The Future Cities Readers’ Group is a book club with a difference providing an alternative to the conventional focus on fiction books. We meet monthly to discuss all kinds of contemporary texts from architecture to anthropology and population to philosophy.
Readers’ Groups are invite only.. but you can certainly ask to be invited! For further information, or if you wish to be added to the Readers’ Group mailing list, email us at email@example.com
Our next Readers’ Group discussion
23 June 2015
‘The City in History’ by Lewis Mumford
“The city is the most concrete, the most lasting, and the most inspiring expression of man’s social genius.” According to the dust jacket, no writer has studied urban life more profoundly than Lewis Mumford. This historical study ranges over time from the earliest group habitats to medieval towns to the modern centres of commerce, exploring how the urban form has changed throughout human civilization. Since its publication in 1961 it has helped shape the agendas of urban planners, sociologists, and social critics. More than half a century on what lessons can we learn?
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28 April 2015
‘The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution‘ by Patrick Cockburn
While Al Qaeda is weakened, new jihadi movements, especially ISIS, are starting to emerge. In military operations they have been far more successful than Al Qaeda, taking territory that reaches across borders and includes the city of Mosul. So, how should we view ISIS? Is it really a threat to the UK, or is it just a regional problem? Are we right to tackle ISIS militarily, or does this action risk making things worse, further undermining Western credibility in the region?
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10 March 2015
‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’ by Micahel Sandel
Should we financially reward children for good marks? Is it ethical to pay people to donate organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars, outsourcing inmates to for-profit prisons or selling citizenship?
‘Superstar philosopher’ Michael Sandel, professor of politics at Harvard, 2009 Reith lecturer, and one of the best known public intellectuals in America, homes in upon concerns that in recent decades, market values have impinged on almost every aspect of life – medicine, education, government, law, even family life.
What Money Can’t Buy is the Top Ten Sunday Times Bestseller that has won praise across the spectrum of commentators from David Aaronovitch to Professor John Gray. So is it true, as Sandel argues, that culture has become mesmerised by the market? That we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society?
7 January 2015
‘Suspended Sentences’ by Patrick Modiano
Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation”. Hailed in some quarters as a contemporary Marcel Proust, in these three novellas Paris and the Occupation of France take centre-stage as Modiano draws on his own experiences, blended with the real or invented stories of others to create “a dreamlike autobiography that is also the biography of a place”.
For some, Modiano’s investigations into the moral history of the occupation make him a “pure original”; for others, he’s “a shifty writer, whose failure to look you in the eye, is profoundly unsettling.” Join us for the discussion and make up your own mind.
02 December 2014
‘Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong’ by Ben Chu
After the turbulent decades of Mao Zedong’s “New China” and the “reform and opening up” era of his successor, Deng Xiaoping, some say the Chinese state has passed important political and economic inflection points. As a result, argues World Affairs, the third era of the People’s Republic—an era of crisis and instability—has already begun.
Then again much that is said about China is either questionable or greatly distorted. For example, The Independant’s Ben Chu suggests that while it is commonly thought that the Chinese are the most hardworking people on earth, the younger generation is now derided as spoiled and lazy; and while it has been said that Chinese people don’t care about political freedom, the country’s internet is actually exploding with anti-regime dissent. Chu examines these and other myths that have come to dominate our view of the world’s most populous nation. So is his an insightful corrective? Or has he merely got his own myths to peddle?
Discussion will be introduced by Cara Bleiman (白海容)
19 August 2014
‘Going Solo’ by Eric Klinenberg
In 1950, only 22% of adults were single. Today, more than 50% of adults are. Though conventional wisdom tells us that living by oneself leads to loneliness and isolation, most solo dwellers, compared with their married counterparts, are more likely to eat out and exercise, sign up for art and music classes, attend public events and lectures, and volunteer. Drawing on over three hundred in-depth interviews with men and women of all ages and every class, Eric Klinenberg reaches some startling conclusions about the seismic impact solo living is having on our culture, business and politics.
1 July 2014
‘Parenting Culture Studies‘ by Elli Lee, Jennie Bristow, Charlotte Faircloth and Jan Macvarish
Why are there now so-called ‘parenting experts’, and social movements like Attachment Parenting, telling us that ‘science says’ what parents do is the cause of and solution to social problems? Parenting Culture Studies provides in-depth answers to these features of contemporary social life drawing on a wide range of sources from sociology, history, anthropology, psychology and policy studies to do so, covering developments in both Europe and North America.
