Coffee, Shakespeare and neuroscience – three books for the new year

A handful of books that show the vital importance of the arts and culture to creativity and innovation

BY Graham Henderson   /  22 December 2016

Over the festive period, Reaction authors are writing in with their favourite books from 2016 that they feel would make perfect gifts for Christmas or ideal New Year reading.

I have read a handful of books in 2016 that have changed my whole way of thinking about certain topics, and which I would strongly recommend to other Reaction readers. While not published in the last twelve months, they are nonetheless well worth putting on the reading list for 2017. It is difficult to pick a favourite, so here are my top three.

The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. Brian Cowan, Yale University Press, 2011.

This is a comprehensive historical account of the introduction of the coffeehouse to the UK and its gradual transformation from an exotic venue for virtuoso intellectuals into a popular meeting place for the aspiring and entrepreneurial classes, and as a major contributor to both the growth of a capitalist economy and to civic society. Moral panic at an innovative platform for socialising and exchanging ideas was also replaced by the gradual accommodation of coffeehouses in the body politic, and event their elevation as a morally superior alternative to the straightforward ale house.

As well as a fascinating history of a product (coffee) to which I am mildly addicted, this book is also potentially of great contemporary relevance to a digital era when we are seeking to encourage a similar sharing and knowledge based economy, and wondering about the best way of create platforming capable of encouraging such sharing.

Shakespeare in Company. Bart Van Es, Oxford University Press, 2015.

The subject of Shakespeare and his work is of almost endless fascination. This book makes an important and original contribution to the subject by concentrating its attention on the business and corporate backdrop to the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and how this might have affected the way that Shakespeare approached the composition and staging of his plays.

The picture that emerges is fresh and surprising. It appears that the early plays (prior to 1594) reflect a common pattern within the theatre companies of the period, with the playwrights being relatively academic in their approach, and rather distant from the production of their work. Then, in a startling innovation, completely unique to Shakespeare’s company, a new relationship between ownership and profits, and between playwrights and actors, resulted in an explosion of original relational drama, including most of Shakespeare’s most important plays. Perhaps most surprising of all is the way in which Shakespeare (to some extent) reverted to an earlier mode of composition in his final plays, probably written from semi-retirement in Stratford. This book is compelling and lucid, and may change your views of Shakespeare and his work for ever, even inspiring new ideas about funding models for the arts.

The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Iain McGilchrist, Yale University Press, 2012.

In this breath-taking book, this former Consultant Psychiatrist and expert in Neuroscience accomplishes a masterful survey of what we know about the brain, and in particular about the differentiated functions of the Left and Right hemispheres. In the process he dispels many myths about the supposed dominance of the Left hemisphere, and engages in a fascinating debate about how the upper brain functions may work, and how they contribute to the success of human beings as a species.

After providing a summary of the latest science for a non-expert readership, this book then steps out boldly into much more radical territory, exploring how brain science may have been reflected in the history of Western philosophy, and asking whether the modern age has given undue priority to Left brain functions. For me this book makes sense of many things which previously seemed opaque. Excitingly, for instance, it makes a strong case based in brain science for the fundamental importance of the arts to human creativity, and their essential role in problem-solving and innovation.

It is not accidental – of course – that all of these books are related to important themes in my work at the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, including the importance of social capital building, the way in which new funding models can transform the prospects for arts organisations, and the vital importance of the arts and culture to creativity and innovation. But that’s why I read them, of course!

Graham Henderson is the CEO of Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation.