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last updated 15 November 2015

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Here are some reviews of books I've read over the years about life and living, ranging from politics and economics through social affairs to philosophy and religion. I'd recommend all of these to anyone with an interest in these topics!

I will add to this page as time permits, and I'm still reading some of the books described below, but I couldn't wait to share some of the great insights I've gained from these fascinating and valuable works!


Highly Sensitive Person

How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You

Elaine N Aron

Birch Lane Press
Carol Publishing Group

ISBN 1 55972 350 5

One might naively think that a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was someone so in tune to the thoughts and feelings of those around them that they would have very mature and sophisticated communication and inter-personal skills. But, as this book clearly explains, though that is often true in situations where the HSP is calm, more often what you see of an HSP from the outside creates precisely the opposite impression. Often they will respond strongly or even aggressively to events that the majority would readily pass over or ignore, whilst those on the receiving end of their protests, not understanding what it's like to be an HSP, vainly exhort them to grow thicker skins.

In fact, about 15-20% of the population are to a greater or lesser extent HSPs - obviously the degree varies from person to person - and the disposition to it is thought to be genetic. It basically means that the person is so highly receptive to most things going on around them that they easily get into a state of sensory overwhelm, sometimes even causing them to lash out in wild attempts to address this. Though in a few, very extreme cases this constitutes hyperaesthesia, the vast majority of HSPs are not medical cases yet face a challenge of coping with life in mainstream society while being significantly different from the majority of their fellow humans.

Typical characteristics of HSPs include being easily startled and readily getting flustered if there is too much going on around them or they are under time pressure. Often they prefer smaller, quieter social gatherings to large crowds and/or rowdy bars, and avoid violent films or TV. They can be unduly self-critical, thinking themselves flawed, and sometimes going to great pains to avoid making mistakes. Physical discomfort, hunger, too much ambient noise or distraction, or being placed in competitive situations can prevent them focussing on tasks in hand until they can find a way of cutting out these unwanted inputs. At times they will feel the need to withdraw and seek quiet, solitute and/or "headspace".

Being an HSP is not without its advantages, though. They are often more aware of subtleties in their environment than other people, can be deeply moved by arts or music, and are often the first person to spot when someone in their group is uncomfortable and can suggest appropriate means of resolving this. HSPs are often very conscientious, and many are highly intelligent too.

As well as a deep and thorough account of what life is like to HSPs, and why they are the way they are, this great book also includes valuable exercises to help HSPs develop better coping strategies for life at large.

How to Control Your ANGER

Before it Controls You

Albert Ellis PhD and Raymond Chip Tafrate PhD

Robert Hale

ISBN 0 7090 6544 2

Until I read How to Control Your Anger I'd always thought feeling angry to be a natural, and largely innate, reaction to circumstances I didn't like. But this book rapidly peels back the layers of how angry feelings form and points directly at the level of control each of us actually has over how we respond to adverse events and circumstances.

This book describes a simple A-B-C-D system we can use to help control our reactions and deal more rationally with setbacks and other adverse events. The A is the Activating experience or Adversity, such as someone going back on an agreement they previously made. The C is the emotional/behavioural Consequences for you of this event, which could obviously range from just a little bit of mild frustration to incandescent rage. What, then, determines whereabouts on that spectrum your reactions to different adverse events fall? The answer is the B, which is the set of Beliefs you hold that are relevant to the situation! It is precisely by inspecting and managing those beliefs that destructive levels of anger can be avoided.

The authors show how you can classify those beliefs into Rational ones (RBs) and Irrational ones (IBs), and how the latter can drive you to explode with rage. RBs will lead to healthy negative feelings such as disappointment, regret and/or frustration. IBs, however, tend to be those that redirect the criticism at the individuals themselves rather than their offending behaviour. You might, for example, have a belief that "people who go back on agreements are nasty scum of the earth" - and it is exactly this which fuels the anger. (Everybody has to look after themselves first, and sometimes they find themselves facing invidious choices through little or no fault of their own. It therefore pays not to have overly high expectations [beliefs] of what can be expected from other people.) The D is Disputing your irrational beliefs, by which you are able to discard or change them and hence resolve the inner sources of your angry feelings and behaviour.

Reading this book was a major step forward for me - as soon as I had understood the basic principles I started to find myself challenging all manner of negative beliefs I had about various types of other people, and my moods improved significantly. I still haven't needed to read the second half of the book! As the same phenomenon was described to me later on a course I did at work, events are neutral!

The Robot's Rebellion

Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin

Keith E Stanovich

University of Chicago Press
Chicago & London

ISBN 0 226 77089 3

The Robot's Rebellion uses the analogy of an intelligent robot that is rebelling againts its programming as an analogy for describing the human struggle to find the most rational forms of behaviour.

Like Consciousness, it includes in its starting point the recent discoveries of Neuroscience. The principal reference for this book, however, is to Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and its arguments that human beings were designed originally as vehicles for propagating our genetic materials, but have now also become the vehicle for a second type of propagator, namely units of cultural information termed memes. The rebellion is that of our rational minds, in their attempt to serve our own interests ahead of those of the genes and memes that we have inherited from our ancestors and our social contacts, respectively.

Stanovich proceeds to describe the different levels of computation that are known to occur within our minds, from the lowest level of genetic programming to the higher levels of intellect, and demonstrates the systemic flaws that are inbuilt into each of these levels. He then proceeds to discuss the attempts we make towards achieving rational integration between our higher and lower levels of rationality, and explains how marketeers aim to manipulate us to try and make our more basic instincts override our more rational judgements.

As well as debunking the principal postulates on which the majority of Economic theory is premised, this book includes a revealing description of why those who base their lives on higher-order ethical principles (such as eschewing the products of child labour) can often appear hypocritical and full of inner conflicts, while those who stick to baser, more Darwinistic urges - whom Stanovich refers to as wantons - have fewer internal conflicts even though their behaviour is certainly less rational objectively. Maybe hypocrisy isn't such a bad thing after all!

If Stanovich perhaps overlooks the strength with which some people desire a simple life where they can base most decisions on a fixed set of rules, and maybe in places underestimates how hard it really is for someone to override their lower-level drives, this is nonetheless another great book which I would unhesitatingly recommend to anyone with an interest in discovering what really makes us tick.


Rita Carter

Weidenfield & Nicolson

ISBN 0 304 35600 X

Did you think you were like a controller in a control room, becoming aware of changes in your environment as they occur and making corresponding decisions, in real time, how to respond to each situation as it occurs? So did I ... until I read Consciousness.

This well-illustrated book presents a very readable summary of some of the key discoveries of Neuroscience in the realm of understanding how our brains actually do work. In fact our seemingly self-consistent, integrated and real-time perceptions are actually pieced together rather like a collage, using different sources of information. Much of what we think we perceive is actually filled in by our brains, via a range of processes that can be identified and demonstrated experimentally.

The biggest shock, however, is how Neuroscience calls into question the widely accepted concept of 'free will', namely that we make most of our decisions consciously of our own free choosing. Research such as Libet's experiment, however, demonstrates that 'readiness potentials' from the brain that signal imminent actions of the body take place just under half a second before a person is conscious of making the corresponding decision. Conscious perceptions, themselves, don't occur until about half a second after the event. As has been known for some time, often the reasons we give for having made particular decisions are simply rationalisations fabricated by the linguistic modules of our minds to make decisions taken at deeper levels seem as rational and justifiable as possible. When the ramifications of these modern discoveries become more widely understood, they will call into question a number of the key tenets on which our current societal rules are based.

