Radical Books

Radical Reads for the End of the Year

For many of us in the UK, the recent election has turned this festive season into a bleak midwinter.  What better time, then, to curl up with a good book: not to escape, but to explore new paths of resistance? Members of the History Workshop collective here recommend their recent favourite radical reads, from newly-published history to young adult fiction, with content that consoles, galvanises, inspires. Give us bread, but give us roses.

Bread and roses. Bread and Roses Heritage Committee, Labor Day Heritage Festival 1986. Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Julia Laite can’t think of a specific radical read for 2019, but she has read for pleasure a lot this year, and is especially enjoying the recent spate of retold fairy tales for young adult audiences which feature adventure, fantasy, nuances of good and evil, and girls who kick ass (Katherine Arden, Naomi Novik, Sabaa Tahir et al).  Considering the constant pressure to work and be productive and be constantly engaged with academia, she’s inclined to think that simply reading some easy-going fiction can be a radical act of resistance.

Justin Bengry has been looking forward to David K. Johnson’s Buying Gay: How Physique Pioneers Sparked a Movement (Columbia University Press, 2019).

Author of another important book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (University of Chicago, 2006), the basis for a documentary of the same name, Johnson’s work has long interrogated lesbian and gay people’s relationships with the state, law and capitalism. Producing and distributing consumer goods, Johnson shows, can be a political act fraught with danger, and so too can acts of consumption. Buying Gay demands that we re-evaluate some of our long-assumed binaries that too neatly separated activists from capitalists.

Andrew Whitehead recommends Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial resistance and British dissent (Verso, 2019)

A fizzing, exciting and politically engaged account of the links between colonial subjects who challenged Empire and the resistance movements they inspired on the one hand and on the other, British radicals and dissidents from Ernest Jones to Sylvia Pankhurst and beyond.

Sally Alexander has been reading two books that strengthened her grasp of the history underpinning Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ and the Windrush scandal. 

Lyndsey Stonebridge, Placeless People, Writing, Rights and Refugees (Oxford University Press, 2018), examines the ‘spectre of rightlessness’ in the writings of modernists (Brecht, Orwell and others) in the 1940s.  Hannah Arendt on displaced persons and Edward Said on exile are the philosophical/political lens through which to describe the anguished plight of those who fall through the gaps of states and nations – ‘a new category of person in the world’ –  where neither human rights nor empathy touch them.  A bleak history which nevertheless leaves vivid images of flight and encounter in the mind.

Clair Wills, Strangers and Lovers, An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (Penguin, 2017) tells the story of immigration to Britain – in the context of forced mass migrations across continents in the wake of world war, genocide and colonial struggle.  Memoir, personal recollection, literary accounts of Irish, Asian, West Indian and Eastern European migrants or refugees as well as official documents temper the privations and racial hostility most encountered on these shores with humour and personal anecdote.  Migrant labour has always been necessary to the British economy as it will remain after Brexit. (Story of our time:  On a recent Radio 4 Today programme, one  Eritrean doctor told his story: a qualified doctor, refugee, he was sent to Hartlepool where he retrained, waited for his asylum claim which was granted and did care work until – eventually – he has been given the right to work in the NHS by the North Tees and Hartlepool local authority.)

I loved Ian Patterson’s ‘My Books’ in July 4’s London Review of Books.

Barbara Taylor recommends:

Sarah Knott, Mother: An Unconventional History (Viking, 2019). A fascinating journey through the mothering experience from the 17th c to the present, including the author’s own.

Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: an Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Penguin, 2019) A moving, beautifully-written account of the making of racial identity.

Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain (Harper Collins, 2018). A terrific analysis of the mess we’re in, and how we got here.

Christopher Kissane has two Irish reads to recommend that he found radically inspiring:

Breandán Mac Suibhne’s The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland (OUP, 2017). It’s an extraordinary microhistory of a historian exploring the troubled history and memory of his own home place, showing how historians can marry ambition and sensitivity to reveal what remains hidden about the past.

Margaret Kelleher’s The Maamtrasna Murders: Language, Life and Death in Nineteenth Century Ireland (UCD Press, 2018). An exploration of the case of a man wrongly executed for murder after a trial in a language he could not understand, that reveals the complex legacy of colonial linguistic and cultural erasure.

Tessa Chynoweth has been reading Katherine Connelly’s edition of previously unpublished writings by Sylvia Pankhurst, A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change (Pluto Press, 2019).

Katherine read extracts from it at the Pankhurst Centre in May and something about the collapsing of time (both in terms of the prescient- ness of Sylvia’s  discussions of rampant capitalism and exploitation on the grounds of sex and race, and also of hearing a young Sylvia’s words in the house where she grew up) took my breath away.

Rachel Moss recommends an article about auto-ethnography and feminist identity.

Over the summer I read Vikki Turbine’s powerful (and open access) ‘First Generation Feminist? Auto-Ethnographic Reflections on Politicisation and Finding a Home within Feminism‘ (Genealogy 3:33, 2019). In it, Turbine explores her identity as a working class feminist academic and issues a call to arms: to reclaim feminism, and a stake in the academy, for working class women, rather than expecting them to assimilate. Her methodology radically incorporates her own lived experiences into a passionate argument for a more inclusive higher education.

Marybeth Hamilton’s favourite reading experiences this year took her beneath and behind and deep into the complex dynamics of creativity and what we define as ‘literary genius’.

Lyndall Gordon’s remarkable biography A Private Life of Henry James (Vintage, 1999) explores the tangled webs of influence and intimacy linking James to two highly individual women: his cousin Minnie Temple and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson. The friendships involved both a meeting of minds and what could be described as exploitation; both women sought in James more than he was prepared to give, and Gordon brilliantly explores how he downplayed their influence in mythologising the sources of his own creativity. It was only fitting to follow up the biography by re-reading James’s A Portrait of a Lady (Houghton, 1881), which moves at a glacial pace and breaks every rule of how a novel should be constructed but nonetheless produces an incomparably luminous and heartbreaking portrait of an independent woman’s shattered dreams.

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