Literature for change: vital reading for the left-wing optimist

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We live in difficult and uncertain times and the world around us seems increasingly full of fear and terror: it is easy to lose hold of hope and grow cynical and weary. But this is the sort of attitude that suits only those who would seek to exploit these feelings to push agendas that nobody wants.

The newly announced general election in the UK is a prime example here. Brexit is not the sole issue facing the country and a general election should not be used as a battleground on which to debate it; least of all because in the debating of it the government will be able to hide the fact it has no clue or plan or strategy. Yet unless we demand and fight for a more positive world and put other issues on the table; we will hear of nothing else over the coming weeks. There will be no talk about the fact that wages for the majority have stagnated or fallen every year the conservatives have been in power; there will be no talk about the fact that we are working longer and harder for no reward, as our physical and mental health and wellbeing deteriorates; there will be no talk of the rising levels of misogyny or hate crime; of the crises in our public services created by privatisation; or of the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our world.

We have the power to change this; to stand up to the politics of hatred and division. Optimism is a strategy for building a better world – if you believe human beings have an instinct for truth and justice and equality; and you believe there are opportunities to change things so we build our society around these pillars – rather than those of fear – then there’s a chance you can contribute to making a better world. “Don’t mourn – organise!”

To help you do just this, we’ve picked out some of our favourite left-wing books. We’ve tried to avoid the obvious tomes of Marx, Lenin and Kropotkin – and instead gone for alternative inspirational, informative, interesting and accessible texts. Check them out!

1. Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay, by John Lanchester

We have been living with the fallout from the 2008 banking crisis, and will continue to do so for decades to come. Fortunately, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, as – without any irony – the publishing industry reacted to the near total failure of modern capitalism by successfully pushing out to the market books that tried to explain the crisis and the myriad political consequences of it. Few of these books, however, are as pleasurable to read as John Lanchester’s “Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.”

The snidest villains and the greediest buffoons in the narrative are the bankers and other financial wizards who began recklessly playing with new, risky, little-understood tools to get richer faster — tools that ostensibly hedge against risk but also dramatically increase it. If you don’t know how derivatives or credit default swaps work, or what securitization is, or why futures are riskier than options, this is a book for you

2. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

A painfully well-researched, addictive romp through Friedmanite economic terrorism by one of the best journalists working in English. Read this book and you’ll understand how and why world governments are capitalising on the economic crisis to impose austerity on ordinary people.

3. Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? By Mark Fisher

The late, great, Mark Fisher identified the paradox of modern capitalism: that the more it fails, the deeper it becomes entrenched. The more people rail against it, the more powerful it appears to become. Yet while Fisher does not identify a single tool or solution to help us achieve the radical social change necessary to displace capitalism, he does however, hint at what any theoretical tool or idea must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

4. The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

A powerful explanation of the nature of violent uprising and the psychology of oppression.  Almost every page contains quotes that one wants on a poster or revolutionary t-shirt (after all, in the words of Billy Bragg “the revolution is just a t-shirt away”).

5. Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft

Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s tome is an inspiration for three centuries of subsequent human rights thinking. She identifies natural rights as being just that – rights; and not to be denied to any group in society by another.

6. The intelligent woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, sovietism and fascism, by George Bernard Shaw

Shaw’s 1928 work is a brilliant debunking of the myriad excuses for inequality. He argues that women of all classes must free themselves from economic dependence on men, and points to traditional family structures and familial roles as being at the heart of patriarchy. Capitalism is the villain of the piece (as well it should be), as Shaw argues for a humanity driven by forces of love and compassion, rather than self-interest. Intriguingly, he also posits that men will never be truly free or able to reach their full potential until women are free and released from bondage.

7. Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood

An evocative portrayal of life in depression-era Britain, the fact that Greenwood’s Love on the Dole remains in print stands as a testament to a lost industrial culture, and also as a story that speaks its essential truths loudly whenever times get hard.

“I have tried to show what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole,” Greenwood reflected, “the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth.” As austerity policies continue to deprive millions of men, women and children in the UK and elsewhere of essential decent living standards  and newspaper columns bulge with warnings of yet another generation laid waste by unemployment, it’s a mission statement that we would do well to take up.

8. The Cultural Roots of British Devolution, by Michael Gardiner

For citizens of the UK and Europe, the very real possibility of a break up of the United Kingdom demands proper study and research. Scottish devolution and independence takes precedence in Gardiner’s tour de force of a book; yet within it we can also pick out the same recurrent features of “British” culture and politics that have created the climate for Brexit and the push for greater powers for Wales and Northern Ireland.  Gardiner makes, for instance, concrete and extraordinary connections between, for example, English rave and a new unBritish, pro-democratic Englishness. Its scope makes it sightly wandery at times; but this is part of its appeal: unlike anything else in the subject you’ve read.

9. The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

One of the first books to give a voice to marginalised and ‘otherised’ groups in post-war British society, this is not only a novel about race and survival; it is also a novel about the city. Selvon’s descriptions of post-war London are so powerful and evocative that one fancies oneself alive and present on these same streets. He brings to life the grubby, working-class backstreets of the Harrow Road and Notting Hill, and the seemingly unbreachable divide between them and the rich neighbourhoods of Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Hampstead. He shows how London is not one city, but a compendium of many little cities: there is no such thing as one London or, indeed, one Britain.

The message of The Lonely Londoners, then, is even more vital today than in 50s Britain: that, although we live in societies increasingly divided along racial, ideological and religious lines, we must remember what we still have in common – our humanity. As the novel says: “Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead.

10. The Coming Insurrection, by The Tarnac 9/The Invisible Committee

This short book, written in 2005 by an anonymous French collective known only as The Tarnac 9 (also sometimes known as the Invisible Committee) has become a core text for radicals and revolutionaries across Europe and the Middle East. The slender text is part antimaterialist manifesto and part manual for revolution. The writers expound at length on what they see as a diseased and dehumanizing civilization that cannot be reformed but must, they contend, be torn apart and replaced. To that end the authors direct their readers to sabotage authority, form self-sufficient communes and learn how to “support a conspiracy against commodity society.”

 

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list and we’d ask anyone and everyone reading to respond in the comments with their own essential articles, books and texts for organising and mobilising as a progressive force against the disastrous forces of capitalism.

Now, here’s a video of Charlie Chaplain. Because reasons.

 

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Writing about climate change: the most important books about catastrophic climate breakdown

 

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A desolate world ravaged by climate change is hard to picture, but it could be our future, unless we start to imagine it. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

Despite the climate-denial of the Republican administration in the USA, and despite the fondness for fossil fuels most governments across the world continue to hold, the future facing our planet and our species is one of catastrophic climate breakdown, unless we act now.

The difficulty comes in imagining the consequences of global warming denial. They are, perhaps, so great that they seem impossible. It therefore falls to writers – imagination warriors, if you will – to paint a picture of the future in which the natural world is no longer the self-replenishing, bountiful support system needed to support human beings; but rather a desolate, ravaged, toxic place where no life can flourish.

Perhaps not the most-light hearted of subjects to write about; it is nonetheless a vital one. Below, we pick out a few of the most important books about climate change – call them examples of ‘cli-fi, if you must, which you should all read immediately:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy

Three books here, by one of the greatest literary titans. Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of books variously imagine the sorry state of the planet, and the human responses to it. In Oryx and Crake, human beings are re-engineered to create a new brand of humans who lack “destructive features responsible for the world’s current illness”.

Then, in The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s speculative fiction explores the environmental ravages caused by our reliance on oil and the terrifying consequences of it running out.

MaddAddam itself concludes the trilogy, bringing various narrative strands from the previous two books to an end.

Backed up by extensive research, Atwood’s books encourage us to pose critical questions to ourselves, the most pressing of which is “what will happen if we continue on our current path?”

  1. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow

A hurricane, caused by man-made climate change, destroys New York. Set in the not-so-distant future, the novel paints a picture of the world in which the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our planet has become all too real.

