Books Read: March 2024

Lately, I’ve been keeping track of my book reading, and to help focus my reflection (and as an aid to my own memory), I have taken to writing a few lines for each book I complete. March was a particularly good book-reading month, and since I’ve not posted anything on this website for more than year, I thought I’d share last month’s reading notes.

First, over March I read a few books that are broadly philosophical:

The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity (Kwame Anthony Appiah) — this is an accessible discussion of contemporary identity markers — creed, country, colour, class, culture — taking into account their history, how they function, and the grip they have on us in our contemporary world. Appiah, with who has mixed heritage (Ghana and England), weaves carefully selected examples into an extended argument to the effect that we would do well to understand how these identities are historically contingent, and open to change.

The Philosophy of Hope: Beatitude in Spinoza (Alexander Douglas) — Alex is a colleague of mine in Philosophy at St Andrews, and this is a lovely short book on Spinoza’s account of what we can ultimately hope for. Spinoza’s concept of beatitude—of how it is that we can escape from the conditions of death and this fallen world—is provocative, and Alex shows how this radical conclusion follows naturally from Spinoza’s account of what is ultimately real.

The Force of Non-Violence (Judith Butler) — I’ve long been sympathetic to pacifism and the power of non-violent struggle, so I was interested to see what Judith Butler, a philosopher working from a very different background and tradition to my own, has to say. Although a lot of Butler’s writing can be hard going for those not at home in contemporary critical theory, this book is more accessible. Like many good books on non-violence, the account turns away from the purely negative characterisation in terms of avoiding violence, toward an expansive account of widening the circle of whose lives ultimately count, or in Butler’s telling (which is less actuarial and more human), whose lives are grievable.

March’s fiction was all science fiction, though these three books were all very different from each other:

This is How You Lose The Time War (Amal El-Mohta, Max Gladstone) — this is a delightful novella with two protagonists, initially working on opposite sides of an epoch spanning time-travelling conflict between a force of order and force of chaos, only to find that they form a bond that literally transcends time and space. Told through letters, it’s a delightful and touching way to spend a windy weekend afternoon.

Dune (Frank Herbert) — I’d never made it more than 10 pages through Dune, but having seen the conclusion of Villeneuve’s two-part movie spanning the novel, I thought I’d try to revisit it. I got through the whole thing, and I enjoyed getting some perspective on what Villeneuve kept in and what he left out. Having read the synposis of what happens in the rest of the Dune novels, I have no desire to spend more time in that world, but it was enjoyable enough to get through this one story.

The Inheritors (Jill Dobson) — Jill is an Australian friend who now lives in Glasgow, and this novel is a recent update of a Young Adult dystopian future story she wrote in her late teens. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a highly controlled society, under a dome, in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the second half of the 21st century. It was a fun read, and the story went in directions I wasn’t expecting.

In March I read two books that advertise themselves as “self-help” writing. Again these books share a genre, but otherwise, differ greatly:

Slow Productivity (Cal Newport) — Newport is a theoretical computer scientist, more famous for his work on “deep work”, “digital minimalism” and other ideas that are expressible in two-word slogans. Slow Productivity is his latest. Newport is a thoughtful person, who works in academia and is aware of the pressures involved in the daily grind of what people call “knowledge work.” He’s also not obsessed with “productivity” in the sense of directing all your energy toward making yourself an efficient worker in the contemporary economy. In this latest book, he describes and argues for taking a slower and more reflective pace for your work, and that lesson seems worth heeding.

How to Focus: A Monastic Guide for an Age of Distraction (John Cassian, selected, translated and introduced by Jamie Kreiner) — This “how to” book, from Princeton University Press, is a selection of passages from the fifth-century CE monk John Cassian’s Conferences, a large work where Cassian and his friend Germanus travel around Egypt, conferring with more experienced monks about how they go about the business of meditating. I’ve been interested in the Christian mediation tradition for many years, and the Conferences has been on my list to read. These extracts were an enjoyable start, though I am not sure that if you were interested in learning to focus your attention for reasons other than sitting quietly in meditation, this would be the place I’d start. Still, I enjoyed this one, and reading these extracts has placed the whole unexpurgated Conferences higher on my to-read-sometime list.

Finally, I read two other theology books over March:

Reading Romans Backwards (Scot McKnight) — this is a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, and it takes the provocative and helpful line of reading the book backwards, taking special account of the audience of the letter, and all we learn from the big list of greetings and exhortations to various people at the letter’s end. Once we realise that the nascent Christian community in Rome is a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, with its own tensions over Torah observance, we can see that the letter is not a context-free statement of Paul’s theology, but is addressed to a specific community. Read in that light, the beginning chapters of Romans read very differently, and I learned a lot from McKnight’s text.

Living with the Psalms (John Bell) — we spent this Easter on Iona, and I picked this slim volume from John Bell up at the Iona Community Bookshop. John Bell has been active in the church in Scotland and in the Iona Community for many years, and he has reflected long and hard about the use of words in song and worship, and so, he has lived with the Psalms for a long time. Unlike the McKnight book, this isn’t a commentary, but is a poet-priest’s reflection on these words and how they can function in the life of the individual and the community.


I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. I am the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, and the Director of the Arché Philosophical Research Centre for Logic, Language, Metaphysics and Epistemology I like thinking about – and helping other people think about – logic and philosophy and the many different ways they can inform each other.


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