As a Guardian editorial put it recently: ‘Books can enlarge our sympathy, broaden our perspective and calm our frazzled senses. In this sense, even a book you buy for yourself can also be a gift to others’.
So if you ever felt guilty about buying a book for yourself, there’s now officially no need to. It’s time to lose yourself in a good book or two.
As ever, I’m providing a very personal list of titles I’ve enjoyed, deliberately with none specifically about education. We all need to switch off for a while. I’ve included fiction and non-fiction and poetry.
All of these are texts to make us think, to escape, to deepen our humanity and to feel more optimistic. I hope you’ll enjoy them. Let me know what you think.
And here’s wishing you a very happy Christmas.
Susan Hill, From the Heart
Critics were mixed in their responses to Susan Hill’s tale of a young female teacher’s coming-out story. Me - I found it poignant and moving.
Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing
I speak to many people coping with the growing grip of dementia on their parents. This novel is unexpectedly joyful, and often funny, in dealing with a topic of such anguish.
William Boyd, Love is Blind
William Boyd is a favourite novelist of mine, and his latest takes a character from a footnote on page one through a fascinating life amid a nineteenth century world on the brink of change.
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls
Pat Barker’s magnificent novel shows us the epic story of Homer’s Iliad through the eyes of the bystanders – in particular, the women on the sidelines with their powerful insights into war and power.
David Sedaris, Calypso
Sedaris is one of the world’s greatest comic writers, and these essays are funny, but also darker and more disturbing, dealing with what it’s like to grow older.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership
This is a brilliant book – four mini-biographies of American presidents in which their leadership qualities are drawn out and analysed. It’s compelling.
Michelle Obama, Becoming
A wonderfully optimistic book about ambition, politics and love. The early chapters around her own constrained childhood are especially endearing. It’s a beautifully written memoir and a reminder of why politics matters.
Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now
A fascinating account of how human beings have made decisions and developed technology to make us a formidably successful species.
Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
Mental health is a concern to all of us – for our children, our colleagues, and ourselves. Matt Haig’s book de-stigmatises the anxiety so many of us routinely feel and reflects with compassion and reassurance on how to be a human in a complex world.
Neil Astley & Pamela Robertson-Pearce, Soul Food
I carry poetry with me always – often physically but always in my mind. It’s what English teachers do. This is one of the most uplifting anthologies ever – just as the cover says: ‘Soul Food’.
Over the past year, I’ve recommended fiction and non-fiction titles in the run-up to the summer, Christmas, and Easter breaks. All of these titles have been defiantly not about education.
Every summer gives us the luxury of escaping briefly from the day job to spend time with family and friends, and to lose ourselves in books. So here’s a reading list containing no education titles. Instead, I’ve included five fiction and five non-fiction recommendations which I hope may entertain, amuse and inform you. Enjoy a well deserved break.
Jane Harper, The Dry
I’m not usually a fan of thrillers, but this one – set in the claustrophobic heat of a small Australian community – is a genuine page-turner
Robert Harris, Conclave
Swirling political intrigue at the Vatican as a new Pope is elected
Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
A funny, poignant study of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine
Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13
A haunting, relentless tale of a community dealing year after year with a child who has gone missing
Xan Brooks, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times
A dark, deeply disturbing tale of victims of World War I living a secret life in the depths of the English countryside
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist
Urging us to shake off ‘fashionable pessimism’, Ridley presents a forensically-described celebration of the achievements of humans
Juliet Nicolson, The Perfect Summer
A beautiful, occasionally heartbreaking, portrait of the long hot summer of 1911 – and the growing sense people have of a world on the brink of war
Caroline Slocock, People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me
A fascinating political retrospective from a member of Mrs Thatcher’s inner team – and the UK’s first female private secretary
Mark Vanhoenacker, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
Vanhoenacker is a British Airways pilot who is simply in love with flying. This is his elegant, rapturous account of why
Rosamund Young, The Secret Life of Cows
If, like me, you didn’t know that cows have friends and enemies, play hide-and-seek, and sometimes bear grudges, you’ll love this. It’s charming
For this year's May bank holiday and half-term, I recommended five uplifting books about education, plus five podcasts.
If you haven’t yet discovered the joy of listening to podcasts, try to make time, in the car, on a walk, or on a rowing machine; podcasts are a brilliant way to gain a glimpse into other interests, other worlds.
Daisy Christodoulou, Making Good Progress
Simply one of the best books about education, and an essential text in our campaign to reinstate teachers’ professional knowledge
Anthony Seldon, The Fourth Education Revolution
A superb and uplifting exploration of how artificial intelligence could help to reinvent education
Mary Myatt, Hopeful Schools
A dose of half-term optimism, reaffirming the centrality of values and humanity
Alex Beard, Natural Born Learners
A fascinating, energetic comparison of schools systems around the world
Tara Westover, Educated
A gritty autobiography of someone whose life is transformed by education
In Our Time
This weekly discussion of familiar and obscure topics remains unmissable. Start with this exploration of the lives and impact of George and Robert Stephenson.
This American Life and RadioLab
I’m cheating. These are two (not one) podcasts from the USA. They both brilliantly illuminate everyday life with audio storytelling skills that are amazing. Start with this RadioLab account of Diane Van Deren, an extraordinary ultra-runner.
Reasons to be Cheerful
Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd talk on a theme for an hour or so. It’s informative and entertaining. Start with this episode about not eating meat.
Political Thinking with Nick Robinson
In-depth conversations with a light touch. Robinson is a master interviewer. Start with this interview with shadow education minister Angela Rayner.
Desert Island Dishes
If, like me, you like to escape on holiday into food and cooking, you’ll love Margie Broadhead’s relaxed informal discussions about, er, food and cooking. Start with this one with Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers.
Books, like holidays, are for escaping into, so I’ve included nothing directly about education. Instead, here’s a selection of titles I’ve enjoyed in the past year or so - chosen to entertain, inform and provoke. I hope you enjoy them.
Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard’s lucid style and personal voice illuminates the world of Ancient Rome in all its glory, ambition and hard-wired violence.
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
A compelling, if chilling, illumination of the way social media has triggered a return to the practice of public shaming. It’s a real page-turner.
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
A breathtakingly ambitious history of us, human beings, told with great verve, powerful storytelling and exuberant optimism.
Mary Aiken, The Cyber Effect
As a clinical psychologist, Dr Aiken explores what our obsession with screen and online life might be doing to our sense of identity and to the self-esteem of our children.
Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery
An elegant, fascinating set of reflection from a world-renowned neurosurgeon – an expert who, like so many experts, exudes confidence, neurotic worry about making mistakes, and deep humility.
Julian Barnes, The Only Story
I’m a huge fan of Julian Barnes – writer of clever, polished stories that always take you by surprise. This new book – hilarious and then heart-breaking – is (in my view) his best novel to date.
Susan Hill, From the Heart
I’ve always loved Susan Hill’s writing. This new novel, illuminates the life and decisions of Olive Piper, a young woman growing up in a harsher, unforgiving era. It’s beautifully done.
Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney
I noticed this writer when he won the Costa prize for ‘best first novel’. Be warned: it is a darkly funny but disturbing tale in the tradition of gothic horror novels.
Anita Brookner, Latecomers
Brookner is my favourite novelist – writing of London, of unravelling relationships, of loneliness. In this novel, two Jewish boys, Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich, are sent to London as refugees in the war and become lifelong friends.
Helen Dunmore, Inside the Wave
Helen Dunmore was a much loved novelist who died of cancer last summer. This final collection of poetry is about her family and her encroaching illness. The poems are beautiful, understated and deeply poignant.