes she suffered in her later years. Baker’s story unfolds in the context of the struggle against racism on both sides of the Atlantic and reflects the emergence of the civil rights movement. A remarkable life recounted in memorable visual form.

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