Five essays detail contemporary examples of obsessions with parenting, discussing drinking and pregnancy, attachment theory, neuroscience and family policy, fathering, and ‘helicopter parenting’. The Introduction situates parental determinism in the wider context of risk consciousness and the demise of social confidence about how to approach the future. Comprehensive in scope and accessibly written, this book will be an indispensable resource for students, researchers, policy-makers and parents seeking a deeper understanding of the debates surrounding parenting and society today.
29 April 2014
‘Writing on the Wall: Social Media-The First 2,000 years’ by Tom Standage
It is often said that the rise of social media heralds an unprecedented age of freedom, but have we been here before and if so, what lessons can we draw from past eras. Writing on the Wall argues that ‘new’ media is in fact a continuation of an old tradition. From the Classical World to the Enlightenment, these eras saw a flourishing of writing, ideas, conversations and social networks. The development of the technology of mass media, the book argues, put an end to this freedom.
But does the history show this picture to be more complicated? The printing press sparked revolutions in its day, but this also depended on the existence of a critical public. In the absence of such a public today, it may be argued that social media only fosters isolation, group-think, or intrusive state regulation. A history of older forms of ‘new’ media might be useful in thinking about how such a public might be formed and whether the free flow of ideas is sufficient to create it.
10 March 2014
‘Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age’ by Modris Eksteins
Rites of Spring probes the origins, the impact and the aftermath of World War One from the première of Stravinksy’s Ballet The Rite of Spring to the death of Hitler in 1945. As fundamental conflicts surfaced in virtually all areas of human endeavour and behaviour including in the arts, fashion, sexual mores, between generations, and in politics, Eksteins argues that the Great War was the psychological turning point for modernism.
28 January 2014
‘Consuming Higher Education’ by Joanna Williams
While increases in student fees have been much criticised many now accept that a student’s choice of subjects should be based on their potential to increase future earnings, or that student feedback surveys should shape education. So does the consumption model empower students or erode their autonomy and what is its wider impact on universities, learning and knowledge?
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10 December 2013
‘On London’ by Charles Dickens
While many recent texts have rendered the city flat and one-dimensional, this selection of Dickens’ little-known excerpts, essays and letters collectively serve to showcase Victorian London in all its seedy, opulent, oppressive, liberating, tumultuous glory. Expert Alex Werner notes that while London was Dickens’ muse, a love/hate relationship led him to explore its dark as well as its colourful side.
So why read Dickens today? Numerous studies now argue that reading fiction is good because it makes you a more effective social agent. Indeed Dickens more than most is cited as an example of the ethical and political potential of fiction, of its use as a springboard for debates about moral and social reform. But can fiction have such a practical usefulness and is it helpful to attempt to value literary works in such terms?
13 November 2013
Cities Are Good For You: The Genius of the Metropolis
“For centuries we have been taught that the city was bad for us, that it was drain of our humanity, that it destroyed the old ways and traditions, split families and offered little in exchange but disorder, dirt and noise.” So writes Leo Hollis in the introduction to Cities Are Good For You, one of a number of recent books presenting a positive spin on the city and urban life. So why is it now fashionable to laud the city? And do cities, as it is claimed, make us fitter, smarter, greener, more creative and even happier?
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10 September 2013
Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive it
“Population predictions are not as grim as they are perceived to be.” At a time when Malthusian attitudes to population growth have reappeared, Danny Dorling seems to buck the trend when he argues against the idea that 10 billion people in the world will create what has been called “an unprecedented planetary emergency”. So is Dorling right to suggest that the challenge today is not the population ‘problem’ as such, but how resources are distributed? Should we accept that the price to pay for more people on the planet will be that the richest billion must make do with less?
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9 July 2013
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum
Annawadi is a slum at the edge of Mumbai Airport, in the shadow of shining new luxury hotels. Its residents are garbage recyclers, construction workers and economic migrants, all of them living in the hope that a small part of India’s booming future will eventually be theirs. But when a crime rocks the slum community and global recession and terrorism shocks the city, tensions over religion, caste, sex, power, and economic envy begin to turn brutal. As Boo gets to know those who dwell at Mumbai’s margins, she evokes an extraordinarily vivid and vigorous group of individuals flourishing against the odds amid the complications, corruptions and inequalities of the new India.
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4 June 2013
The Reward Society
Tom Monion says that we now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated. He suggests a combination of casino capitalism and welfare dependency has undermined personal responsibility, either by encouraging a sense of entitlement or by rewarding people for staying poor and seeing themselves as victims.
