The reading room

These are some of the texts I hope others will find if they haven’t already. I’ll add more titles time allowing. If you want to talk about these or other books, let’s start a reading group.


Gregory Bateson: Mind and Nature

In “Mind and Nature”, Gregory Bateson explores the fundamental concepts underlying ‘the pattern which connects’ - a meta-pattern that connects evolution, thought, ecology and life and learning processes. Using abduction as a mode of inquiry, Bateson uses multiple examples to point us towards the principles inherent in evolutionary and cognitive processes. His achievement is showing how ‘natural‘ and ‘mental‘ processes fit within the larger pattern of evolution. A difficult but rewarding read, it changed the way I saw myself and my place within nature and the cosmos.

Thomas King: The Truth About Stories

The power of King’s words are summarised in this book’s refrain: “don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” The book is one of the most inspiring and compelling accounts of storytelling and how stories shape our perceptions and actions that I’ve come across. Delving into his personal life story, native creation myths and historical evidence, King takes us on a journey which allows us to see how our the normality and triviality of the everyday us just the thin cover of a world full of mystery, pain, anger, and exhilarating joy. He reminds us to be careful with the stories we tell - they may end up coming back to us in ways we could never have imagined.

David Abram: The Spell of the Sensuous

Abram’s investigation into the origins of our severance with ‘nature’ in Western civilisation is both a philosophical feat and a journey into the origins and nature of language. Drawing on his experience as a magician, his intimate knowledge of indigenous oral cultures, the work of phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and his sensitivity to the animate Earth, he explores the dependence of language and cognition on the natural environment. His extraordinary achievement is to open up new possibilities for reorienting the our relation with the living Earth and reawaken our deep connection with the world as the sensuous creatures we are. Abram shows us what it means to become fully human and how to transform our mode of experience to come alive to the world.

Alan Watts: The Way of Zen

This is a first stop for anyone interested in Zen. Alan Watts provides a scholarly, detailed, and entertaining introduction to Zen Buddhism taking us back to its roots in Hinduism and leading us through Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism to Zen’s uniquely Japanese cultural roots. Watts’ deep insight into Eastern philosophy and his lucid writing style are enormously helpful in understanding Zen concepts. Whatever path we follow this is on the way.

Barbara Adam: Time

During the discussions, research and thinking for the improvised piece Repossessing the future I read Adam’s thoughts on the nature and character of time. Written as an introduction to thinking about time, this text is very readable and extremely rewarding. Adam’s ‘history of time’ should be read by anyone who wonders about how and why time ever came to be conceived as linear and mechanical. Her insights are truly revolutionary (at least they were for me) and promises to set us free from the tyranny of an external and networked clock-time that demands more and more aspects of our lives to be synchronised with its ever increasing pace. She eloquently shows how progress was an illusion in the first place with a suggestion that we begin paying more attention to lived and embodied temporalities.

David Graeber: Debt

The basic question asked in 'Debt' is how a promise or social obligation turns into debt resulting in behaviour that would otherwise be considered immoral. The short answer is violence and moral perversion; Graeber argues that whereas a favour cannot be calculated, debt is precisely calculation of equivalence between disparate objects and, historically, of people. Only by severing humans from their unique social contexts can they be given a monetary value and treated as identical to something else. Anchoring his argument in rich historical evidence going back to the first societies where use of money is found, Graeber shows how this has played out in civilisations from Mesopotamia and Imperial China to Greece and the capitalist empires.

Jay Griffiths: Pip Pip

Griffiths’ discerning ‘sideways look at time’ is funny, heartbreaking and exciting at the same time. She creates her own pocket of time in this exploration of the many aspects of time and although it says ‘to be read slowly’ on the jacket it is a definite page-turner. In this books Griffiths provides one of the most precise and alarming descriptions of why progress is racist while being a very compelling and attractive metaphor. She suggests that we turn away from the narrative of progress to live in ‘wild time’ instead with the promise that life will get more colourful, buoyant and surprising.

Ben Okri: A Way of Being Free

This collection of essays explores how stories are transformative; they are a call to arms, an elegy, a declaration of love and a compassionate attempt to breathe life into our personal stories. Speaking from and to the heart, Ben Okri’s words remind us of life’s beauty and call for us to defend this beauty against control and rigidity. Okri says towards the end: “If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives”, and this what he gives us. Stories to live by.

Paul Kingsnorth: Real England

Travelling around England meeting and speaking to people whose communities are under threat from corporate power, Kingsnorth describes how affection and commitment to place provides a last bulwark against consumer culture. From crowded city centres and town markets to boating and rural communities public spaces are being sold off to private ownership. Kingsnorth provides a devastating and passionate critique of the logic that underpins consumerism in a book which both broke my heart and brought the importance of place to fore of my thinking.

