Books that have shaped my world view
The date today is 1st October, 2020. It is the first day of Black History Month in the UK. Two days ago, Trump and Biden had their first televised debate of the US election. The Coronavirus pandemic has now been ravaging the planet for almost a year. About 4 months ago, George Floyd’s death saw people all over the world standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement. My personal life has also been a series of challenges this year, with events that deeply shook my sense of self and my place in this world.
In short, it has been quite a year. My cultural and political allegiances have been pulled apart and pushed into a new shape I can’t see clearly just yet. And lately, it has got me thinking about the books that have shaped my politics from a young age up the present. Some of these books are the result of deliberate searching; others simply fell into my lap at the perfect moment. Books are like that – they only come along when you really need them. They only show their true worth when you are ready to receive it.
What follows is an account of some of the books that have made me the political being I am today.
Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
I read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series at the age of 16. It was a year of bookish consumption and gluttony. I read hurriedly and greedily, skipping from book to book. From classics of the literary canon (Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Persuasion) to modern classics, revolutionary titles, fantasy and teen fiction. None of them imposed on me by a curriculum.
I read Blackman’s entire series within a couple of weeks. (I should point out that I am not a fast reader, so that’s pretty monumental by my standards – you will find this to be a recurring theme in this blog.) I think it would be fair to say that the speed with which I read may have undermined the messages I should have learned from it. But as a teenager, I was far more interested in the action itself, rather than the politics that was undeniably the driver to it all. What I remember most about the story isn’t the incredible overturning of racial stereotypes. What I remember most is the tension and the sexual awakening of the character’s lovers – a tragic Romeo and Juliet narrative.
But whether I realised it or not, this book was teaching me so much more about politics – race and terrorism.
Crossfire is the fifth part of the series, only published last year (2019). I have not read this latest addition.
Seventy-Two Virgins by Boris Johnson
This book was part of that same year of voracious reading, when I spent most lunch times with my nose in my book rather than talking to my peers. I come from a Conservative family and at the age of 16, as is the case for many young people, my politics mainly consisted of parroting what I heard my parents say. At that time, if someone asked who I would vote for, I would probably have said Tory, although I couldn’t have told you why. At that time, all I really knew about Boris Johnson was that he seemed like an affable clown that got stuck dangling over London once, while abseiling to advertise the London Olympic bid. But my dad would say he was very smart, in spite of that, and that he liked Boris. So that’s why I picked up this book from my school library when I came across it.
My mature political (and staunchly liberal) leanings colour my remembrance of this book. But at the time, I did not see what I would now, that it was undoubtedly affirming damaging racist stereotypes. At the age of 16, I read it with the eyes of a child and the shallow political identity one gains from parents through osmosis. I did not read with depth or with agenda. I learnt a few things about the process of parliament and was presented with some opinions on terrorism.
But really, Johnson’s novel did not leave much of a mark on me. I hope I am being true to my recollection when I say that this is simply because the writing did not inspire me. My reason for recounting it now is because I sat here thinking about which books have brought a new perspective into my personal political landscape. And as awkward as I feel in sharing this, I read a book written by our current Prime Minister during my formative years, so it would be obtuse of me to omit from this account.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in the summer I turned 17. At that age, my A-level English Literature studies had introduced me to what the syllabus termed “Critical Reading” – i.e literary criticism. We were quite deliberately encouraged to start reading with greater context and to consider alternative viewpoints. It was during these lessons I first heard the word Marxism. I was still without the understanding that would allow me to generate real life responses to what I read, but it was a beginning.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was perhaps the first novel I read with real, if immature, political awareness. The ideas this book related were truly mind-boggling, incredible and terrifying. Language as a weapon and a tool of oppression. As an adult, I have seen some of these tactics in practise and I am fearful for the path that lies ahead for our global political landscape.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Once again, this book came at around the same time as those previously recounted – I read The Handmaid’s Tale in its entirety on one November night at the age of 17. I vividly remember staying up to read this book through the night. I could not put it down until I was done, and I mean that quite literally. To this day, I cannot recall another novel that has so captured me.
The Handmaid’s Tale is characterised by taboo. Both the topics under discussion and the actions of the characters are driven by the things we “should not talk about”. The role of women in society is painfully distorted, with particular attention on the function of sexual intercourse and menstruation.
