The best books on living well together

Niki Harré Author Of Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet
By Niki Harré

The Books I Picked & Why

Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology

By Andreas Weber

Book cover of Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology

Why this book?

This book stopped me being scared of death – well almost. It is a wonderful read about how we are embodied creatures of planet Earth. Our very being is relationship. Take breathing for example. As you sit there you breathe in oxygen, nitrogen, and a little carbon dioxide. When you breathe out you release extra carbon dioxide – with that carbon coming from your body itself. You gift a little of your being in exchange for the oxygen - fragments that may end up in that tree outside your window. Once we understand that exchange is the essence of life, it helps us live well on our shared planet. As Weber explains, joy comes when we sense that life is increasing – for us and for others.

Our task then becomes to nurture life – the creative striving of all living things to become themselves and connect with others. Weber describes what I feel to be my foundational narrative – that we are all at home in this world, and working together is what matters most. 

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The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

By Karen Armstrong

Book cover of The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

Why this book?

The Spiral Staircase is the book I’ve read the most number of times as an adult. It is the autobiography of Karen Armstrong who was a Catholic nun for six years in the 1960s in the UK. The book picks up after she leaves her convent and is studying English literature at Oxford University. She is also suffering from mysterious episodes of fainting and memory loss, and so we are taken into her struggles with both academia and the psychiatry of the 1970s. She then spirals through other careers and eventually returns to God – not now as a person of faith but as a writer about religion – its beauty and its tension.

This is perhaps the most honest book I’ve read, as it unflinchingly describes the experience of making terrible mistakes – as we almost all do – without blame or self-flagellation. Karen Armstrong learns, in the end, that it is in focusing on compassion to the other that we become most truly ourselves.  

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Finite and Infinite Games

By James Carse

Book cover of Finite and Infinite Games

Why this book?

After the first edition of Psychology for a Better World was published, I was on the search for a symbol or metaphor to capture the drive of so many people to contribute to the common good. It needed to be something that worked in secular settings and would resonate with the big social movements for the environment, justice, and wellbeing. I heard Carse speak about the infinite game on a podcast and immediately bought his book.

The notion is simple – in life, there are at least two kinds of games: finite games in which the object is to win, and the infinite game in which the object is to keep the game in play. That is it, I thought, life is about keeping the game in play. You don’t have to believe anything, but if you want, you can join the infinite game. Carse describes how these games play out in many different contexts and life experiences.

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Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed

By Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Patton

Book cover of Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed

Why this book?

This was the book that introduced me to complex systems. Many people have become familiar with complex systems in recent years as we’ve been exposed to talk of feedback loops and probability through discussions on climate change. Little inputs can make a big difference and big inputs sometimes collapse under the weight of their own inertia. This book has one of those titles that work their way into your imagination – getting to maybe?

It does not suggest you set goals and work, head down, towards your personal mission. It suggests that you take a look around, gather with others, invite ideas based on people’s passions, and get started. It is all about experimenting and learning together. Then, maybe, something will good will happen. The book offers plenty of inspiring examples of significant social change as a result of genuine innovation and listening to many voices.

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Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Block

Book cover of Community: The Structure of Belonging

Why this book?

This book describes what it takes to invite people into a conversation that leads to new ways of being together. Block is full of practical wisdom. For example, he discusses the importance of the physical setting – which is why I sometimes spend hours preparing for what a meeting will look and feel like. Our aim, he writes, is for people “to feel as if [they] came to the right place and are affirmed for that choice”. To do this, we need to gather everyone in – bringing them and their gifts to the centre of the process. Like my other recommendations, Block has huge optimism for what people can do when treated well.

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