Interview for The Reading Lists

I really enjoyed this interview for The Reading Lists, and they have many more fascinating interviews on their website which I recommend you should check out!

How do you describe your occupation?

I suppose I am a full-time humanist. My day job is Chief Executive of Humanists UK and I am also currently President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Talk us through a typical day for you…

There is no typical day for me! Humanists UK does such diverse work. We have community services like pastoral support in prisons and hospitals and ceremonies like funerals and weddings. We do education work in schools and in the community. And we engage in political advocacy and litigation in pursuit of our campaign goals of eliminating religious discrimination and furthering human dignity and freedom. As Chief Executive, I’m responsible for the staff and volunteers doing this work and keeping the show on the road.

What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?

I am currently (re)reading the Penguin Classics edition of George Eliot’s essays – her prose is so beautiful and her personality so interesting but the direct reason I’m reading them again is because I’m working on a humanist anthology and she’s great for pithy but profound observations. I’m reading the latest Roman crime novel from Steven Saylor: The Throne of Caesar – I love any Roman murder to help me unwind and his are the very best. And I’m reading Lights in the Distance by Daniel Trilling, who is my colleague and editor of New Humanist magazine. His book is a passionate and compelling take on the refugee crisis on the borders of Europe based on his own travels and interviews. I’ve got a volume of Tony Harrison’s poetry by the sofa as well, which I’m dipping into.

Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?

I knew The Old Woman and her Pig by Vera Southgate off by heart so pretended I was reading it as I turned the pages at the right times, aged 3, but the first book I can remember reading by myself was The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson. I’m not sure how old I was but I remember the little owl’s name was Plop.

Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?

Absolutely a bookmarker.

When did you fall in love with reading?

I can date this moment precisely. It was reading The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper. I was completely unaware of the real world around me, which melted away, and I was transported to another place entirely. I’ve felt like that many times since with fiction and it’s a wonderful feeling.

If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?

I would give my sixteen year old self a bundle of popular science books by people like Richard Dawkins, Jim Al Khalili, Richard Wiseman, and Alice Roberts. At that age, I was still very ignorant of science which I still am and I feel like it’s almost too late now to catch up. At 25 I was still tremendously ignorant of the world outside of the western literary and intellectual tradition and although I’m catching up now, I would like to have got started earlier so I would give myself the philosophy of the Chinese writer Mencius. Reading his words in the last few years has opened my mind to the global nature of the humanist worldview.

What are perfect reading conditions for you?

I can read anywhere from bed to the bus to walking down the street, but there’s nowhere better than curled up in the armchair with the rain outside and a cup of tea.

For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?

For anyone wanting to work in humanism, there are an awful lot of books you could read. I think the best introduction to humanism is On Humanism by Richard Norman. I would choose Richard’s book because he, like Peter Cave and Stephen Law in their excellent books on humanism, he describes and discusses the beliefs and values of humanists, but he pays particular attention to the making of meaning in life. I think that’s neglected in many people’s idea of humanism. I would also make them read The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper. The humanist vision of the open society is as threatened today as it ever was and I think Popper gives a true account of why the open society is worth defending, what it is, and how to understand the minds and motivations of those who hate it. On a more prosaic and workaday level, I would have any manager in our sector read Managing without profit by Mike Hudson. It’s the only single volume introduction that any executive in the NGO world needs and a constant companion through all organizational change.

If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?

George Eliot so that we could talk about our shared home town and because she is such a fascinating mixture of Victorian romantic and sceptical observer of social reality (I’d have her last to leave so we could discuss the other guests); Euripides because I want to know whether he was personally as simultaneously rational and iconoclastic and mystical as his plays (I think he would be a riot); Cicero because I want to know whether he is a crashing bore or a principled man of endless genius (if he’s both, I hope I get him in the latter mood); Diana Wynne Jones because I have the instinct she would be fun; and Christopher Hitchens, because I enjoyed it when we did meet but wish it had been for longer and more often and I would like to see him again and ask him what essays he would write on politics today.