Joanna Macy: World as Lover, World as Self

This book was a comfort, a guide and a companion through a time of disillusion and darkness. Macy’s book is nothing less than ‘a love poem to the planet’ as it says on the back of it. Drawing on her studies of Buddhism and the wisdom of indigenous cultures she shows both how we can cope with living through times of immense destruction and begin sowing the seeds for a less destructive future.

Lee Kump, James Kasting and Robert Crane: The Earth System

A fascinating description of the different components of the Earth System and the Earth sciences. This is a great introduction to Earth System Science (without Gaia) and the history of our discovery of the Earth’s life and workings.


Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths

Borges is a master, a wizard and a visionary. This collection of stories is probably the best literature I can think of. He is able to create, and destroy, whole universes in as little as five pages: the reader is taken in, intrigued, astonished and finally surrenders in every one of these stories.

Aldous Huxley: Island

Island was Huxley’s last book and provides us with a glimpse of what nation-states could have look like if they turned out alright. On the island of Pala the population lives in harmony with each other and the world based on a culture that blends the best of western science and Eastern philosophy. Raised to be aware of exactly who they are in relation to all of existence the Palanese are able to be constantly attentive to world and avoid feeling isolated and alone. Until the militaristic neighbour country gets interested in their abundant oil resources...

Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines

I read this book at a time when I was thinking a lot about different ways of thinking about the world and alternative ways of being in the world. Chatwin hit a deep nerve when he wrote of his travels in Australia seeking out the Aborigine songlines and trying to understand their meaning. He certainly explained to me what it can mean to live and create a different reality. In a world where ‘a man’s verses were his title deeds to territory’ concepts of ownership and property doesn’t mean much if anything at all. Chatwin’s achievement of creating this window into a completely different way of life is ideal bedtime reading.

Robert Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Mortorcycle Maintenance

This is one of those books that keep getting better every time it is read. It offers something to people of many different ages and allows the reader to bring some of herself with her into the story. Pirsig explores the profound difference between quantity and quality through the story of a father chasing the ghost of his former self on a motorcycle trip across the States with his son. This is the beginning of his metaphysics of quality which explains how quality precedes intellectualisation and is the knife-edge of experience itself.

Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor

In a not-so-distant future the old world is crumbling around our narrator who has taken a teenage girl and her strange cat-dog in custody. Observing the world from her flat the narrator experiences the slow unravelling of society after an unspecified disaster. As food and other resource become scarce people become more desperate and slowly children begin to become more ferocious as the adults grip on the world loosen. This is an absolutely fascinating book with haunting parallels to modernity’s collapsing institutions.

Cormac McCarthy: The Road

The harrowing story of a father and son walking through a desolate post-apocalyptic America empty of dignity and ravaged by cannibals has already become a classic. It is a description of how life feels when you live without hope and a meditation on complete devastation. It is as dark as it can get but there is nonetheless a seed of light in the form of love between father and son. This is chilling reading but a very worthy book which should be read by anyone with the slightest interest in our times.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Rilke’s Book of Hours - Love Poems to God (Das Stundenbuch)

In Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy’s translation Rilke’s meditations on the divine allows the reader to step into the deeper waters of the human conscious. This collection of poems draws on ancient themes in the our relation with divinity and for this reason they are as relevant and readable today as when they we written at the turn of the 19th century. I would go so far as to say that Rilke here gets as close as it is possible to conveying that which cannot be said in words. Like a traveller, a migrant or a bird that has come back from the most beautiful countries his words are like songs of praise or hymns for the yet unseen.


Ivan Illich: To hell with good intentions

In his address to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects in 1968, Ivan Illich hits on the fundamental hypocrisy when good intentions lead to the imposition of unsustainable ways of life and thinking on so-called under-developed nations. The impact on the reader of this short and humorous text is tremendously powerful.

E. M. Forster: The Machine Stops

A future civilisation has become dependent on the Machine. Living underground in cells which are equipped with devices which cater for all aspects of life, humans live their lives mainly for ideas. In this world direct experience is regarded as foul and uncivilised, conversation lasts no longer than a few minutes and original thought is looked down upon. A young man decides to break out of the Machine to see the Earth above but his desire for freedom is heresy and likely to be punished with Homelessness.

Wendell Berry: 2012 Jefferson Lecture

Explaining succinctly how sustainability requires cultural cycles that move in harmony with the natural fertility cycles of the land, Wendell Berry explores how affection and connectedness with place are essential for nurturing sustainable cultures.

Clive Hamilton: The Rebirth of Nature and the Climate Crisis

In his Sydney Ideas Lecture Clive Hamilton explores the deeper philosophical reasons why we fail to respond to the threats that arise from our exploitation and pollution of nature. Unpicking the historical roots of our current ways of thinking about the environment, he calls for the transformation of our values, our attitudes, and our institutions, but above all, for an expansion of our selves.