Physics

Robin Ince’s top 10 books about the human condition | Books


Most of my standup shows, whether about the behaviour of the bonobo ape or my addiction to celebrity narrowboat TV shows, are really me trying to work out what it is to be human and trying to see how wrong I am getting it.

In middle age, I’ve been trying to evaluate the knowledge accumulated from shouting at strangers for money over the last three decades. Where does anxiety come from? What is the key to creativity? How can we deal with grief? How do we overcome impostor syndrome? I’ve interviewed other comedians and artists, such as Lenny Henry, Alan Moore, Jo Brand, Tim Minchin and Ricky Gervais. I’ve been through an MRI scanner to see what my brain does when I’m being funny. And I’ve spoken with psychiatrists, psychologists and neuroscientists to find out what they believe makes us tick.

The result is I’m a Joke and So Are You, a book that sets out to understand the human condition through the lens of comedy. Comedians professionally examine humanity’s quirks on stage every night. But what was it that made me want to stand up and shout at strangers for money? Was it upbringing or childhood trauma, or is it just the way my brain is wired?

What still delights me about comedy is that during all the prattling and pratting about, some people in the audience may realise that they are not as unusual as they thought they were. Comedy gives you licence to talk about what is often socially taboo, whether that’s social anxiety or suicide. After a show in Nottingham, a man approached me and angrily said: “I’ve always presumed I am rather weird, but having sat and watched you with your audience tonight, I’ve realised we’re all bloody weird, so it turns out I am normal after all.”

If shouting in public isn’t your thing, however, books can also offer illuminating insights into the human condition. These are 10 of my favourites:

1. What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard Feynman
The title story in this collection of reminiscences is a love story. Nobel prize-winning physicist Feynman tells of how he fell in love with his first wife, Arline. He explains how she taught him a lesson or two as he dealt with her premature death from tuberculosis while he worked on the atomic bomb. In this story alone, Feynman perfectly demonstrates his belief that, even when talking about love and tragedy, “science doesn’t subtract, it only adds”.

2. Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
The story of our need for pattern and shape in the world, told through the increasingly intense atmosphere around a spelling bee competition and Jewish mystical texts. Will the yearning for ultimate meaning and its failure to arrive always destroy us? A book of thrilling spelling endeavour.

3. Between the Monster and the Saint by Richard Holloway
Holloway is probably my favourite former bishop. Since retiring from the church, he has written powerfully and poignantly on the human condition. In this book, he draws on an eclectic set of writings across history, science, poetry, and philosophy to explore just how difficult it is to be human. Ultimately, it is honesty and an analysis of his own failings that put into sharp relief the problem of being an instinctual animal with frontal lobes that sit in judgment.

4. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel’s comic-book memoir of growing up in a funeral home where her undertaker/English teacher father tries to maintain “his secret” and control his family life via emotional distance is a magnificent use of the discursive nature of comics. Can we ever be happy if we try to be what we are not?

5. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
A good pull of the rug from under our presumptions that we are the pinnacle of evolution. Vonnegut saw the worst excesses of humanity during the bombing of Dresden, but then spent the rest of his life writing with a mixture of exasperation and hope about the foibles of humanity.

6. The Calvin and Hobbes series by Bill Watterson
Six-year-old Calvin and his toy tiger Hobbes are named for a 16th-century theologian and a 17th-century philosopher, and these comic strips explore the different ways we relate to the universe with real profundity. Calvin’s endless exuberance and battles with the adult world and its monotonous thinking are a utterly delightful. They make me want to climb into a cardboard box and transmogrify.

7. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Our potential to destroy in obedience to dogma and our ability to dehumanise others is grotesque, as this courageous book shows. A Viennese psychologist before the second world war, Frankl was professionally equipped to examine how he and others in Auschwitz coped, or could not, with the extremity they faced. I reread this account of what it took to psychologically survive on a yearly basis.



Precarious perceptions … Michael Nyman’s opera version of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, performed by Long Beach Opera. Photograph: Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty

8. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
In what is probably his most famous book, Sacks tells the stories of people caught in the bizarre grip of neurological disorders that distort reality and understanding. Sacks’s care for his patients, and his sense of his own responsibility for them, show his deep humanity as he explains how precarious our perceptions can be.

9. Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World by Chris Frith
Frith is one of the world’s top neuroscientists, and this his accessible account of the experimental studies that examine how the brain creates our mental world. As Frith’s book shows, Kiekergaard was very probably more right than even he imagined when he wrote that “life is lived forwards but understood backwards”. A good reminder that creating “you” is just one of the many things your brain does.

10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
What a thing to discover that some of the nonsensical ideas in this book were real physics. What it was to be an 11-year-old beginning to learn about how absurd it is to be a curious but vain ape in a big universe via Vogon poetry and infinite improbability.

I’m a Joke and So Are You by Robin Ince is published by Atlantic, priced £16.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £14.61 including free UK p&p.



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