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We are what we read: in conversation with Geoffrey Weston

For Neste’s Journey to Zero “We are what we read” series about books that shape us, Irja Howie speaks to Geoffrey Weston, a Franco-British aviation expert on the Neste Sustainability Advisory Council, about his favorite reads.

For Weston books are an essential part of his life – whether to expand his horizons and gain new insights, or to provide light relief from everyday life. You’ll always find at least a couple of books on the go on his bedside table, from a variety of genres. Screens and kindles are a no-no for him: “I enjoy actually turning the pages. Though in airport queues audiobooks are essential!”

Variety is an important part of the joy of reading for Weston. This is why he wanted to tell me about not one but three of his favorite books, from three of his favorite genres – non-fiction, sci-fi, and classic detective / spy thrillers.

A strategist and philosopher at heart, Weston carefully prefaces his recommendations by underlining his profoundly atheist take on life.

“As an advisor and strategist, I’m usually the one to raise thorny issues that nobody wants to talk about, but need addressing. In my moral and ethical life I have no faith to guide me - I engage with facts, often uncomfortable and far from reassuring, and try to envision what a hopeful future state could be,“ he says.

This, Weston says, is an important role that great books play too – forcing us to face sometimes uncomfortable truths and insights, which then help us grow. But for him reading also gives him hope about the future, as well as opportunities for entertainment and distraction.

Non-fiction: How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil

“The author is a genius,” says Weston. Amidst the deepening climate crisis, Weston thinks everyone would benefit from reading at least the first few chapters of this book.

“The book puts everything into perspective – breaking down where carbon is being emitted, where the world uses energy, and telling the story and quantifying our extraordinary use of fossil fuels.”

According to the book the amount of electricity and fuel we leverage through technology  equates to each one of us having 60 slaves – “The quality of life that we have in modern, developed economies is extraordinary. But it comes at a cost.”

Weston adds: “Reading it made me conscious of which activities of our society are in fact the profoundly carbon-emitting ones…things that most of us rarely think about, such as construction and agriculture.”

Sci-fi: Excession by Iain M Banks

The book is about a future civilization of humanoid species, where there are no material constraints - rendering ownership a meaningless topic.

Weston says: “This is in fact in many ways the opposite of my first recommended book: this is a very positive view of the future, and reading it makes me hopeful of where humankind could go.”

With ships - AI constructs with rights -  as the main characters, he enjoys the way the book forces the reader to consider what they value about being a human being, about our species.

Weston worries about what the future holds for generations to come – but books like this give him hope that there is something for our descendants to look forward to.

“Maybe in 5,000 or 20,000 years we are still around. And the central premise on which Excession hinges is that the civilization of the future humans is a positive force. That of all the species in the universe, the descendants of Earth are in a good place from a moral and ethical point of view.”

While Weston accepts that Excession and science-fiction as a genre are not to everyone’s taste, he offers that that is in fact a good reason in itself to give it a read: “Everyone should push themselves out of their comfort zone, that is how you gain something, widen your viewpoint. 

“Pick up different books, genres, authors – it is a mistake not to.”

Classic detective / spy thrillers: Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

These are the kinds of books Weston likes to read most when he is traveling. “When I sit on a plane, I like to keep that time work-free,” he says – and that is when he is most likely to pick up a book such as Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

“It is refreshing mentally – to play the guessing game, to be surprised, to enjoy being ignorant of what will happen next.”

He first read Death on the Nile as a 14-year-old in the 1980s and re-reads it roughly every 10 years.

“Death on the Nile is light, with good twists, and designed to distract. Everyone should read Agatha Christie – her novels make you think and laugh, and surprise us in a safe, fictional space,” Weston says. “It is good to sometimes just be distracted and entertained, it shouldn’t always be about information and education.”

But in truth for Weston there is always an element of education in reading: “Reading detective or  spy novels with intrigue, murders and plot twists is entertaining but it also engages us with varied human natures, an with the different flavours of evil that exist – which is part of life. It is important not to lose sight of this, so that we do something about it and don’t become complacent.”

As a final question I ask Weston whether these three books would be what he would choose to take with him on a desert island.

He laughs and says: “No, I would take a really long book. Such as A la Reserche du Temps Perdu. Or the Bible. Or the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I will forget the beginning by the time I reach the end and can then enjoy the stories or reflections all over again!”


Irja Howie, UK-based journalist and communications expert.

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