What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?

The BBC Talks of E.M. Forster 1929-1960 but I have also just pre-ordered Tombland by C J Sansom, the latest book in the Shardlake series. I’ve been meaning to get the E M Forster talks for a while. I’m a frequent re-reader of his essays and they have greater and greater relevance as the times in which we live are increasingly like those in which he wrote his great liberal polemics. I’m looking forward to reading new things by him, which is a chance you don’t often get with a long-dead author. C J Sansom is a novelist of great skill and although I’m not normally partial to a Tudor, his Shardlake series has had me hooked since the beginning.

What is your favourite thing about reading?

I can’t really think of a clear answer to this question. Reading is a rich experience which is so completely part of my life. It’s like being asked what the best thing is about hearing or seeing! In novels I love getting to know characters, perhaps because I am interested in people in any case but I also like plot, I appreciate resolutions and unresolved situations alike, following things through to their end or at least the point where the author stops telling the story, giving rein to my own curiosity about where things are going. In poetry, I like a pithy sentiment cleverly delivered more than I like music or rhythm. In prose, I enjoy learning something new or experiencing an idea slowly unfold and following it through to my own ‘eureka’ moment. Reading connects us with knowledge, with feelings, with people, with the past, with our own thoughts. That feeling of connectedness through a book is my favourite thing.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

The best novels I’ve read are The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton and All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. As time goes by I enjoy conceptual innovation in a novel and novels that consciously span genres and blur the lines between genres. Both those novels do so and  they are first class novels in their own right too. The best non-fiction book is A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World by Julian Baggini. You seldom read a book that helps restructure your own thinking in a profound way but his thoughts on types of truth really did. And, given the ‘post-truth’ nature of so much of our public life today, it’s handbook for our times.

If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?

The books that I most wanted to be in as a child were the fantasy books of Diana Wynne Jones so any of those would do. Full of wizards and magic, her books also made sense in terms of plot and character. I would trust her as an author to get me somewhere in the end and I would enjoy the journey too.

Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill or – if it’s not a cheat of an answer – the complete works of John Stuart Mill. So many of the foundations of our modern liberal democratic societies are not only elucidated but also defended there – and in the clearest possible prose. Many people don’t think today about why the good bits of our societies are as they are, and this is dangerous. In terms of a novel, Lord of the Flies by William Golding or 1984 by George Orwell, which both show what happens if people don’t read their John Stuart Mill.

What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?

Oresteia by Aeschylus was the book that shaped my worldview above all others. Those plays stimulated and reinforced in me my abiding belief that we human beings are alone in the universe and must carve out whatever justice and civilisation and peace we can through our own efforts. It conveyed a sort of nobility on human beings that I still see us as possessing and made me think of recent middle eastern religions like Christianity as essentially trivial things from an intellectual point of view, another belief that, rightly or wrongly, I still have. It did a lot more besides and I sometimes feel I could read those plays or watch them every day and still have new thoughts stimulated by them.

Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?

Oh no. It has been so hard even choosing the few in your other questions! I read every day for work and pleasure and there are many hundreds I would add to my list! All the novels of E M Forster, George Eliot, Jane Austen, John Fowles. Everything ever written by George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, and Tom Paine. Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft. Every surviving text from Homer, classical Athens, and republican and Augustan Rome. All books written by Simon Blackburn and A C Grayling. And I haven’t even mentioned any poets! Browning, Shelley, Larkin. And all plays by Tom Stoppard but especially The Invention of Love.

Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?

I’m afraid it’s more like massive piles of books all over my desk, sofa, table and floor and of course I’m looking forward to the all. If I had to choose just one it would be The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein. By looking at the year 1922, in the lives of T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster and DH Lawrence he apparently writes a penetrating work on modernism and on these specific authors lives. I like this idea.

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