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.
Col. Cathcart: "You mean enlisted men pray to the same God we do?"
The Chaplain: "Yes, sir."
Col. Cathcart: "And he LISTENS?"
You wanted books that had a political impact... hmm. I read some Isaac Deutscher in my 20's, and "Origins of Totalitarianism," though I didn't have a glimmering of the historical context Arendt knew so deeply. Gary Snyder had an article in City Lights Books' "Journal for the Protection of All Beings" called "Buddhist Anarchism" that impressed me at the time, though I haven't read it since, let's see, 1961...