A darkly comic tone may suggest a somewhat nihilistic view to our predicament and our future. Yet Rich confronts us with the truly terrifying prospect of what awaits us in consequence of our failure to address the issue of climate change. The pressure is on us to avert disaster – or else realise we must live with it.

   3. JG Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere

While Ballard himself has tried to dismiss his book as “forgettable”, The Wind from Nowhere is one of the first books written that can be fairly attributed to the ‘cli-fi’ genre.

First published in 1961, it deals with disasters afflicting the natural world and how human civilisation would cope with this increasing inevitability. Prolonged worldwide hurricane force winds reduce cities to ruins and the people who live in them irrevocable changed.

   4. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Why does every human’s self interest conflict with the wider need for collective survival?

So runs the central theme Mitchell grapples with in his novel The Bone Clocks – and so too runs a question we must address sooner rather than later if we are to avoid the most catastrophic effects of man-made climate change.

The Bone Clocks, told in six parts, paints a picture of the world in which climate change depletes the resources of the earth to such a degree that the world ends in darkness and desperation as civilisation collapses and human beings descend into anarchy.

Believably bleak.

    5. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

It would have been remiss for us to leave one of the most obvious books from this list. One of McCarthy’s best known novels depicts a world of undeniable environmental apocalypse. Described as “the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation”, it imagines for us the terrifying consequences of our choices and vividly creates a desolate world that, though fictitious, feels all too familiar and real.

The best literary stocking fillers

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The average British family is set to spend over £800 this Christmas. It’s possible that quite a lot of that will be splurged on some of the wide range of Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise currently piled high in every shop window – from your Lightsaber BBQ tongs to your BB-8 oranges.

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While we’ve been puzzling over just what it is exactly about oranges that makes them suitable Star Wars-themed, we’ve come to the conclusion that some of the best purchases you can make this Christmas may be on items that have a far longer shelf-life and far greater usability than Star Wars fruit and utensils. Although of course that Star Wars Darth Vader toaster is a must-buy for all your estranged aunts, uncles, first and second cousins.

We’re of course talking about books. Not only can they be read again and again, and invite us to explore new worlds and entire new universes, they also help us think differently about the world – and they teach us about wonderful new ideas. They’re also good for us, too. Perhaps even better than the vitamin C you’ll get from those Star Wars oranges. As this paper in the journal Science points out, reading literary works cultivates a skill known as “theory of mind”, which is described as the “ability to ‘read’ the thoughts and feelings of others.” So books make us nicer, basically. If there is anything more appropriate at Christmas, then, we certainly haven’t come across it.

So which books should you buy for those special people in your life who aren’t getting that Vader toaster? Well, surely size comes into it – because they have to fit into stockings of all shapes and sizes.

To help you narrow your options down, take a look at some of our suggestions, below:

  1. Penguin Little Black Classics

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80 little books to choose from – one for each year in the life of Penguin Books and each around 60 pages long – give you a wealth of options to choose from. These extracts of wider classical literary works are sure to offer choices to meet all literary tastes. Authors include Karl Marx, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Plato, Caligula, Keats, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Dickens. What’s not to love?

  1. The Absent Therapist, by Will Eaves

 

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Technically described as a novel, this delightful little book will fit any stocking – but would also be a great find under the Christmas tree. A collection of mini-narratives, each with a precise tone and occasional touches of poetry, feature stories of artificial intelligence and musings on philosophy, of travel and adventure, and of course, family feuds – without which it simply wouldn’t be Christmas.

  1. On Inequality, by Harry Frankfurt

On inequality

Certainly one for the more miserly Christmas gift receiver, who will undoubtedly point out that the credit-fuelled Christmas expenditure is forced upon the poorest in society by those marketing and corporate execs who bombard us with advertisements designed only to make us consume endlessly on a finite planet. But this fascinating book by New York Times bestselling author Harry Frankfurt addresses one of the most divisive and important issues of our time – inequality.

  1. A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Few people realise that this same truth applies to Guinea Pigs. This brand new abridgement to the classis Jane Austen novel helps set the record straight in this regard.

