November 15th, 2004
|10:15 am - My political books|
On her LJ, violetisblue asked me what books were most formative to my politics. Because I spent a couple of days last week lying miserably in bed staring at my bookcase, my list kept getting longer and I decided to just post it as an entry. A good number of these books were time-and-place for me, meaning that while I found them essential, your results may vary. But all are works that are incredibly important to me, even if some I haven’t read in 20 years. Take this for what it’s worth: not much. It's definitely not supposed to be a comprehensive list of must-read books to develop a political analysis, it was just mine.
I’d be interested in other people’s answers too. So feel free to meme this if you are so inclined.
The Dispossed Ursula LeGuin. Anarchist and capitalist planets, utopia and distopia within both. One of the only Sci-fi books I’ve ever liked and it’s probably my favorite novel ever.
Just Above My Head James Baldwin. Not growing up religious, while I can appreciate Baldwin’s early works like Go Tell it on the Mountain, this book affected me a lot more. Amazing for its scope and compassion. Underrated probably partly because it was out of print for so long. I actually first read it as a xeroxed copy that a professor made for me. A 600 page xeroxed copy!
Boxcar Bertha "as told to" Ben Reitman. "Autobiography" of a hobo woman Great historical detail of the ‘30s. Certainly spoke to me more than Steinbeck, but that’s probably just because I read BB on my own and not in school.
Living My Life Vol. 1 Emma Goldman. God that woman must have been annoying to do political work with. Still, I love this book as a document of a life of struggle to make a better society that doesn’t ignore other human emotions. By the way, you won’t find that "If I can’t dance to it…" quote in here because it doesn’t exist. And Vol. 2 gets kinds depressing.
Zami Audre Lorde It’s an identity politics classic. The biomythography of a Black, lesbian, communist. Ruptured irreparably my view of a seamless history of the nobility of the left while still offering hope for the future.
The Last Days of Christ the Vampire JG Eccarius. Ok, this book really isn’t up there, writing-wise, with the others. But as a teenager how could I resist a gang of punk rockers, graffiti artists and weirdos connecting through Maximum RocknRoll and exposing the Vampire cult in control of organized religion and world capitalism. A DIY classic.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. Ok, this book is fucked up. No question. But important things can be found in non-ideologically pure places. A ‘60s dropout high school English teacher was so passionate about this book and the way the Combine chews us up and spits us out, that I couldn’t help being affected. I tried to re-read it a few years later and was blown away by the sexism. But I can’t deny the other politics weren’t formative. By the way, I just saw the "Strangers with Candy" episode where Amy Sedaris learns she’s adopted and really the child of "Indians". At the end she re-enacts the last scene from the movie. I was sick in bed and laughing so hard it hurt me.
Any Raymond Chandler novel. Language is important. Good writing engages the reader and makes them care. The left press doesn’t need to be SO BAD.
Yours in struggle Minnie Bruce Pratt, Elly Bulking and Barbara Smith. Not to ignore Smith’s essay, but reading white people write about anti-racism was definitely a turning point for me in thinking about "not being racist" vs. being anti-racist. I have no idea how dated this might seem today, I maybe should go back and check.
This Bridge Called my Back Cherie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua. Collection of essays written by radical women of color. Undoubtedly parts of this will read as dated. One of the attractive and important things about identity politics was the way that everyday actions and assumptions could be politicized. I think there’s, obviously, a limit to the effectiveness of this, mostly because a lot of people take it down the road of essentialism in an increasingly non-essentialized society (or maybe differently essentialized is more accurate, I’m not sure). BUT there’s no denying the great amount of truth and intellectual food for thought in contextualizing the assumptions, behaviors, and choices one has available.
Notes of a Native Son James Baldwin. Baldwin was one of my favorite novelists but was just as good an essay writer. This collection of essays contains incredible glimpses of history as it was happening in the late ‘50s through the ‘60s.
The Great Shark Hunt Hunter S Thompson. People underestimate how good a writer Hunter Thompson was before he became an over-stylized, drug-addled caricature of himself. This is a collection of amazing journalism that, as a 15 year old, made me want to write.
"The Tyranny of Structurelessness" Jo Freeman. It was just a 10-page pamphlet, but it’s the best thing ever written about small group democracy. Seriously.
History (I can be kind of a history geek, so I’m keeping this list short)
A People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn. Something to counter the textbooks….
Dynamite By Louis Adamic. A history of labor and violence in the US. Fascinating take on labor history and answers the question about how the Mob took over so many unions. (quick answer: workers needed protection from boss-funded vigilantes and Pinkertons. Then, as labor radicals were imprisoned or killed, the labor thugs seized the vacuum and took power.)
Personal Politics by Sara Evans. History of the Civil Rights movement and ‘70s feminism.
SDS by Kirkpatrick Sale. History of the ‘60s/’70s campus protest movements.
Haymarket Martyrs Paul Avrich. Incredible detailing of the working class and anarchist movements in 1880’s Chicago. Learn why International Workers Day is celebrated on May 1. And why the US doesn’t celebrate it.
Open veins of Latin America Eduardo Galeano. History of imperialism in Latin America that reads almost like a novel. At least it did to me as a Sandinista-supporting 17 year old.
Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus. Sloppy history I’m sure, but it weaves together the story of radical ideas and radical art movements. Seemingly with no precedent, certain ideas reassert themselves periodically, reappearing with shocking force when the correct societal situation arises even when they’ve laid dormant for years. Read it as fiction so you don’t have to worry about the parts that don’t make historical sense.
Homage to Catalonia George Orwell. Story of the Spanish Revolution, anarchism’s most shining and depressing moment. Solidified my conviction that you can’t trust CP members and you can only trust Trotskyists when they are poorly armed and fighting for their survival. This book started my interest in learning about the Spanish Revolution. Unfortunately, the books that I agree with more, ideologically speaking, are dry and boring so I’m glad I started here.
The M section on my bookshelf.
Marx, Mao, Malatesta and Malcolm X. The basics are important.
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 10:33 am (UTC)|| |
I haven't read many of these, but..
The Dispossesed - I love this book, also. Though the anarchic society is ultimately portrayed as corrupt and failing.
One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest - I just Did Not Get this book. Maybe it was that the rampant sexism distracted me from the message, or something.
People's History of the US - I read this at the insistence of my aunt. Having been at a hippie-ish middle school there was nothing I already didn't know in here. I got taught modern Chinese history (=history of Communist party in China) instead of "world history", for crying out loud.
I don't think the anarchist society is corrupt as much as it shows that you can't just set something up and expect it to last forever without reviwing and renewing the assumptions behind it. But that's one of the things that I liked about it. Contrasting the perfect anarchist utopia with the evil capitalist world would have just been a boring wankfest. kinda like Looking Backward (or the anarchist version of that by Saab Lofton A.D.
As for One Flew over..., I think it was mostly that teacher's passion about being angry at "society" that was the biggest influence.
I'm spacing out most right now, but definitely Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
I was totally distracted reading that because I borrowed my older sister's copy and it was highlighted to death and filled with marginalia like, "Blacks are angry!" and "He says rape is OK!"
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 10:52 am (UTC)|| |
What about The Many-Headed Hydra? That's an amazing book!
yes, definitely. but when I think formative, I'm thinking the books I read before I was, say, 25. there are only a couple of exceptions up there.
I wish more people talked about books. *sigh*
This is a great list. This weekend I was asked about a list of "10 books I wish everybody would read," and I knew I'd never be able to come up with something like that. But this, I might be able to do, too. Got me thinking, anyway.
P.S. I am ashamed to admit that I never finished The Dispossessed.
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 11:28 am (UTC)|| |
I am a huge Ursual LeGuin fan, especially The Disposessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Also find James Baldwin essential, although I usually cry or feel somewhat undone somewhere in his books.
I'd agree with most of these that I know (gotta read _Dynamite_ and would add
Robin Kelley's _Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression,
_King_ by John Berger
_Yonnondio_ by Tillie Olsen, utterly destroyed me.
and R.I.P. Gloria Anzaldua
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 12:14 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: great list
oooh, I'll check out those titles.
and those are the only two Ursula LeGuin books that I love. Most of the others I had a hard time getting into. Lathe of Heaven was ok too.
Marge Piercy's Women on the Edge of Time for politicizing madnessand abuse and creating an intersting, realistic, humane future good place. And actually the whole Marge Piercy section of the library. Because she lives on the Cape, my Central Mass library had everything she'd ever written. Those books meant so damn much to me. She mapped out a lot of what I experienced daily but couldn't articulate about class, race, being sexual and female and trying to write, and she was the closest mentor I had for how to survive as a politically engaged, non-trust funded female artist. (Seriously, in a lot of her books she lays out these working or lower-middle class artists and how they make a living- this is where I found out about grants, residencies, and day gigs.)
of Piercy's work, i've only ever read He, She, and It, but for a piece of 'cyberpunk' lit, I found it really feminist, thought-provoking and somewhat revolutionary. would you recommend any other specific titles of hers?