Hard Work

Life in Low-Pay Britain

Polly Toynbee


ISBN 0 7475 6415 9

Hard Work is a brilliant account of the harsh realities faced by low-paid workers in Britain. Polly utilised a sabbatical to live and work as though she were an untrained and destitute British worker, taking a flat on a sink estate in Clapham and a range of jobs at the bottom end of the marketplace, living off only the income that would be available to a real person in that situation. The book presents an overwhelming case for increasing the minimum wage to a level at which all workers would be paid a living wage. Companies that pay low wages are in effect subsidised by taxpayers as the government then has to supplement their workers through benefits such as Working Families Tax Credit. Though by no means anti-business in general - indeed, Toynbee takes pains at several points to challenge unjust but commonly-heard criticisms of private firms - Hard Work also lays bare the myth that private companies are more efficient than the public sector, as the savings they make are overwhelmingly obtained by reducing the pay and conditions of their staff. She also identifies a number of examples where outsourcing prevents effective co-operation between different groups within the same workplaces, for example in hospitals and care homes. Finally, Toynbee exposes the dishonesty and shenanigans to which private companies and temp agencies go to conceal their exploitation and protect their backs as they do so. For example, care home staff are required to sign documents accepting that any injuries resulting from lifting residents are their own fault, but the company then fails to provide sufficient resources to enable these staff to do their jobs in the allocated times if they follow the officially required procedures. In some cases staff agencies refuse to give people copies of legal documents they have signed (this could surely easily be outlawed). Small wonder that so many people succumb to the temptation to turn to crimes such as drug dealing now that the ladders of upwards mobility have been swept away, as this book also demonstrates.

In a short review printed on the back cover, Will Hutton says that 'Every member of the cabinet should be required to read it, apologise, and then act.' I would go yet further - this book should also be mandatory reading on every MBA course and every accountancy qualification.

The Celestine Prophecy

James Redfield

Bantam Books

ISBN 0 553 40902 6

Redfield uses an adventure novel here as the vehicle for communicating nine insights into the spiritual side of human behaviour. Despite its fictitious nature, The Celestine Prophecy gave me some remarkable realisations about own life and every insight bar the ninth rang totally true to my own experiences and perceptions.

The book presents a very coherent theory of the nature of evolution of the universe in general, and human life in particular. There are many references to accepted scientific discoveries, including compulsory relationships as described in The End of Marriage.

The basic thesis is that our lifestyles have continually evolved over the time the human race has existed towards better conditions of existence. Redfield then discusses psychic energies and how interactions between people affect each other, leaving each person either 'up' or 'down' afterwards. He explains how most people develop 'control dramas' to deal with parents and other adults during childhood, how these can inhibit spiritual growth during adulthood, how they can be overcome, why sexual relationships degenerate into power struggles, how this might be avoided, and how we should ideally deal with others so that everyone benefits.

Though one or two of the ideas presented, such as humans in high states of spiritual achievement being invisible to others, are simply not credible, and the insights have clearly been compiled contemporaneously (albeit from ancient religious truths) rather than mystically in an age long past, this does not detract in any way from the remaining material. It may not be possible to see other lifeforms' energy fields, but I can sure as hell feel my own, and fully understand what he means about how controlling people saps their psychic energy.

The End of Marriage

Dr Julian Hafner


ISBN 0 7126 5607 3

The End of Marriage gives a fascinating insight into the pitfalls of relationships where the partners cling together simply because they initially happen to meet each other's psychological cravings, ie they "need" each other. A good selection of case histories is used to illustrate how traumatic childhood events and conditions such as Oedipus and Electra complexes can lead people into unsuitable "compulsory" relationships that go wrong later in life. The book also unfolds an enlightening summary of how life and the forms of relationships developed over the history of the human race, including how goddess-centred religions were supplanted in Western societies by those with male-only deities as men began striving to control women's sexuality. It also debunks the common myth that woman is inherently monogamous, and reminds us that, for most people, love-based relationships are a relatively recent phenomenon. One case study even illustrates how radical feminism ultimately derives from a particular type of childhood trauma.

But the book ultimately fails to propose a satisfactory basis for improved relationships in the modern age. Whilst it rightly advocates that individuals should become emotionally self-sufficient, I have significant reservations about its conclusions that people can be better off remaining single. Commitment is clearly a hot topic at present, indeed an article in The Observer described how a lot of women are finding their men just won't make the commitments they want. But we do all change over time and something that may seem 100% right today can change and be very different some time later. Nevertheless, it seems to me that (a) most of us find it more fulfilling to have someone really close with whom we can share our innermost thoughts, and (b) as nobody is perfect at everything, if we can team up with someone who is happy to do the tasks we're poor at, while they gladly do the same for us, the whole should add up to more than the sum of the parts, with both partners feeling fulfilled. Tantrism (see The Art of Sexual Ecstasy) suggests that the result can be pretty magickal if both partners, though capable of being self-sufficient, and therefore capable of not having the other person's love, are motivated by a genuine wish to cherish and support one another, rather than an overarching need for mutual emotional support.

There is perhaps insufficient acknowledgement of the extent to which behavioural differences between the sexes (other than in terms of sex drives) are determined by genetics rather than upbringing ('nature' rather than 'nurture' - see Brain Sex). Nor is sufficient consideration given to the type of relationship where one partner adopts devotion to the other as his/her primary life objective, which the Kama Sutra regards as the most satisfactory kind of liaison. But in spite of these shortcomings, this is a tremendously valuable work with many sharp insights.

Brain Sex

Anne Moir & David Jessel

Michael Joseph

ISBN 0 7181 2884 2

Brain Sex was the first recent book to present a summary of the mounting scientific evidence that there are biological differences between the minds of men and women, challenging the orthodoxy that had until recently existed in feminist circles that held that men and women should be regarded as essentially the same, and that male and female behaviours arise entirely from the person's upbringing.

Moir and Jessel present a number of studies that show that male and female characteristics are in fact innate and tend to re-assert themselves however good an attempt the parents make to provide a sexually neutral upbringing. Indeed there is one telling example of how some abnormal boys, born looking like girls and brought up as such, rapdily reverted to masculine characteristics on reaching puberty.

In broad terms, men on average are better at spatial skills and assertiveness, whereas women are better at social skills and nuances. Further corroboration of this Darwinist truth can now be found in How the Mind Works. We need both, and feminism's desire to turn women into high-achievers and to 'feminise' men are not only unwelcome but ultimately doomed to failure.

Are You the One for Me?

Barbara de Angelis


ISBN 0 7225 2866 3

Are You the One for Me examines the factors that make for compatible or incompatible sexual relationships. It explores the factors that cause people to fall in love in the first place and the most frequent mistakes people make in forming relationships, including failure to ask enough questions, ignoring warnings of potential problems, making premature compromises, 'Lust Blindness', falling for material seduction, and putting commitment before compatibility. She lists a number of 'fatal flaws' that make some people difficult to have relationships with at all, for example emotional unavailability, sexual dysfunction or being a control freak (though these can often be overcome by a person who really has the will). She describes 'compatibility time bombs' that have a habit of ultimately destroying relationships, such as incompatible religious backgrounds or 'toxic' in-laws.

A major premise of the whole treatise is that only stable, long-term relationships can ultimately be truly fulfilling. Though the book as a whole has a slightly conventional slant to it, both the Kama Sutra and Tantrism (see The Art of Sexual Ecstasy) concur on this point. And finally, she debunks the commonly-encountered myth that having a relationship with someone who is also a good friend will compromise the friendship. To get the best out of a relationship you actually need to become closer even than good friends, and that takes a lot of courage and work.

