Michael Kustow’s Booktopia

Michael Kustow picks the eight books he'd take to the ends of the earth with him

July 31, 2008
6 min read

Collected works

John Milton

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the greatest revolutionary and most argumentatively religious poet of the English language – a good reason to re-enter the fierce debates and visionary scenes of his epic poem Paradise Lost. The account in Book Two of the assembly and speeches of the rebels against God foreshadows all such arguments through history. Milton went blind and had to compose by dictating; yet his imagined hosts of angels and devils and his dizzying perspectives of celestial and infernal space etch themselves into your mind. In his prose writings on divorce and freedom of speech, he was way ahead of his time.

Collected works

Tony Harrison

Quite simply, the best living inheritor of Milton’s anger, skill and grandeur. From his early sonnets about being the son of northern working-class parents to his haunting ballad about a charred Iraqi soldier [first printed in the Guardian], he tells the truth about war and class. He has invented a new form of television documentary, the ‘film/poem’, in which he speaks about Hiroshima and the Holocaust, Alzheimer’s and the collapse of Soviet communism. The music of his verse makes you want to dance; his Yorkshire humour lights up the darkest landscape.

Everyman

Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, 2006)

Sex and, increasingly, death are the subjects of America’s finest living novelist. Everyman (2006) is a good introduction to his world of inexhaustible talkers, seductive women and restless men. Or, like many other readers, you could start with his controversial novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which put masturbation into the heartland of middle-class Jewish America. Roth is an inveterate questioner and troublemaker. In his sixth decade he began a series of big novels, which take on American politics and history, notably American Pastoral, a novelist’s take on the Vietnam war, ‘the indigenous American berserk’. Like all the best novelists he’s both serious and hilarious.

Illuminations

Walter Benjamin (Schocken Books, 1969)

A collection of essays by the outstanding German critic and philosopher, who committed suicide in 1940 on the Franco-Spanish border, running away from the Nazis. A friend of Brecht, and also of Gershom Scholem, the great modern scholar of Jewish mysticism, Benjamin is the subtlest Marxist thinker I know. This collection contains essays that remain necessary for thinking about the world now: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Theses on the Philosophy of History, which begins with Paul Klee’s painting of ‘the angel of history’, transfixed by the debris of the past. ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.’ I re-read Benjamin because he was a communist with an indelible sense of tragedy.

The Golden Notebook

Doris Lessing

On a hot summer’s day by a swimming-pool in Bristol in 1962, I was chatting up a young woman with liquid eyes, sweet-talking her by reading out chunks of Lessing’s novel. She asked me if she could borrow it. I never saw her or the book again, and had to buy another copy.

I love this book because it breaks open all the forms. Lessing describes it as ‘an attempt to break a form; to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them. While writing it, I found I did not believe some of the things I thought I believed: or rather, that I hold in my mind at the same time beliefs and ideas that are apparently contradictory. Why not? We are, after all, living in the middle of a whirlwind.’

King Lear

William Shakespeare

I shall take with me the complete works of Shakespeare, but this is the play I will return to most often. Speeches of it are already engraved in my memory. I imagine myself quoting out loud to bewildered penguins taking refuge from global warming:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these?

There’s nothing in world drama to match Lear’s account of civilisation’s breakdown, torture, the journey to sanity through madness, love reconquered too late. There’s even a succinct description of socialism out of the mouth of a character caught in Shakespeare’s world-shaking storm: ‘Distribution should undo excess /And each man have enough.’

Poems 1913-1956

Bertolt Brecht (Methuen, 1980)

A life that ran from anarchy and appetite to a watchful communist hope, a lifetime that drove Brecht into exile, ‘changing countries more often than shoes’, is refracted in these indestructible poems. Our greatest Marxist playwright, Brecht has survived the nitpicking of cold war critics and the subservience of Soviet cultural commissars. He wrote his best plays – Mother Courage, The Good Person of Setzuan, The Life of Galileo – as a refugee without a theatre to see them put on. Then he returned to East Germany, where he was given a theatre and created one powerful production after another, though tussling with party bureaucrats. His poems became the repository of his true thoughts. In 1953, when there was a workers’ rising against the government, he couldn’t resist writing this classic statement against tyranny:

After the uprising of the 17th of June

The Secretary of the Writers’ Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could win it back only

By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

(Translated by Derek Bowman)

Michael Kustow has just completed A Passage from India, based on his life in 2006/7, and also written The Half, featuring Simon Annand’s photographs of actors in their dressing-rooms, which Faber and Faber will publish this autumn


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant