This summer, like every summer, as I head off on holiday, I imagine all the reading I will do. I picture myself in a olive grove, freed from the distractions of daily life, swinging idly in a hammock reading intently, thinking great thoughts.
This year the reading pile mainly looks forward to some work we’re planning in the autumn defending the role of institutions and making the case for local government as the democratic institution that acts as a keystone for complex systems.
So, the list of books I will be taking with me to my olive grove include:
Ten Lessons for a Post Pandemic World by Fareed Zaakaria
This was a hot take on the pandemic and its impact when it came out in 2020 so it will be interesting to see how these lessons look two years on. I’m particularly interested in his ideas on the sort of state we will need to navigate a post pandemic world.
Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
Argues that polarisation around political identities is a structural feature of contemporary politics (rather than a temporary aberration). It’s mainly focused on US politics but I hope it will have some lessons for the rest of us as well.
Liberalism and its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama
Liberalism is under attack from both authoritarian populism and progressive identity politics. Fukuyama promises a defence. I think this matters because representative local government (indeed democracy in its modern form) is essentially a product of post Enlightement liberalism. I recognise though that this may be a book that plays into my biases!
The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel
A counterpoint to the Fukuyama book and more of a challenge to my prejudices, Sandel seeks to expose the myth of meritocracy and argues that the liberal idea of the sovereign individual is responsible for inequality and polarisation and inimical to the common good.
Citizens by John Alexander and Ariane Conrad
We know that we need communities and citizens to be at the centre of public service design. LGIU has advocated for this over more than a decade and many of our member councils have done amazing work in this area. This book paints a radical picture of citizen agency, and I’m interested in what role if any it envisages for councils and other public institutions.
The Great Experiment by Yascha Mounk
Some of the best and most sobering work on public attitudes to democracy has been done by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa. Mounk’s last book, The People vs Democracy set out how and why people in advanced economies, especially young people, have fallen out of love with democracy. This new book focuses on the challenge of diversity to democracy and how we can make it work. Again, I’m interested in the role he envisages for the state because my hypothesis is that local government is better equipped to manage this than national government can be.
So that’s my work pile. I also have some fiction: Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun and The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. All novels set at the intersection of interiority and externality, about how we construct our idea of ourselves and what happens when this meets the world.
What will I take from all this virtuous reading? Possibly nothing. Spoiler: if this year is like every other year I might not read very much of it at all. There’s always something else to do: a swim with the children, a glass of wine, a nap. Maybe that’s no bad thing. It is a holiday after all; and there will be plenty of time to read in the autumn.