Irrationality - the Enemy Within

Prof Stuart Sutherland


ISBN 0 09 471220 4

This book describes a whole range of aspects in which human behaviour can be demonstrated to be irrational. For example, the mind tends to place undue weighting on recent experiences as opposed to those from earlier times, and it is well known anecdotally that people often give undue credence to first impressions. Then there is the 'halo effect', by which somebody who has one significantly good trait tends to have their shortcomings discounted by others. Less well appreciated is that we tend to have an inbuilt inclination to follow authority.

One experiment quoted in Irrationality - the Enemy Within involved volunteers obtained from a newspaper ad that offered them $4 to take part in an investigation on punishment. They were paired with "pupils" played by actors and whom they had to train to associate word pairs by administering electric shocks after each error, with each shock more severe than the last. No shocks were actually delivered, but a surprising number of volunteers including normally kind people were prepared, in the end, to deliver what they thought to be severe shocks in order to fulfil their own agreement to participate.

The Emperor's New Mind

Roger Penrose

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0 09 977170 5

The Emperor's New Mind is a difficult book in which Penrose sets out to demonstrate that the human mind cannot be understood solely in terms of being a computational device.

The basic ingredients of his thesis are a combination of quantum theory - uncertainty - and a mathematical proof called Gödel's theorem which demonstrates that there are some things which an educated human being can immediately see to be true but which it is not possible even in theory for a computer to recognise as such.

Systems of Survival

Jane Jacobs

Hodder & Stoughton,

ISBN 0 340 59177 3

The different social and moral factors that apply in the two realms of business culture and political/government cultures are contrasted in Systems of Survival.

Contrary to commonly-held myths, business culture revolves around trust in a fundamental way. Although there is competition, honesty and effective collaboration are also essential for the workings of the relationships that are necessary to build a successful business. Using force (which usually, in practice, means the law) is something to be reserved for the very last resource as it involves significant diversion of resources from one's primary aims. Industriousness, thrift and optimism are also key qualities.

In a governing culture, on the other hand, the key factors include obedience and discipline, respect for hierarchy, loyalty, fatalism and honour, and the use of largesse to keep those you need on your side.

The Passions

Robert C Solomon

Hackett Pub Co

ISBN 0 87720 226 7

The Passions was among the first of the recent books to challenge the cult of rationality that had grown up in the earlier part of this century, considering human emotions to be little more than an enemy of rational behaviour that the person had to suppress in order to live an effective life. While passions and emotions clearly do result in irrational behaviour at some times, that view is now increasingly recognised to be wrong. Solomon explains that our emotions are in many cases the result of evaluations made by the mind taking account of a wide range of information available to it, and that in many cases they confer judgements it would be difficult to arise at from logic alone, and provide central meaning to our lives. In many ways this book anticipated the discoveries presented in Emotional Intelligence.

The Complete Kama Sutra

translated by Alain Danielou

Park Street Press,
Rochester, Vermont

ISBN 0 89281 492 6

The popular perception of the Kama Sutra is as a sex manual but in fact it's much, much more - no less than a comprehensive guide to happy living. Its first key message is that, to live a contented life, one has to balance success in three key areas - material sufficiency, sex and family life, and personal integrity/ethics. It goes on to debunk the concept of asceticism that underpins our protestant work ethic - I never have believed in those principles. But the other major theme it really brought home to me is that for a truly harmonious society one needs to foster a culture doing those little things that make other people's lives more pleasant, such as kindness and having a sense of humour - a theme which is also taken up by Emotional Intelligence. The word eroticism is used within the Kama Sutra to describe such behaviour - something badly undervalued in Western societies, especially among anglo-saxon coultures, though initiatives such as planting flowers in Southampton to brighten the place up, which resulted in reduced petty crime, time and time demonstrate its effectiveness.

The Kama Sutra also includes a comprehensive catalogue of the different types of sexual relationships that can be found within any society and the dynamics of each, with the implications for the participants and those around them. In doing so, it demonstrates convincingly that the most successful relationships are those in which one partner - traditionally, though not necessarily, the woman - is prepared to abandon their own goals in order to devote themselves to the other partner. This is undoubtedly the truth behind the old saying that 'behind every successful man there is a woman', and is no doubt a major factor behind the stress and discontentment many people experience in this post-feminist age.

