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Self-isolation: staff picks to keep you stimulated (week 1)

by 25 Mar 2020Culture

Think of it as brain food for the shutdown: recommended reading and watching to broaden your mind even as your movements are limited. This week Larita Engelbrecht, lecturer in Contextual Studies, shares four reads to stimulate your thoughts about the outside world.

As an avid reader I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction books. The following two non-fiction books recently sparked my curiosity about our understanding of the natural world, while the two novels serendipitously fit into the same theme. 

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

by Robert Macfarlane

In this epic nonfiction travelogue Macfarlane traces cultural, scientific and socio-political insights of the world beneath our feet. Each chapter deals with a specific part of the underground – from the catacombs below Paris to the deep hiding places for nuclear waste in Finland. Macfarlane’s tone is lyrical, and his research is both scientifically and culturally informed. Every bit of this journey is exciting and informative.

The Order of Time

by Carlo Rovelli

The cover of Rovelli’s bestseller claims: “Physics has found its poet”. Reading this non-fiction book is my first attempt at understanding quantum physics. The Italian physicist manages to unravel the complexity of space-time with a style of writing that is surprisingly poetic and philosophical. The references to historical figures – ranging from ancient philosophy to contemporary physics – together with simple diagrams, make the book thoroughly engaging. 

The Overstory

by Richard Powers

In a narrative that unfolds over the course of three decades, this novel entangles the stories of a number of protagonists. The overarching theme that connects the different characters is their love for trees. Each character, in an unpredictable way, reveals an intuitive understanding of the environment. At its core the story is about the human relationship with forests, and it highlights the desperate need to take care of it.


by Jenny Offill

The brand new novel Weather is next on my reading list. The protagonist, Lizzy, is a writer who tries to navigate her way around the challenges of family life and work within an American metropolis. The contemporary autofiction (narrative blurred with memoir) plays out while environmental challenges unfold. This narrative seems in tune with the current events, and this is why I’m excited about it. As the review on The Guardian states:  “Lizzie knows she can’t run away from home, though, because underlying all this, as the title tells us, is the weather, both political and physical. More things than fiction have changed since 2014, and Lizzie is living, as Twitter users so often lament, in end times. We know this not just because of President Trump and natural signs – a lack of frost, proliferating mice, rogue deer – but because she takes a job with her old college professor, who has become a popular podcaster and futurologist. Lizzie handles all the emails about ecological disaster and global heating. At first, they seem like so many more subjects for funny observations – “lots of people who are not Native Americans talking about Native Americans” – but soon, with the same writerly ease with which she established characters, she has progressed to worrying how far her new skill of making candles from canned tuna might take her, assessing whom she can take to her “Doomstead”, and then how far she could carry her child if she had to, and if her child can have children.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/13/weather-by-jenny-offill-review)

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