Future Reading: Members suggestions

“What should a Humanist Book Group be reading and discussing?” This question was asked at one of our sessions. The following is a list of some of the suggestions so far. Contact susan@swlhumanists.org.uk if you want to contribute.


‘Frankenstein’, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Shelley not only tells a terrifying tale, she raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? (288 pages)

Go, Went, Gone,  Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky)

New novel by the acclaimed German writer Jenny Erpenbeck. The novel tells the tale of Richard, a retired classics professor who lives in Berlin. His wife has died, and he lives a routine existence until one day he spies some African refugees staging a hunger strike in Alexanderplatz. Curiosity turns to compassion and an inner transformation, as he visits their shelter, interviews them, and becomes embroiled in their harrowing fates. Go, Went, Gone is described as a scathing indictment of Western policy toward the European refugee crisis, but also a touching portrait of a man who finds he has more in common with the Africans than he realises. (286 pages) (Out in paperback August 2018)

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

The classic novel of a post-literate future, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ stands alongside Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity. What is thought? (159 pages)

Non Fiction

‘Poverty Safari’, Darren McGarvy

People from deprived communities all around Britain feel misunderstood and unheard. Darren McGarvey, aka ‘Loki’ gives voice to their feelings and concerns, and the anger that is spilling over. Anger he says we will have to get used to, unless things change.
McGarvey invites you to come on a Safari of sorts. A Poverty Safari. But not the sort where the indigenous species is surveyed from a safe distance for a time, before the window on the community closes and everyone gradually forgets about it. (224 pages)

‘The Death of Truth’, Michiko Kakutani  

We live in a time when the very idea of objective truth is mocked and discounted by the US President. Discredited conspiracy theories and ideologies have resurfaced, proven science is once more up for debate, and Russian propaganda floods our screens. The wisdom of the crowd has usurped research and expertise, and we are each left clinging to the beliefs that best confirm our biases. How did truth become an endangered species? This decline began decades ago, and in The Death of Truth, former New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani takes a penetrating look at the cultural forces that contributed to this gathering storm. In social media and literature, television, academia, and political campaigns, Kakutani identifies the trends – originating on both the right and the left – that have combined to elevate subjectivity over factuality, science, and common values. And she returns us to the words of the great critics of authoritarianism, writers like George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, whose work is newly and eerily relevant. (208 pages) UK publication in hardback and Kindle on July 26th  2018 via Amazon at £8.80, and in paperback on 7th February 2019 at £8.99. Ergo – we don’t need to wait until 7th Feb for a cheaper publication.

Book Group – Summer Readings

The book for June was Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’. The wide range in the scoring, from 2 to 10 illustrates the diverse views this book generated, from “unreadable” to “one of the best books I have ever read, a Desert Island Disc book”.

Comments varied between ‘unfunny’, ‘laborious’ and ‘unrelenting’ and outstanding praise for the author’s use of language that echoed the early literature of Ireland, his occasional beautiful prose and his playfulness on all important ideas on life, death and hell. The footnotes were found either “boring” or a “clever mockery of specialists” who spend their lives examining scientists’, in this case, mad, theories.
It was generally felt the publisher had done the book no favours and challenged the use of quotes from professional reviewers such as ‘hilarious’ and ‘satire’ to describe it. There were quite a few objections to Anthony Burgess’s statement that only “stupid fools’ would fail to cherish the work of Flann O’Brien”. While one reader “fell out of bed laughing” and another (listening to the audio version) “nearly crashed the car” – we agreed it is most definitely a ‘Marmite’ book.

Our July book ‘Other Minds – the Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith prompted a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion. What is it like to be an octopus? Someone thought that after reading the book it would be difficult to cook and eat one: “I became very fond of the octopus”.

The author wrote “One of the classic problems of my discipline – philosophy – is the relationship between mind and matter … and I want to make progress on that problem, vast as it is, in this book.”

Opinions varied on how successful he was. Some of us thought the book was not scientific enough and lacked a coherent structure. A glossary of terms would have been helpful.

It was suggested naughtily that the book had been written “in the style of an octopus”, with the tentacles reaching out in all directions for material. On the other hand some saw considerable merit in the descriptive passages in the book and the relaxed anecdotal style.

There was however general agreement that the level of insight into the mind–body distinction, whether or not it was helpful to make such a distinction, was inadequate. Questions about the scope of human intelligence, and subjective and objective reality were insufficiently explored it was thought.

Scores on the ‘would you recommend this book to a friend’ index ranged from 0 to 8 with an average of 6.5.

We Humanists might all agree with the author’s final sentence “when you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origins of us all.”


On 21st August we will discuss Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’.

A deft comedy of manners with a classic mystery set partly in London’s most refined institution—the museum. At just 189 pages it is a perfect read for the summer month.

For those interested in Penelope Fitzgerald we can recommend Hermione Lee’s ‘Penelope Fitzgerald – A Life’.

Fitzgerald started writing at the age of 60 and just a handful of critics and fellow writers, notably Frank Kermode, Victoria Glendinning and Julian Barnes, understood her gifts. Even to herself, she was the outsider. When in 1979, against the odds, she snatched the Booker prize from the favourite, VS Naipaul, she had a lot of fun with the literary press who cast her as a dotty old lady with ruddy cheeks. She said she would use the prize money “to buy an iron and a typewriter”. In 1999 Fitzgerald was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for “a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature”.