Roman Krznaric is a social philosopher who is also a widely respected published author whose books include Empathy, The Wonderbox and How to Find Fulfilling Work, which have been published in over 20 different languages. After growing up in Sydney and Hong Kong, he studied at the universities of Oxford, London and Essex, where he gained his PhD in political sociology. Roman is also the founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum, as well as the Empathy Library. Roman Krznaric is also a founding faculty member of The School of Life and on the faculty of Year Here. Recently, Roman was named as one of Britain’s leading popular philosophers by The Observer. As well as having his successful writing, Roman Krznaric is also an acclaimed public speaker who has delivered talks all around the world; from a London prison to Google’s headquarters in California. Roman’s most recent book, Carpe Diem Regained looks at how the concept of ‘carpe diem’ has been hijacked and reduced to the instant hit of one-click online shopping, and the idea of being in the here and now. I was excited to talk books with such a well respected philosopher. Please enjoy my interview with Roman Krznaric.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
Sometimes I say, ‘I’m a writer about the art of living and social change’. At other times the response is, ‘I’m a social philosopher’. I’ve never really found an answer that feels right to me, and both of these responses are probably baffling to many people!
The most amazing book – Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, a science fiction classic written in 1937. It’s a book on an immense scale, a kind of philosophical history of the whole universe. It had a huge impact on writers ranging from H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke to Jorge Luis Borges and Doris Lessing. I’m also re-reading Viktor Frankl’s essay collection Psychotherapy and Existentialism, which had a big influence on my new book Carpe Diem Regained.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey, an Australian Aboriginal artist. It’s a Dreamtime story about a great snake that created the land. I met the author when I was a kid and was mightily impressed by his huge beard.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I thought I’d probably be either a professional tennis player or a mathematician.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
In 1986, my step-mother Anna took me into an English language bookshop in Des Voeux Rd in Hong Kong (where I spent my teenage years). There on the table was a Bertrand Russell essay collection called Why I Am Not A Christian. She said I’d probably like it. It was electrifying.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
Probably shocked that I am married and have children, when at the time I swore that I’d have neither…
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
If I’m doing research for a book, I can easily sit in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and read all day every day, from 9 to 3, for months on end. When I’m deep in the process of writing, I find it difficult to read anything at all – my brain is too full of my own words and thoughts. When it comes to reading for pleasure, it’s generally evenings for me. I always read in bed before going to sleep.
An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin. It has had a huge impact on me stylistically. Zeldin did an extraordinary job of making cultural history and philosophical thought feel personal and intimate – and I’ve tried to do the same in my own writing. The themes of his book are also ones that I’ve come back to again and again, such as the importance of conversation and curiosity as forces for social transformation.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
Read Ways of Seeing by John Berger. While not an introduction to philosophy as such, it is certainly the most thought-provoking book I’ve ever read, and has done more than any other to shape how I think about who I am and my place in the world. And this is just what philosophy should be doing.
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
Although I might sometimes be called a ‘philosopher’, and studied philosophy, I have a confession to make: I don’t read many books by formal philosophers. So it’s quite difficult to pinpoint those who inspire me. I’d say rather I’m inspired by three ‘philosophical writers’ – the novelist Ursula Le Guin (especially her book The Dispossessed), the cultural historian and travel writer Sven Lindqvist (my favourite is Exterminate All The Brutes), and the British anarchist thinker Colin Ward (I’m a fan of Anarchy in Action).
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Just looking over my shelves I see dozens of books that I associate with important people in my life. I associate Commentaries on Living by Krishnamurti with my grandfather Leo, Foundation by Isaac Asimov with my father, Emma by Jane Austen with my step-mother, and Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor with my wife.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Ways of Seeing by John Berger. We try to keep a constant stock at home to give away to people.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve found it hard to read fiction over the past few years, and I don’t totally understand why – especially because I’m currently writing a novel!
Do you think reading is important?
Do you think breathing is important?
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
A popular economics book called Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist by Kate Raworth. But beware this disclaimer: I’m married to the author.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I can’t read digital, though I’ve tried.
Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.
Working by Studs Terkel, an extraordinary oral history. It is the most humane book I’ve ever read. It opens you up to empathy like no other.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It has done more than any other to make me question my own assumptions and prejudices.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I would also include;
Gandhi: An Autobiography by Gandhi,
Collected Essays by George Orwell,
Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel,
The Magus by John Fowles,
The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard,
History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell,
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee,
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin and
A Confession by Leo Tolstoy.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I’m going to be doing lots of reading on the future of energy. My starting point is Energy and the English Industrial Revolution by E.A. Wrigley.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I don’t think I’d feel a need to write one, as all my books are really autobiographies of one form or another. They are explorations – if sometimes oblique – of who I am and who I want to be.