Waiting for the Last Bus (2018): Richard Holloway

★★★★

Reflections on Life and Death

Until two years ago, no one close to me had died; not since I’d been old enough to understand it. But 2016 came with chill winds and ruthlessness, and the last two years have seen the loss of five close family members. It hasn’t been easy. But it has had one useful outcome. I used to be afraid of death. It was a terrifying transmutation that I didn’t understand and didn’t want to acknowledge. But necessity has changed that and now, in the light of my family’s losses, I’ve had to accept it as an unavoidable part of human life. This all explains why I was drawn to this book, in which Richard Holloway – former Bishop of Edinburgh; thinker; compassionate critic; agnostic – uses his own old age as a spur to think about how we can live well and, when it comes to it, die well. Open-hearted and generous, studded with poetry and his memories of friends, it’s rather beautiful: inspiring and, oddly enough, rather upbeat.

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The Course of Love (2016): Alain de Botton

★★★★

Rahib and Kirsten meet in Edinburgh: they go on a few dates, sleep together, meet each other’s parents and enjoy the dizzying wonder of opening their soul to another human being. Rahib proposes; Kirsten accepts; they marry. And that’s where most fictions end: with wedding bells and the start of a new life together, implicitly full of happiness. But Alain De Botton’s thoughtful, wise novel asks a searching question. What if love is not the breathless romantic longing that brings about a marriage, but the hard graft that succeeds it? What if that story, of struggle, compromise, arguments, reconciliation, loneliness, determination and occasional fury was the one really worth reading?

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The Philosopher Kings (2015): Jo Walton

★★★½

Thessaly: Book II

We rejoin the inhabitants of the island of Kallisti twenty years after the conclusion of The Just City, when the project to construct a living version of Plato’s Republic foundered on the rocks of debate, arrogance and divine impatience. A generation has passed since then and, with many of the Masters dead and a new crop of Young Ones growing up, it falls to the Children – those brought to Kallisti at ten years old – to steer their way towards the best possible world. But things are not what they once were and, in the absence of Athene, the high ideals of a philosophical city are already beginning to crumble.

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The Just City: Jo Walton

★★★★

Thessaly: Book I

In his book The Republic, Plato dreamed of a just society in which the pursuit of knowledge and excellence would be the highest goal. It was a daring dream, the first utopia: an elaborate thought-experiment which has captivated the imagination of thinkers through the ages. But could it actually work? Athena is determined to find out. Gathering together those who, throughout history, have read Republic and prayed to her that it might be possible to live in such a place, she prepares the groundwork for the realisation of the greatest political fantasy ever imagined.

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The Swerve: Stephen Greenblatt

★★★

How the Renaissance began

The winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, this book was recommended to me during our Sicily trip a year ago, in the course of a rather splendid dinner-table conversation. It tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian humanist who worked at the papal curia and who, during the upheavals after the Council of Constance, sought to distract himself by going book-hunting in the monasteries of Germany. Poggio dreamed of finding previously unknown classical texts in these monasteries, preserved by chance through years of copying as part of the monastic discipline. He and his fellow humanists had already uncovered fragments of letters and treatises, but the discovery that Poggio would make in 1417 would come to have a powerful impact on the very roots of Western philosophy: the full text of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius.

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