What to read this summer? Ask an Aesthete
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Vincent Van Duysen, architect and designer
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
It’s a beautiful letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. It spoke to me because my mother passed away a year and a half ago, and I have a very strong relationship with her, being an only child.
Courtney Love, musician
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox; King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes, Recollections of My Non-Existence and Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit; Ways of Seeing by John Berger
[Desperate Characters] was written by my grandmother Paula Fox. We only met once and we didn’t get on. But I am writing my autobiography and got the urge to read her books at last. She is minimal, meticulous. I try to bring the same restraint to my lyrics. Another, mind-blowing, book I read this year was Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory. The chapter on sex work – the tenderness she shows towards men and women alike is striking. Then there’s Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Non-Existence and Wanderlust. I also give out copies of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing like the Bible. There’s a brilliant chapter about being naked and the nude.
Princess Ira von Fürstenberg, designer
Sans Départir by Diane de Beauvau-Craon
I loved this memoir. De Beauvau spent part of her childhood at the Château d’Haroué, the 18th-century estate that belonged to her father, Prince Marc de Beauvau-Caron, who was a great connoisseur of the arts. Her maternal grandfather was the Bolivian tin tycoon Antenor Patiño, about whom she has all sorts of stories. She spent a lot of time in New York during the ’70s and ’80s: she worked for Halston and partied with Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Jessica Bell Brown, curator for contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art
Trust by Hernan Diaz
Trust just won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s an unintentional history of capital, philanthropy and robber barons; it shows you the underworld of America’s elite.
Gaetano Pesce, architect
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
She was a great writer, a hugely intelligent woman. She wrote a book interpreting the Emperor Hadrian and it really felt like it was him talking.
Terry de Gunzburg, founder of make-up brand By Terry
The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig
This tale of resilience and motivation is about a man who is arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in a hotel. They take everything from him – he doesn’t know whether it’s day or night – so he plays chess with himself in his head. It feels contemporary but was written in the ’40s.
Jonathan Saunders, fashion designer
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
It’s a Glaswegian story and it’s in a colloquial style, so it took me back to my hometown. As well as being a really interesting read, it brought back a lot of memories for me.
Liz Lambert, hotelier and designer
The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
This was lovely to return to after so many years studying poetry and creative writing in college. Since I recently moved house, all of these wonderful books have cropped back up – Frank O’Hara, Charles Bukowski – and often in multiples, which I think means that I’m meant to give them as gifts to friends.
Matthew Modine, actor
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
It sounds like a self-help book. It’s not. First of all, he didn’t write the book to be shared and published. It should probably be called reflections, as it’s not like sitting with your legs in the lotus position. His meditations are him trying to come to peace with his thoughts.
Min Jin Lee, author
The Persuaders by Anand Giridharadas
I was moved by these real-life profiles of iconoclastic individuals who were willing to cross the aisle and engage a person who seemed directly opposed to their point of view. As the world appears more frightful, I am drawn to this idea of reconciliation.
Stefan Brüggemann, artist
Intelligence for Dummies by Glenn O’Brien
This is a collection of essays and writing by the late American journalist and editor Glenn O’Brien. He was a friend. He wrote the text for one of my exhibition catalogues, and reading this is like hearing his voice again.
Becky Fatemi, property agent
Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most by Greg McKeown
This was given to me by a friend, the designer Marc Jacques Burton. It’s taught me that slowing down makes you far more productive. As an entrepreneur with ADHD, no one can keep up with the speed that I move at, so slowing down for my staff is a necessity.
Jung Lee, party planner
The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav
It’s about how we all experience a psychological and spiritual evolution, and it seems particularly relevant to my life right now. It also stresses the importance of inner strength so that you can weather adversity.