This book seems skeptical of the plethora of interventions by the state into the lives of ordinary people such as social workers intervening in the lives or ‘anti-social’ families which he argues actually will increase dependency. Instead, he wants to create a culture of thrift, hard work, good diets, neighbourliness and civic pride. But are these solutions really innovative? Can the state encourage people to be responsible without infantalising them?
16 April 2013
There is No Such Thing As a Free Press… and we need one more than ever
Whatever the latest twists in the negotiations over press regulation in the aftermath of Leverson, all sides appear to agree that the press is too free to run wild and must be tamed one way or another. Whether statutory regulation or a royal charter, the fine print of how the press is to be regulated seems to come before standing up for the bigger principles of press freedom.
This month’s Readers’ Group book is There is No Such Thing As a Free Press….and we need one more than ever by Mick Hume who argues that there are problems with the way we view the press today. He both challenges the distorted perceptions about the role of the media and makes a bold argument for true freedom of the press.
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12 March 2013
Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives
‘Food shapes cities, and through them, it moulds us’. For Steel, feeding cities arguably has a greater social and physical impact on us and our planet than anything else we do. She sets out to use food in order to trace the critical path of urban civilisation, viewing it as a means to rethink the future of cities.
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29 January 2013
‘The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production’ by Peter Marsh
Many believe that in the West the game is up for the old industrial and manufacturing economies and that economic power is inexorably shifting east. However, a new brand of optimist – epitomised by Peter Marsh, the Manufacturing Editor of the Financial Times – believe that the west still has an important economic role in which manufacturing is key. With a broad historical sweep, here Marsh makes the case for and lays out the features of what he believes to be a fifth industrial revolution.
12 December 2012
‘Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino
Upon hearing of Italo Calvino’s death in September of 1985, John Updike commented, “Calvino took fiction into new places where it had never been before, and back into the fabulous and ancient sources of narrative.” Invisible Cities has been described as ‘classically modernist’ and ‘giddily postmodern’, and according to Gore Vidal it is “perhaps the most beautiful work.” So is it over-hyped or a contemporary classic? Come and discuss over a Xmas glass of wine.
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7 November 2012
‘The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better’ by Tyler Cowen
“America is in disarray and our economy is failing us.” In the year of a lacklustre American election, a generalised sense exists that the future ain’t what it used to be. The Great Stagnation suggests an alternative to blaming the banks and instead explores whether the era of rapid economic growth, particularly of improvements associated with technological progress, may have been at an end for some time – and if this means that a prolonged period of economic stagnation could lie ahead. Is the argument true? If so, what might it imply? And what might be the means to overcome it?
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4 September 2012
‘Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first Century’ by Anna Minton
From Canary Wharf to the Olympic park, the last 30 years have seen considerable regeneration in our cities. But at what cost? For Anna Minton, the desire to renew our cities has inadvertently led to a divided country that segregates rich and poor, ensures that all new build benefits corporations at the expense of public good, and facilitates a sanitised and sterile society. Does this tell the whole story? Why is it that innovation in urban planning seems to be driven by the needs of finance and consumerism and does it matter as long as the architecture is good? Is equality more important in how we plan our cities or should we set our sights on a more inventive as well as a more free vision of city life?
12 July 2012
Film screening of ‘Utopia London’
Utopia London directed by Tom Cordell, described as a “visually stunning documentary about the 20th century rebuilding of London by modernist architects” These modernist architects were united around a vision -using science and art to create a society of equal citizens. The film shows how they revolutionised life in the city in the wake of destruction from WWII and eliminated the poor living conditions inherited from the Industrial Revolution.
12 June 2012
‘Emerging Africa: how 17 countries are leading the way’ by Steven C. Radelet
The prevailing view of Africa in the West is that Africa is a basketcase, a hopeless continent. Radelet argues that this view is increasingly out of date. Across the continent many countries have defied expectations and have launched a remarkable, if little noticed, turnaround.
‘Together: the rituals, politics and pleasures of co-operation’ by Richard Sennett
Together traces the evolution of cooperative rituals in medieval churches and guilds, Renaissance workshops and courts, early modern laboratories and diplomatic embassies. In our lives today, it explains the trials and prospects of cooperation online, face-to-face in ethnic conflicts, among financial workers and community organizers. Exploring the nature of cooperation, why it has become weak, and how it could be strengthened, this visionary book offers a new way of seeing how humans can live together.
Introduced by Dave Clements. Read his review here
‘The First London Olympics: 1908′ by Rebecca Jenkins
“In the light of the forthcoming Olympics of 2012, it seems appropriate to revisit the first London Games. This is a tale of the extraordinary endeavours of ordinary men – sugar bakers and policemen and market gardeners. And more – there is a White City of palaces built by an Hungarian showman and a heroically dutiful sporting aristocrat and the greatest stadium in the world (at the time).”