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 11:58 am (UTC)|| |
Thank you so much for posting this.
If you had time to read, I'd offer you a loaner or two.
Thanks for the list. And, as I savagely wish I had written The Long Goodbye, the Chandler shoutout.
Great list -- I'm with you on a bunch of the first two sections (except that Ken Kesey, while a good writer and an interesting cultural force, wrote a short story inspired by the death of Neal Cassady that including a truly horrific response to a rape, long, long, long after he should have known better, so he's never making one of my lists...) -- Zami! The Dispossessed! James Baldwin! (and, yeah, Marge Piercy, although, for me, she's interesting but uneven). I haven't read a single one of your history choices, but, yep, I read the Tyranny of Structurelessness in my early twenties, and found it of real, direct, practical use when working in collectives for years and years and years.
I'm sure I wouldn't have read Kesey if I had read my feminist and identity politics books first (or had read that short story which is horrific). But, like I said, I put it on as a reminder that sometimes there's good in the bad. Learning isn't usually a straight line graph, ya know? I know you know.
"Ok, this book is fucked up. No question. But important things can be found in non-ideologically pure places."
I sure as hell hope so, otherwise I'll have to dump my entire bookshelf of world literature.
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 02:39 pm (UTC)|| |
ha. how true. love the icon, btw.
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 12:57 pm (UTC)|| |
you've read audre. now i *have* to add you.
well, we've had all that quality cheese time too. ;)
this is a really fantastic list; thank you for sharing it.
mine isn't nearly so long, but two standouts for me include Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book, which i found on my parents' bookshelf when i was like 14 or something and thought it was cool as shit at the time; and reading L'Etranger for the first time in the original French, which seemed super-cool at the time, too. back then having done so was a point of pride; now it just seems kind of wanky. but i should go back and read it again anyway.
I loved Steal this Book too bad all those soda machine and pay phone tricks dn't work anymore.
My shelf is pretty thin on purely political books. Perhaps I am not as political as I think I am.
I can't say I admire Cuckoo's Nest
, by the way. I haven't seen the movie and found the book to be an elaborate misogyny fantasy, covered by a thin drapery of politics.
Maybe Homage to Catalonia
affected me the most, in terms of ideological revolutions per page. I have a few books of Orwell essays. My username is a distillation of "Politics and the English Language"
.The Language Instinct
, by Stephen Pinker, is about the only book that's ever turned my thinking around 180 degrees. Before I read this book, I believed in the unspoken tenet of leftism, that society was infinitely plastic. After this book, I look at politics as a question of arranging things so a certain species of naked hairless ape don't kill each other. Evolutionary biology is often invoked by the right, but to me it points towards a common unity of our species, and an ultimate recourse to show why tyranny is wrong -- it is in literal terms unsuitable to our nature. Chomsky also would agree. (and of course I read a lot of his stuff).
By the way: I really could have used The Tyranny of Structurelessness about 15 years ago when fighting these tendencies in the groups I was associated with. I used to say that consensus was that everyone gathered in the village square and we all agree with the guy holding the M-16. In my youth, for the groups I hung out with, the M-16 was "As a working-class lesbian of colour, I feel..." Oh well.
You would like Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff.
"Solidified my conviction that you can’t trust CP members and you can only trust Trotskyists when they are poorly armed and fighting for their survival."
I don't 'trust' CP politics, but other than CP slander, haven't read much on why one shouldn't trust Trotskyists. I've been reading a lot of Trotsky lately (history of RR, permanent revolution, death agony of capitalism, his stuff on the spainish revolution), and if you had the time, would appreciate you offering your perspective, books to read, etc.
Nothing wrong with Trotsky. He built one hell of a Red Army. If you have an anarchist navy to kill off, he's your man.
I actually loved the Deutscher biogrophy trilogy about him.
You can't trust Trotskyists, if they are party members, because they are bound by party loyalty to manipulate process and break up groups who may be doing useful political work in order to fill the ranks of their own party. Because their party is the most important thing after all. The revolution can't happen without the vanguard party. Your local community-based group must be sacrificed to the larger cause.