Obviously you have to read this book in the context of the ancient societies within which it was framed, but the majority of its contents are still extremely relevant to the social problems of today.

The Multi-Orgasmic Man

Mantak Chia and Douglas Adams Arava

Harper Collins

ISBN 0 7225 3325 X

The Multi-Orgasmic Man, on the other hand, fundamentally is a sex manual, but it's basis lies in eastern practices such as Tantrism. It's about things like energy flows, whole-body orgasms, and female ejaculation. I would recommend this as a great introduction to these subjects for any newcomer. It certainly brought about a big improvement in my love life!

The themes described here are explored more comprehensively in The Art of Sexual Ecstasy.

Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman

Bloomsbury Publishing

ISBN 0 7475 2622 2

A modern-day classic, the basic theme of Emotional Intelligence is that scientific investigations reveal that measurements of skills in dealing with people are a far more reliable predictor of whether or not someone will succeed in life than traditional IQ tests. The book then goes on to explore what exactly constitutes emotional intelligence, and then presents the good news - unlike cognitive intelligence, it can be learned, and in fact one can improve even at later stages in life.

If I have one minor reservation it is that Goleman's concept of success is based on that of mainstream US culture, with probably too great an emphasis placed on material and business career success rather than more abstract measures such as happiness, and there is no mention for example of Maslow's motivational hierarchy. But this doesn't significantly harm its basic thesis.

There are also many parallels with the Kama Sutra's concept of eroticism, in its broader sense as described above. In fact Goleman starts the book with a tale about a wacky New York bus driver who quips with his passengers. Initially they find this strange and non-conformist, but the end result is a bus full of smiling, cheerful people!

How the Mind Works

Stephen Pinker

Allen Lane The Penguin Press

ISBN 0 713 991305

As its title suggests, How the Mind Works is a comprehensive account of recent research into the workings of the human mind.

Pinker is first of all an atheist, and he challenges the views presented in The Emperor's New Mind by pointing out that, even if our minds cannot be perfect, they can still be effetive enough to allow the mind to be viewed credibly as a computing device. (It is an inherent property of neural networks anyway that they can never be 100% perfect.) And, unlike me, he is happy to accept the notion of conscious self-awareness being an emergent property of nothing more than well-organised matter and energy.

He is also a Darwinist, and explains that while some behaviours can be learnt or are picked up from our environment, other aspects of our behaviour are 'hard-wired' or can only be changed marginally, as suggested for example by Brain Sex.

There is, for example, a fascinating description of how the various parts of the mind combine to allow us to perceive the images seen by our eyes. Pinker explains that there is a crucial stage during a quite precisely-defined stage of early childhood where the neural networks that give us our vision are laid down, and that if a child is physically unable to see for whatever reason during this stage, he/she will never be able to perceive vision thereafter.

The Art of Sexual Ecstasy

Margo Anand


ISBN 1 85538 251 2

A modern-day account of the eastern practice ot Tantrism forms the core of The Art of Sexual Ecstasy. The practice is a combination of philosophies and attitudes, with many parallels to those discussed in modern books like Emotional Intelligence, and symbolic rituals. The latter are designed simply as a means of communicating and sharing appropriate sentiments and togetherness, and also bear comparisons with some of the rituals used in pagan crafts such as Wicca and magick. In both cases, the important thing is understanding what the rituals are there to symbolise, rather than trying to conduct them literally as described in the respective works. Also common to both is the important concept of a sacred space in which you are free from any external distractions (other than life-or-death matters such as fire alarms!) and are able to devote yourself fully to whatever you are doing. Tantrism also shares the basic theme of eroticism with the Kama Sutra. Any nice, artistic or tasteful artefacts help to bring about a mood of pleasant relaxation that further enhances the experience.


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