Boris Johnson says he’ll be reading Lucretius’ depiction of the Plague of Athens on his summer holiday in Scotland this month. The passage from the Roman poet’s De Rerum Natura, depicting the arrival of a horrifying blood-spitting plague in the city in 430BC, won’t offer the PM much wisdom on today’s policy problems. Maybe the rest of Lucretius’ mammoth 7,400-line work – of which the Plague occupies less than 200 – will offer him respite, if it holds his attention long enough.
Reaction sought out some of its favourite scientists, writers and businessmen and women to ask them what they’ve read recently or taken on their August holidays.
Sunetra Gupta – Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University
Reading Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell was a treat during a short escape to Corfu. His account of the fisherman Anastasius discovering Ulysses through his child’s schoolbook, and then being astonished that Durrell is already acquainted with it, is deeply moving. Another book I thoroughly enjoyed was a collection of lectures by Wallace Stevens from 1942 (gathered together under the title The Necessary Angel); his description of those times as “an intricacy of new and local mythologies, political, economic, poetic, which are asserted with an ever-enlarging incoherence” has many unfortunate resonances with our current situation.
Emily Hill – journalist and author of Bad Romance
Since I am not going on holiday due to the coming economic oblivion, I will be swimming in books at the library. I want to re-read all of Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs in strict chronological order and recommend you stick Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Travel Light, Move Fast in your suitcase.
I just finished Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses, John Carreyou’s Bad Blood and, since Jordan Peterson tells us we have so much to learn from crustaceans, David Foster-Wallace’s Consider the Lobster. I wish he was alive to write on President Trump.
Professor Karol Sikora – British Oncologist, Co-Founder Rutherford Health
We cleared out a load of books during lockdown but I hate throwing anything out. Charity shops are stuffed with our books. One caught my eye: The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Written in 1956, you just know from the very first sentence it is going to end badly. A classic novel about a dysfunctional family: love, betrayal and no happy endings in Notting Hill before it became fashionable. It’s not my scene at all but reading something different is just refreshing. And it is beautifully written.
Emma Sky OBE – Director, Yale World Fellows
In early August, I set out with two university friends to walk from the village of Knockholt, north west of Sevenoaks, to Canterbury Cathedral. Along the way, we read out loud to each other from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, experiencing once more the thrill of deciphering Middle English and of discovering sections that almost 40 years after studying them for O Level are still lodged in memory.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Our own Canterbury tales are of brash and boorish party animals who broke all social distancing at The Bull at Wrotham – where World War II pilots had once signed their names on the ceiling with burnt corks; of 13th century churches closed to the public due to Covid, but with few parishioners even when open; of 17th century pubs that gave us half price meals not because we were pilgrims but as a ‘dish on Rish’; of monstrous motorways bringing commuters to London, with bridges for the unemployed to jump off; and of Gormley’s sculpture of a 6ft floating body, constructed out of iron nails taken from the roof of Canterbury cathedral, suspended above what was once the site of the tomb of Thomas a Becket.
Daniel Finkelstein, OBE – Times columnist and journalist
Has to be Roger Moorhouse’s book Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin 1939-41 on the Ribbentrop Molotov Pact – because the secret annex to the pact led directly to the arrest of both my parents. It divided up Europe into spheres of influence and allowed the Soviets to invade the part of Poland that my father lived in; the non aggression pact also enabled the Nazis to concentrate their forces, allowing the invasion of Holland, where my mother lived. I’ve always wanted to understand it better.
Moorhouse provides a detailed but still engaging historical account, particularly good on the way supporters tied themselves in knots trying to justify a pact that seemed to contradict all they had hitherto said.
But the book I’ll be spending most time on in August is my own – Everything in Moderation won’t promote itself!
Baroness Altmann – former pensions minister
I am rereading George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm because I feel so concerned about the way governments around the world seem to be taking control of every tiny aspect of our lives. We are experiencing living conditions resembling authoritarian regimes more reminiscent of China or North Korea rather than those of liberal Western democracies. Orwell gives brilliant examples and thought-provoking narratives about leaders who find ways to control ordinary people’s lives. In these really difficult, confusing and tumultuous times, Orwell’s observations from so many decades ago seem to have resonance – and perhaps offer powerful warnings.