Nice to see Jo Freeman still has admirers.
Wow, these have to be read before age 25? Shit, that's a long time ago. Hmm... "The Recognitions"--just getting through the sucker was such an achievement, and worth it, too; besides Gaddis really had an idea (though I no longer find it persuasive) and that was exciting. "Catch-22" fed right into a current of plague-on-both-your (Cold War)-houses thinking that I found appealing around then (1962, Cuban Missile Crisis--asked by an Inquiring Reporter how he felt, a friend of mine was able to quote Yossarian: "they're all trying to kill me.")
A word of defense: you can trust CP members--lots and lots of people have, in very dangerous situations, and never had occasion to regret it. It's Communist Parties, I blush to admit, that you dassen't turn your back on.
i had a picture of ...the actor who played him in the movie....sitting naked on the branch of a tree staring at the oncoming, whathaveyou, on my desk at the great metropolitan daily newspaper.
help the bombardier.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse:
Raising her eyebrows at the discrepancy --
that was what she was thinking, this was
what she was doing -- ladling out soup --
she felt, more and more strongly, outside
you know, I've never read Virginia Woolf. I think it might be time.
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 03:49 pm (UTC)|| |
Oh NO WAY!
that's so cool! He was the first writer I had an intellectual crush on (except for Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, actually).
Makes me want to hang around Barrows. I should do that more often anyway. for a change of scene.
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 04:00 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: Oh NO WAY!
yeah, stalking someone's mom is a great way to make friends. ;)
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 03:51 pm (UTC)|| |
Ever read 'Teaching As A Subversive Activity'? I've owned five or six copies of that (several at once so I could lend 'em out...) - not that I agree with all of it, but it explained a lot of things and up-ended a lot of things at the right time for me...
no, it sounds good though.
Me also Yours In Struggle and Zami. Also Wallace Stevens (collected poems), William Carlos Williams, Marilyn Hacker (esp Love, Death, And The Changing Of The Seasons), Marilyn Hacker's ex-husband's sci fi novel (I remember neither name nor title). Lacan and Derrida blew my little English major mind. Oh shit, and when I was coming out I read and re-read the "In Amerika They Call Us Dykes" chapter of the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Many of these tastes strike me now as embarrassing, but hey, I was young and naive.
Later (late 20s, 2000, during my Great Year Of Drugs And Free Love) was Vineland and (don't be a h8r) Please Kill Me.
I bet you're talking about Samuel R. Delaney, who used to be married to Marilyn Hacker. He's written a bunch of scifi, among other very intense stuff.
You're naming some of my lasting literary loves, especially William Carlos Williams, but also Hacker and Stevens. It's striking to me how I'm not even trying to get over them, I go back to poetry I loved young over and over and over.
"In Amerika They Call Us Dykes," I've got to admit, is another story...
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 04:14 pm (UTC)|| |
hmm. Surprise surprise, there are a bunch of things on your list that I'd include on my pre-25 list too. Especially the essays. Plus a couple of other things I'd have to include..
1. bell hooks - from margin to center - the explanation of the relationship between position and knowledge is still central to my thinking.
2. Foucault - madness and civilization - for making history and an analysis of power central.
3. Murray Bookchin - Listen Marxist! (essay)
4. A.S. Neill - Summerhill - while I wouldn't necessarily go there now, at the time it really excited me.
5. Starhawk - Dreaming the Dark - yes yes I know. But it was important at the time. I can't help you've edited some of the more dodgy things from your list. ;)
6. Dick Hebdige - Subculture - cause it said that punk was important
There's lots of other stuff I'd include now of course..
re 5: it's emabrasing but The Fifth Sacred Thing was my bible when I was 18, and I truyl believed the revolution would play out just like that. That being: convenient environmental collapse (but enough to maintain livelihood in the Bay area), "The People" rising up, psychic powers, killer bees.
Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus.
This was required reading for me in college and I couldn't finish it. What he was covering was interesting but his pretentious writing style was torture. It has been a while, but I remember virtually other sentence was a metaphor. Then again, I was an engineering student and maybe I wasn't acclimatized to a style that is used in other fields. Do you recommend trying to finish it again?
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 06:19 pm (UTC)|| |
so after i finished reading your list a few hours ago, i begrudgingly went to do one of the less glamorous parts of my job. and just as i sat down, preparing for these two bitchy queens before me to open each others latin american veins i looked over at our rasquache* library and what did i see? why, mr. galeanos "open veins..." that you included on your list, of course. had you not mentioned it i would have ignored it completely, instead i found solace in that moment before the storm. i'll let you know what i think when i'm done with it.
oh yeah, luckily no blood wass spilled...this time.