The TV adaptation came along a few years ago and the book’s sequel, The Testaments, was last year’s joint Man Booker Prize winner. The ardour I hold for the original text meant I was very nervous about whether these more recent incarnations would hold up. Thankfully, they do.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlyn Moran
Skipping forward several years now, to the age of 25. At this time, I undertook a rather deliberate search for feminism. It took me some time to be confidently and vocally feminist and I can cite Caitlyn Moran as part of that journey. In this biographical work, Moran discusses her own journey to womanhood. She references Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch) several times, but not with the blind adoration of a sycophant: with perspective that felt refreshing and personal. One of such references is how Moran came to stand on a chair and shout, “I am a feminist!” I did this when I went for a walk in the woods not long ago. I said it loudly and proudly and it felt freeing and wonderful.
There was a time when I was not so loud and proud. I used to fear being labelled as “one of those girls” (deciding to call myself a woman rather than a girl is another recent development). By which I mean being labelled as “difficult”. Accusations get thrown at people who call themselves feminist: man-haters that don’t truly believe in equality and can’t take a joke. With any political movement, the individuals that make up the whole can hold vastly different ideas. Political movements evolve, splinter groups form with ideals and goals of their own that might be at complete odds with the rest, but they are all under the banner of Feminism. There are people in this world who call themselves feminists that are doing more harm than good, people I would strongly disagree with.
But what I mean when I say “Feminism” is equality. They are, to my mind, synonyms. But Equality, with a capital “E”, is very busy these days, with so many kinds of injustice to overcome. So we separate the issues under subtitles that allow us to focus our attention on one at a time. Intersectionality, which I learnt about it in the next book, is a more recent term that asks us to consider all the factors that result in inequality concurrently, because only in this way, so advocates believe, can we make real positive change.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started on this title earlier this year (aged 26). But I know that I was prepared to find it difficult. The title sets up the reader for confrontation and, as a general rule, I don’t do well with confrontation. Furthermore, although I, like many a modern person, believe myself to be an advocate for equality and anti-racism, it is rare that I, or people like myself, truly partake in a subject that makes one’s own history culpable in a present that continues to favour white people over black and brown people. Being born into this modern era of what we might casually call racial equality is a convenient lie. We have made strides forward, absolutely, but to imply that there isn’t a lot more work to be done is to massively undermine the continued difficulties experienced by those with darker skin tones in Western society.
This book astutely points out what is already obvious in our society, if only one takes the trouble to think – really think. Eddo-Lodge’s observations were difficult for me to listen to. As a modern young woman, I flatter myself with the traits of liberal and open-minded, but as Eddo-Lodge identifies the ways in which I am privileged – which I am, undoubtedly – it forced me to confront some things I had always managed to hide from my conscious mind. At times, this book made me feel defensive, but subsequent analysis of that feeling left me with guilt and troubled clarity.
Discussing race is something I have always found difficult. I am, after all, white, and there is a reason that Eddo-Lodge says she is “no longer talking to white people about race”. I do not want to be one of those white people who shies away or undermines the race conversation. But neither do I know how to approach such a difficult topic with the sensitivity and historical knowledge it deserves.
As I have grown older, experienced more, met different people to myself, I have repeatedly found myself wanting. Wanting, primarily, in education. British history is not a pretty one, but we are not told about it at school. We are not told about the times we were the aggressors, rather than the victims or heroes. We are not told about the cultures, the peoples we invaded, destroyed and plundered. I am still reluctant to look for the evidence myself, fearful of the guilt and horror I will find. But reading this book was a step in the right direction.
It is highly tempting to carry on naming books and delving further into my own psyche and the texts that have surely influenced me in all kinds of political topics. But, when we boil down the essence of what literature, what writing is for, it is to offer a new perspective on the world that we might not otherwise have come across. To write is to be political. To read is to be political.
Other books of political note from my reading back catalogue (click on highlighted titles to see my review):
- The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes – Russian Communist Revolution
- Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – Chinese Communist Revolution
- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford – Colonialism
- Smoke by Dan Vyleta – Industrial Revolution, Classism
- Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – Feminism
- The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer – Feminism
- The Seasonal Quartet by Ali Smith (Autumn (2017), Winter (2018), Spring (2019), Summer (2020)) – British Politics, Brexit, WW2
- On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder – Democracy
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Russian Communist Revolution
- Reunion by Fred Uhlman – World War 2
- The Sellout by Paul Beatty – Racism
- The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler – World War 2
- Regeneration by Pat Barker – World War 1, Mental Health
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – World War 2
- What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe – Classism
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – Feminism, Writing
- The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – Environmentalism
- The Overstory by Richard Powers – Environmentalism
- The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – Gender Identity
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Mental Health, Sexuality
- Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – WW1
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – Feminism
- The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen – Mental Health
- Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig – Mental Health