Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up what you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Natasha Lunn’s Conversation on Love, Roger Scruton and Jan Lucassen.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
Conversations on Love by Natasha Lunn (Penguin), £15.99.
How do we find Love? How do we sustain it? And how do we survive when we lose it? The writer and journalist Natasha Lunn attempts to tackle this thematic triptych in her debut book Conversations on Love. In 2017, Lunn started a bi-monthly newsletter where she interviewed writers, therapists and experts on romantic and platonic love. After years of first-hand experience interviewing people about relationships and the multiplicity of love, Lunn compiled her findings into this thought-provoking book. The author speaks to a host of other authors and experts about their first-hand experiences, from Phillipa Perry on falling in love slowly; Alain de Botton on the psychology of being alone; Diana Evans on parenthood; Stephen Grosz on accepting change; Esther Perel on unrealistic expectations; Dolly Alderton on vulnerability; Candice Carty-Williams on friendship; Lisa Taddeo on grief and many more.
Conversations on Love braids these personal testimonies together with Lunn’s stories about her own struggles when it comes to love. Her reflections on her difficulties in getting pregnant and her subsequent distressing miscarriage make for a raw and unashamed account of longing and loss. The book is, as Lunn writes, “a reminder to not let the people you love slip into the background; an invitation to take love more seriously; and an encouragement to make something meaningful out of the life you have been given.”
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Confessions of a Heretic by Roger Scruton (Notting Hill Editions), £15.
Roger Scruton’s death last year, at the age of 75, robbed conservatism of one of its great late 20th century intellects. He died just before the pandemic, meaning we don’t get to read him on an event that has accelerated some of the trends that worried him most, including the reliance on screens rather than human interaction, and the ethical contortions involved in contemporary attitudes to death.
Scruton could be tricky, as I found encountering him on various trips down the years and when attempting an interview in front of a festival crowd. What a privilege to have met him, though. One of his underrated strengths was an intellectual generosity that expressed itself best in his gift for bringing interesting, unusual speakers together, as I discovered sitting in the audience at an event he curated in Venice. “The main point, it seems to me,” he said, “is to maintain a life of active risk and affection, remembering always that the value of life does not consist in its length but in its depth.”
This short collection of essays was first published in 2016 and is reissued with an elegant introduction by Douglas Murray. There are missives on the environment, faking it, defending the West, the need for nations, animals and pets, and much more. One of the highlights is Mourning Our Losses: Reflections on Strauss’s Metamorphosen, in which Scruton reclaims and explains anew the piece of work composed in the final year of the Second World War. Metamorphosen has always left me oddly cold. There’s much to admire about the music, but there is validity in the criticism that Strauss got more exercised about the destruction of buildings, and his beloved Munich, than he did about the destruction of human beings. In contrast, Strauss’s Four Last Songs that followed several years later overflow with warmth, at one moment turning elegiac and then uplifting. But then the Four Last Songs (actually packaged together by a music promoter) are about Strauss himself and his wife Pauline as they contemplate death, walking off, contended and calm, into the sunset.
Scruton recasts Metamorphosen as a work de profundis, looking back at what has been lost, namely the towering German civilisation, a work of several centuries destroyed and buried by the Nazis in little more than a decade. “It is a work without hope, and without any promise for the future. Yet for all that it is a great work of art,” he says. I highly recommend Confessions of a Heretic.
The Story of Work by Jan Lucassen (Yale University Press), £25.
Most people on this earth spend over half of their waking hours working. But what do we actually mean by “work”?
Jan Lucassen’s fascinating book explores the ways in which humanity organises labour across the world, and how labour relations have evolved over time- from the age of the hunter-gatherer to the present day. Lucassen challenges those across the political spectrum to rethink how we value and define work.
He explores problems with one-sided definitions, which emphasise some forms of work at the expense of others – so often neglecting, for instance, women’s domestic labour. And he takes issue with the irrational way we reward different types of work: why is it, for example, that his school-teacher father earns half what he himself does as a university professor? Income-levelling tax measures do not eliminate the original injustice: the disparity in rewards for two people teaching every day with equal effort and commitment. But Lucassen is clear about one thing: work is not a dying occupation.
In contrast to some of the utopian ideas heralded by both the right and the left, performing some form of labour, he argues, is central to our fulfilment as human beings. Work is “not an Old Testament curse” but, rather, it determines our lives and our social contacts, both positively and negatively. “Paradise is neither ahead of us nor behind us.”