*rasquache = chicana/o slang term for, well, just like it sounds [rah-sqaw-che] shabby, half-assed, held together with gum...
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 06:33 pm (UTC)|| |
I adore talking about books and I'd be equally likely to geek out on history, but I'd do much more geekily than you on theory, even before 25. Maybe definitely before 25.
The Octopus by Frank Norris and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (also The Flivver King by Upton Sinclair, which is a bleakly hilarious satirical novel on Henry Ford and the history of taylorized production written for the UAW organizing drive) -- my teenage entry into the 19th c. novelistic depiction of class struggle.
Marx for Beginners which I took to Girl Scout Camp at age 13 and did Readings out of, to hapless tentmates.
Sandino's Daughters by Margaret Randell, along with poetry by Daisy Zamora
Yeah, Ursula K. LeGuin -- definitely The Dispossessed, which for a long time was almost all I knew about anarchism* (apart from Pathfinder Press's defense of the elimination of that Anarchist Navy, Kronstadt, a fairly crass piece of apologetics), but also The Left Hand of Darkness and one by her called The Word for World is Forest, which was kind of an anti-imperialist and environmentalist allegory.
Marge Piercy, which I covered in an earlier comment. The first thing I read of hers was Women on the Edge of Time, when I was thirteen or so, and it blew my mind because it severed gender from giving birth and that felt threatening as HELL. Later rereadings made me much more comfortable with some of her points.
Okay, some geeky strange stuff. Documents of the Fourth International which were the collected founding pamphlets and internal documents related to exiting the Third International (Comintern) and founding a tiny, pathetic Fourth one. I was burningly proud of and fascinated by this history when I was fourteen, and I thought the Transitional Program was pretty engrossing stuff. I still think it's good politics. Albert Goldman's write up of the Smith Act trials of leaders in the SWP in the 40s? Socialism On Trial. Of Marx, The German Ideology and The 18th Brumaire of Louis-Napoleon and collected Early Writings. Of Lenin, not fucking much. I was always a very, very, very bad Leninist. No wonder I flirt with anarchists. I mean anarchism.
Homage to Catalonia by Orwell. Yeah. I think I wrote on LJ that the first three books I ever bought with money earned at a job (when I was 13) were 1984, Animal Farm, and The Communist Manifesto. Those were all pretty formative, too.
Another subsection of books that affected me profoundly were books by and about Rosa Luxemburg. Most of her biographies and collected works, and also two other books that made a huge difference in my development: one, just called The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, I think, by Norman Geras, and one by Elzbieta Ettinger called Comrade and Lover: the letters of Rosa Luxemburg to Leo Jogiches, which in many ways was piercingly sorrowful to me -- one of the greatest women marxist theorists and political leaders of the 20th century, and her personal life was FUCKED UP, as revealed in these letters, where she is by turns kittenish, wheedling, desperate, and mawkishly sentimental... it really finally brought me to feminism, this book. The personal WAS fucking political. This is what made me see that. Maybe I sound harshly critical of Luxemburg there, but I don't mean to be. It was just a shock to read the disjuncture between the public and private life, especially given her own aversion to anything smacking of "women's" politics. She never wanted to do work in the German SPD's women's sections with Clara Zetkin, for example. Umm, this should perhaps have been a post in my own blog, sorry.
There are a lot of other books that were formative politically for me, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some that I'll kick myself for, later, but oh, well. Time for bed after last night's ridiculousness.
*also, on the labor history tip, Jeremy Brecher's Strike!, which I dogeared terribly because I carried it around so much in middle school... he was described to me as an anarcho-syndicalist, which sounded racy and daring.
|Date:||November 15th, 2004 07:09 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: my lots-more-than-two-cents
Of Lenin, not fucking much. I was always a very, very, very bad Leninist. No wonder I flirt with anarchists. I mean anarchism.
You are so adorable, Maeve. Seriously.
I would love to hear more of your thoughts on that disjuncture in Luxemburg's life. I'm only now starting to read more of her political work, and have never learned of her personal life.
Oh, and I loved Piercy in middle school. I remember getting all red reading the sex parts, and looking around to make sure my teachers didn't know what I was reading.