In the first of a new series, leading thinkers recommend five books about their field of interest. This month, the theme is “equality"by Trevor Phillips / March 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Interview by Miranda Green for the website FiveBooks. More at fivebooks.com
Bleak House (1853) By Charles Dickens This is probably Dickens’s best evocation of a society in which your origins more or less determine your destiny. My job is, in essence, about trying as best I can to detach people’s life chances and their destiny from their origins, so that where you are born doesn’t determine where you die. Of course the whole point about Bleak House is that both its heroes and its transgressors are involved in that struggle against their origins. Esther Summerson, the slightly weedy central character, is born into these rather rocky circumstances, nobody quite knows where she comes from and therefore it’s unclear where she’ll end up. Lady Dedlock, the most interesting character, is transgressing because she has risen to a place where she should never have been. She gets her comeuppance: that’s the Victorian idea that you have to be careful and not rise too far above your station.
Bowling Alone (2000) By Robert D Putnam The two great challenges that face humankind are how we live with the planet and how we live together. Those two collide because climate change is moving vast populations across continents. The 500,000 interviews compiled for Bowling Alone reveal that people in American society are less connected, they do fewer things together, they don’t sign petitions. Where they used to go bowling in leagues they now go bowling alone or with their immediate family. These large movements of people that I’m talking about are happening in a context where the fragmentation of society Putnam describes is becoming even more severe—because technology is making people more alienated from each other. So it becomes even more difficult to deal with the unsettling effects of people on the move: how do you even begin to try to adapt?
The Wind in the Willows (1908) By Kenneth Grahame This is a very personal choice. I come from a standard immigrant, urban background and reading The Wind in the Willows opened my eyes to the way the English upper middle classes lived and the things they thought were important. Countryside. Woods—what the hell were woods? Picnics? So before I had even discovered Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, all these details—sandwiches, lemonade—were just jaw-dropping to me. This book is tied up with an age of Englishness which I think had a great…