Walter Van Beirendonck, fashion designer
A City Behind the Forest by Albert Grøndahl and Kold Angst by Mads Peder Nordbo
This is a book about art created by patients at the Aarhus Psychiatric Hospital in Denmark from the mid-19th century until 2018. I love outsider art, and photographer and writer Albert Grøndahl captured the work beautifully. The best holiday book I’ve read in the past year is Kold Angst by the Danish crime writer Mads Peder Nordbo. I really don’t read much fiction unless I am on holiday and when I do, I like airport novels. It was an easy, if distressing, read.
Michael Chow, restaurateur and artist
Modernists & Mavericks, by Martin Gayford
I’ve only ever read four books: The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C Douglas and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. And now this. It’s about the 25 years of British art from the second world war to the ’70s – Hockney, Bacon, Freud and so on.
Frédéric Panaïotis, Ruinart champagne’s chef de cave
Le Monde sans Fin by Jean-Marc Jancovici and Christophe Blain
A graphic novel about the finite resources of the earth. Written by an engineer and climate expert, it highlights what impact our life has on the planet and what we should do to reduce our impact personally and globally. Honestly, you read it and you question yourself. After I read it I bought copies for my 27-year-old daughter and everyone in the Ruinart management team.
Lucia Pica, make-up artist
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
It’s about how the body keeps the memory of trauma and how the new generation of psilocybin and psychedelics can help with that. I find microdosing fascinating. I’ve read Michael Pollan’s book but I’m leaning more towards this one.
Corin Mellor, creative director of David Mellor Design
Richard Batterham: Studio Potter by Tanya Harrod and Sarah Griffin
This was published alongside an exhibition of his work at the V&A. I don’t really read books, but I do love looking at imagery. Richard Batterham was a potter who supplied all our shops from the ’70s until his death in 2021. I also own a lot of his work, including an enormous oversized teapot that’s about 18in tall. I think it’s the most beautiful teapot there is.
Erik Torstensson, co-founder of denim label Frame
Autobiography by Helmut Newton
I struggle with reading as I have ADHD; I will read the same page three times but get so distracted I won’t remember anything. But I got through this book via sheer will, like running the New York Marathon, because I’m such a fan of his work.
Lily Cole, actor and activist
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
The best books I’ve read in the past year are all by Vonnegut. A few friends had recommended him to me, and then someone gave me The Sirens of Titan. I read that, then a collection of his short stories and now I’m reading Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s such a joy to discover a new author you love. I love his writing style, and his humour.
Will Cooper, hotelier
The Courage to Create by Rollo May
May was an existential psychologist who wrote this book in 1975, and it speaks to how fear is a reaction to what is happening culturally, and how creativity is actually born from the understanding and overcoming of such fears. The teachings are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them.
Catherine Martin, costume and set designer
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
It resonated with me because we’re in this time of enormous human conflict and of people being so divided, and I think it’s important that we look at who we are and where we came from, so that we start to understand ourselves better and try to find more common ground.
Harry Lambert, stylist
Why Did You Stay? by Rebecca Humphries
Humphries is an actress, and one of my closest friends, who went through a very public break-up when her boyfriend [who was a Strictly Come Dancing contestant] was photographed kissing his dance partner. The book, inspired by what happened, is very powerful and emotional. I think it’s a triumph.
Sam and Sam Clark, founders of Moro restaurant
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
This book is all about fungi and how we’re only just beginning to understand how extraordinary they are. The biggest organism in the word is actually a fungus. And not only do they help give trees and plants water and nutrients, they’re also incredible for storing carbon, so could help us save the planet one day.
Tschabalala Self, artist
Never Die Alone by Donald Goines
At my family’s home there is a large book collection by black authors and intellectuals from the ’60s and ’70s. I started reading them one summer in the early 2000s and was instantly hooked. Never Die Alone is a sad novel about complex characters in less than ideal situations. The protagonist, King David, is truly a villain, but through the eloquence of the text you begin to sympathise with him. As a young creative, it taught me that characters do not need to be likeable to be compelling – and more importantly, it is sometimes necessary to create a villain in order to tell a moralistic story.