Nine artists recommend their favourite books for summer


Roger Ballen © Photo: Marguerite Rossouw

Roger Ballen

What is the best book you’ve read recently?

The best book I have recently read is Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for Planetary Intelligence by James Bridle. Extraordinary and eye-opening. Bridle examines various forms of intelligence, encompassing plant, animal, human and artificial, and how they reshape our understanding of humanity’s position in the universe. This ties into the exhibition at my new Inside Out Centre for the Arts [in Johannesburg], which examines man’s assumed superiority over nature.

What is the perfect summer read?

The best summer read is Thich Nhat Hanh’s Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems. This renowned Buddhist monk passed away last year but his lessons still reverberate. The poems are a call to quietness, stillness and a savouring of interconnectedness in a time of global fractiousness and our contemporary affliction of distractedness. Centering, beautifully gentle. 

Olafur Eliasson Photo: Lars Borges, © 2020 Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson

Best recent book

Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021).Ghosh writes about worlds ending, about empathy and more-than-human voices, about who gets to count as human. It is a text that touches me. And in that touch, there is potential for transformation. Ghosh writes: “So if it is true that the human ability to speak, and think, can only be actualised in the presence of other species, can it really be said that these faculties belong exclusively to humans?”

Jenny Holzer Photo: Matt Boster/Sipa Press

Jenny Holzer

Best recent book

A big book, Homeland Elegies (2020), a novel by Ayad Akhtar. The book is good because the author is smart, and he packs in subject matter. 

Perfect summer read

For summer I happily recommend, for the title and more, Art is a Tyrant: The Unconventional Life of Rosa Bonheur (2020) by Catherine Hewitt.

Janet Cardiff Photo: Matthias Willi, © Museum Tinguely, Basel

Janet Cardiff

Best recent book

I am currently reading When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut. So far it’s an entertaining, dystopian—fictionally embellished—biographical narrative of major scientific figures. It is also about our relentless drive towards the potentially dire consequences of their research, including the invention of poison gas and its usage. Labatut also intertwines mathematical geniuses such as Shinichi Mochizuki and Alexander Grothendieck, who ended up renouncing mathematics as a destructive force. I can’t help thinking about the history of the atomic bomb and the exponentially unstoppable expanding field of AI.

Perfect summer read

Two of my favourite fiction books are Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Both of these are written in incredibly inventive poetic diaristic style and both deal with the unbreakable bond between mother and child, even with ‘monster mothers’. There’s so much in both books that just stops you as a reader to marvel at the beautifully constructed narratives. But on top of their skill in writing are their powerful personal life stories of immigration and adoption through the difficult but beautiful journeys from childhood to adulthood.

Cornelia Parker Photo: Lily McMillan

Cornelia Parker

Best recent book

Beastly: A New History of Animals and Us (2023) by Keggie Carew.

Perfect summer read

The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed (2021) by Helen Scales.

Zadie Xa Photo: artifacts

Zadie Xa

Best recent book

I’ve not had time to sit down and properly read anything for the past few months but I have been listening to a few audiobooks while working. A recent favourite is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996), excellently narrated by Gaiman himself. I love the idea of an underworld London existing unbeknown to the rest of us living here.

Perfect summer read

The perfect summer read will be something that pulls me out of my everyday routine and into someone else’s world. I have a soft spot for fantasy and sci-fi, especially if it weaves in elements of traditional folklore from cultures I’m not so familiar with.

Adrián Villar Rojas Photo: Mario Caporali

Adrián Villar Rojas

Best recent book

The best book I’ve read recently is actually a re-read of, in my opinion, a classic: Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (1962).

Perfect summer read

I do not plan readings related to seasons or “vacations”—probably because I do not take or plan vacations.

Petrit Halilaj Photo: Zoé Aubry

Petrit Halilaj

Best recent book

I loved the book Thus Waves Come in Pairs: Thinking with the Mediterraneans (2023), edited by Barbara Casavecchia. I contributed drawings and the texts are beautiful. Simone Fattal and [her late partner] Etel Adnan talk about [the different] seas; I love that conversation.

Ali Kazim Courtesy: Ali Kazim

Ali Kazim

Best recent book

The Urdu poetry book Safir-E-Laila by Ali Akbar Natiq.

Perfect summer read

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River (2008) by Alice Albinia.


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