Read Alison Walker’s introduction to the discussion here
’The Lure of the City: from slums to suburbs’ edited by Austin Williams and Alastair Donald
Cities, by their very nature, are a mass of contradictions. They can be at once visually stunning, culturally rich, exploitative and unforgiving. This book explores the potential of cities to meet the economic, social and political challenges of the current age. The short, accessibly written essays are guaranteed to spark debate across the media and academia about the place of cities and urban life in our ever-changing world.
’The End of the West: the once and future Europe’ by David Marquand
Has Europe’s extraordinary postwar recovery limped to an end? It would seem so. David Marquand argues that Europe’s problems stem from outdated perceptions of global power, and calls for a drastic change in European governance to halt the continent’s slide into irrelevance.
Read David Bowden’s introduction to the discussion here
‘Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity’ by Raymond Tallis
Tallis exposes the exaggerated claims made for the ability of neuroscience and evolutionary theory to explain human consciousness, behaviour, culture and society and promises to show that human beings are infinitely more interesting and complex than they appear in the mirror of ‘biologism’. By minimising the differences between humans and their nearest animal kin, we may find reasons for treating each other like them.
’Made in Britain: How the Nation Earns its Living’ by Evan Davis
Looking at how Britain pays its way in the world today. This book is about the things that Britain produces from physical goods that we can see and feel, to intangible services that are much harder to quantify. We shouldn’t assume finance is modern, and manufacturing. What matters is what sells and for how much.
‘The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen’ by Kwame Anthony Appiah
Over the last few centuries, new democratic movements have led to the emancipation of women, slaves and the oppressed. What drove these modern changes, Appiah argues, was not imposing legislation from above but harnessing the ancient power of honour from within.
‘The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life’ by Bettany Hughes
Socrates’ aphorism ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ may have originated 25 centuries ago, but it’s a founding principle of modern life.
‘The Genius in All of Us: why everything you’ve been told about genes, talent and intelligence is wrong’ by David Shenk
David Shenk argues that talent- for piano playing, sprinting, designing computers, you name it – is not a thing we’re gifted from birth and coded in our genes, but a process – a lifelong project. Integrating cutting-edge research from cognitive science, genetics, biology, child development – Shenk portrays a highly optimistic new view of human potential.
‘The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the 21st Century’ by Stefan Halper
Foreign Affairs magazine writes: “Disagreeing with those who think that a search for respectability will lead China to scale back its relations with rogue states, Halper argues that Beijing is locked into such relationships due to its dependence on natural resources. Likewise, he doubts that China will democratize as it grows richer, because it is wealth that underwrites the regime’s legitimacy. In Halper’s telling, the real threat facing the West is the West’s own failure to practice and promote its values.”
‘Beauty’ by Roger Scruton
“Everything I have said about the experience of beauty implies that it is rationally founded.”
Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or is there some eternal essence that transcends personal experience? This is a fascinating book about beauty, that doesn’t attempt to define it.
‘Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents’ by Ian Baruma
Baruma asks whether religious ideas and practices undermine the very notion of the independent functions of a secular society; but he also wonders whether a secular framework of the rule of law is enough without the role of ethics, ideals, values and beliefs.
Introduced by Steve Nash. Read his review here
‘Whole Earth Discipline: An ecopragmatist manifesto’ by Stewart Brand
With a combination of scientific analysis, Brand attempts to show where the sources of our dilemmas lie and offers a bold and “creative” set of policies and solutions for producing a more sustainable society.’
Introduced by Rob Lyons, Deputy Editor of Spiked Online. Read his review here
‘Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy’ by Stephen Duncombe
With probably the most uninspiring general election in living memory almost upon us, is the solution to the lack of ideas in politics to dream, to connect more with the aspirations of people? Duncombe grappled with a similar problem in the wake of the Bush assendancy. But was Obama a successful attempt to utilise what he calls ‘Dreampolitik’ and why did it go sour? Could it work over here?
’Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World’ by Barbara Ehrenreich
“Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the cult of positive thinking in America – from the women with breast cancer who find themselves surrounded by pink ribbons and platitudes, to the refusal to consider negative outcomes in business which contributed directly to the recent economic disaster.”
‘The Bully State: The End of Tolerance’ by Brian Monteith
“We won’t lose the freedoms that we cherish by a military coup or some great cataclysmic war engulfing us, but through the gradual invasion of our private lives by the very politicians we elect to protect us – and all in the cause of looking after our health.”