James Barr – Historian and author
I recommend John Dickie’s history of the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra. I knew nothing about the story of how this organisation was born and rapidly developed in the late 1800s in the citrus business of northwest Sicily – among the lemon groves that invited predators by being simultaneously hugely profitable and highly vulnerable to vandalism and protection rackets. As Dickie nicely puts it, “The mafia was born not of poverty and isolation, but of power and wealth.” It is as much a product of its era as the internal combustion engine and universal primary-age education.
The book won a slew of awards after it was published 16 years ago and it is easy to see why. Dickie tells this dark story through a series of telling episodes. The dark humour, amount of detail and the punctuation of violence is just right.
Peter Simpson – Chief Executive, Anglian Water Group
Monopoli Blues by Tim Clark and Nick Cook. Tim is a fellow trustee of Water Aid, and the book was written about his parents during WWII.
Spitfire: A Very British Love Story, by John Nichol – a book which cuts away the gloss behind our greatest plane.
I’m rereading Total Competition by Ross Brawn as I missed Silverstone this year.
House of Spies: St Ermin’s Hotel, the London Base of British Espionage by Peter Matthews – the book you can buy at St Ermin’s Hotel, London, about its role as a meeting place during WWII for MI6.
Entrepreneur Extraordinary – Tomas Bata by Anthony Cekota. This was a gift from somebody I worked with in the Czech Republic following a recent visit, all about the man behind the shoes – finding it quite hard going but worth the effort.
Lord Ricketts -Former Senior Diplomat and Life Peer
I have read a lot of current affairs and modern history this year for a book I’m writing, so for the summer, a change was needed: I have plunged back with great pleasure into Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, his great six-part evocation of the thrills and spills of political life in high Victorian Britain.
The first volume, Can you Forgive Her? published in 1864, reminded me that Trollope’s characters are not as archetypal, or as strange, as some of Dickens’. But he has an extraordinary ability to conjure up a whole social as well as political world, to find distinctive voices for all the main actors in his story, and to keep the reader on tenterhooks as he weaves together the different parts of his plot. Trollope makes the political life of that time feel both incredibly remote – still dominated by great aristocratic families – but also intensely familiar. In this book, one of his themes is the central role money played in lubricating the political wheels, and the importance of how it is obtained and used. I was reading it when the press was full of stories of the role of Russian money in Britain. Plus ça change?
Clare Mulley – award winning-author and broadcaster
Books have been the silver-lining of my lockdown. I usually obsessively read about whatever I am writing about – mainly women in the Second World War, but I decided early on that this was the time for some of the big books that have always been on my ‘one day if they have the kindness to lock me up’ list.
Hilary Mantel’s enthralling A Place of Greater Safety immersed me in the chaos and horror of the French revolution, making me feel slightly better when my planned trip to France had to be cancelled this morning. Essex does seem safer, and I’ve also enjoyed reading Sarah Perry’s rather more gentle The Essex Serpent. In between I have discovered the joy of audiobooks, especially if they are read by Juliette Stevenson: I am not sure anything is finer than listening to her narrate George Eliot’s Middlemarch. However, I do love non-fiction, and have also been engrossed and enraged by Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal. Next up is David Olusoga’s Black and British, after which I may be torn between Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Margaret Irwin’s Still She Wished for Company, both fitting lockdown titles, though I really should be getting on with some work…
Peter Hambro – scion of the banking dynasty, former chairman of Petropavlovsk
Peter Hambro has just lost his battle for control of the Russian gold mining company, Petropavlovsk, which he founded 26 years ago.
He has chosen The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage by Ryan Holiday as his summer read: “While fighting a rearguard action to protect the interests of a large minority of shareholders against the oppressive behaviour of a rich opposition, I thought it wise to review the Stoic way, which Google describes as ‘The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.’ In a battle with extraordinarily rich oligarchs, this is the mindset that I think must be adopted. Moreover, Google goes on to define Stoicism as a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. Personal ethics is the bit that I like; particularly in connection with the battle for Petropavlovsk.