  1. A satirical spoof of the classic ‘Peter and Jane’ series

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Penguin’s new series of spoof Ladybird book titles, modelled on the Peter and Jane learning reading books from the 1960s and 70s have been selling out in their hundreds of thousands as potential stocking fillers. They feature “The Ladybird Book of Sheds” and “The Ladybird Book of the Hipster”. Yet they have been inspired by books they initially threatened legal action over – the wonderfully satirical ‘We Go to the Gallery’ by Miriam Elia. Instead of going for the spoof of the spoof, why not get your loved ones the real thing?

  1. The Jeremy Corbyn Colouring Book, by James Nunn

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A fantastic twist that has accompanied the explosion in popularity of adult colouring books, as well as in left-wing literature, James Nunn’s Corbyn-themed colouring book is a wonderfully interactive gift for people on all wings of the political spectrum. Not only topical – Corbyn is, after all, a massive part of our cultural consciousness at the moment – the book also shines a light on a man whose message of kindness, respect, love and honesty surely fits perfectly with the true meaning of Christmas.

  1. Where’s the Wookie?

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If you really can’t avoid getting in on all the Star Wars hype, we can’t think of many better stocking filler options than this suitably fitting take on the classic ‘Where’s Wally’ book series. You might think that an eight-foot tall walking carpet is not going to be difficult to spot, but you’d be surprised. This book will have you scanning some 40 pages depicting elaborately detailed scenes from the Star Wars universe in search for Chewbacca. Sure to distract people of all ages from trying to work out where that Vader toaster is.

Writers on their favourite books

Everyone has that book they can’t get out of their head. The story that will forever hold a special place in their hearts and souls. We were lucky enough to have the chance to ask* five famous authors about their favourite books** – here’s what they told us…

  1. Jonathan Franzen – The Hungry Caterpillar

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“This is a fabulous allegory for rapacious capitalism. The caterpillar clearly represents neoliberalism. He bites into every fruit, takes just one bite and moves on, getting fatter and fatter. He’s exploiting everything. The caterpillar might as well be called Ronald Reagan. It’s great! Also I liked the colours.”

  1. Toni Morrison – Fifty Shades Free

Toni Morrison

“Like most people I prefer to read the ‘Fifty Shades’ series upside down. It really puts things into perspective. You are hanging there, reading this, and everything becomes so clear. What I realised was that this book goes so much deeper than most people give it credit. And in fact you can do so much with it. You can dip it in Pepsi. You can spread Nutella over it. You can cut out all the words and arrange them in little patterns on your fridge by sticking those tiny magnets to them. It’s interactive, in that way.”

  1. Ernest Hemingway – The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

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“Every so often you come across a book in which it feels as though the author has reached a hand through the page and taken yours in its grasp. You see yourself in the characters. You become the story. The story becomes you. This is the book that does that for me. When Adrien writes “I have never seen a dead body or a female nipple” I wept. It was too close to home.”

 

  1. George Saunders – Sex and the City
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Photo of George Saunders. (Chloe Aftel/Random House)

“One of my favourite aspects of Sex and the City is how you can read it with your eyes closed, trying to guess aloud what words will come next. I’m really good at this game now – I play it with my son, who frankly is terrible at it. But part of this just comes down to practice. A lot of the time you’ll get it right by shouting one of the following phrases: “I could so do with a margarita right now”; or “This once again illustrates the fundamental problem with modern economic theory, and makes you realise that we are increasingly becoming a plutocracy, rather than a democracy.” That’s a good hint I gave you. Don’t tell anyone.”

  1. Margaret Atwood – The Eye of Argon

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“This story has unfairly got a bit of a bad rep, I think. Too many books these days are written by people who seem to think the only thing that matters is whether or not their characters drink enough Mountain Dew or wear the latest Nike trainers. This is one of those rare books that doesn’t suffer from that sort of nonsense. It’s concise. And yet it feels alive.”

 

 

* May not actually have had the chance to ask these authors anything.

** May or may not be their favourite books. It’s all pretty much conjecture at this point.