Helena Kennedy

picks the eight books she'd take to the ends of the Earth with her

May 29, 2010
5 min read

Anne of Green Gables

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Puffin. First published 1908

I have always been bookish. I was brought up in a working class home and my father took me to the library every week. He was an avid reader and we would come back weighed down with our spoils. Most of my favourites had as their central character a girl who was strong and feisty and was valued in the end for being smart rather than beautiful! Anne was one of those. The book meant something special because I was given it as a prize and my mother, who had left school at 14 and rarely had time for the indulgence of reading, was thrilled when I brought it home. She wistfully remembered it from when she was at school and she read it again. Sharing it with her meant so much to me and I still love discussing books with other people. It’s like sharing food.

Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

Penguin. First published 1939

The few books of our own we had at home were either good Catholic stories about the saints and martyrs or leftish books belonging to my father. They lived on a little bookshelf attached to a bureau, which was my mother’s prized piece of furniture. The books were novels by American authors like Jack London, Howard Fast and John Steinbeck, which my father had read when he was young and reflected his own political leanings. I read Grapes of Wrath when I was 13 and I was enraged at the way the bankers and big corporations exploited the farmers, driving them into destitution. We were a Labour family, but it was reading that put flesh on the bones of my socialism.

Letters from Prison

Antonio Gramsci

Columbia Univ Press 1994

I think Gramsci is one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. Through him I came to understand how people consent to their own oppression. We only have to look around now to see how his concept of cultural hegemony works so effectively. The values of a particular class become the ‘common-sense’ values of all and ordinary folk identify their own good with that of the rich.

The Women’s Room

Marilyn French

Virago. First published 1977

The 1970s produced many great feminist books – novels and political analysis about patriarchy, entrenched inequality and double sexual standards. Marilyn French made it all come alive in the pages of her novel. My courtroom experience was what blew open my own real understanding of the way women suffered multiple disadvantages in a society that was organised from the perspective of men.

Staying Alive

ed Neil Astley

Bloodaxe 2002

I have always loved poetry and read it regularly for pleasure. I like how a few words can be so expressive of profound emotion. This is a wonderful anthology and it includes some work of a friend, Mary Oliver, one of the great contemporary American poets.

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad

Penguin. First published 1899

This is the book to read about colonialism and racist exploitation. It tells the story of Marlow, who is commissioned to go to the Congo to bring back the disappeared Kurtz, a key figure in a European company that is sucking the natural resources out of central Africa. All the justifications for colonial occupation are rehearsed – bringing ‘civilisation’ to the natives. Now we describe it as bringing ‘democracy’. The film Apocalypse Now was a contemporary rendition of the tale. An unforgettable book.

A People’s History of the

United States

Howard Zinn

Harper Perennial. First published 1980

Howard Zinn was one of the truly great men of America. He died recently, still a socialist and campaigner. His history of the United States is a challenge to the patriotic jingoism that mutes the horror stories of what happened to native Americans and slaves, the nightmare of McCarthyism and Jim Crow laws, the shame of his country’s role in Vietnam and South America. However, this is no ‘self-hating’ American Jew. He tells the wonderful true stories of America’s greatness – the former welcome to the world’s huddled masses fleeing persecution, the struggles by ordinary people for trade union rights and by black people for civil rights. All his books are inspirational but this is the one that everyone should read.

The Trial

Franz Kafka

Penguin. First published 1925

Some books have eternal truths and should be revisited at regular intervals. This is one of them. My life as a trial lawyer has made me a firm believer in open processes with a jury of ordinary people hearing the evidence. Over many years I have done a large amount of terrorist work but this is the worst time I have ever known for injustice. Currently, control order cases and hearings to deport people are frequently heard in secret. Neither the detainees nor their lawyers of choice get to hear the evidence against them. Special advocates hear the secret evidence but are not allowed to discuss it with the detainee. Kafka is dead. Long live Kafka.

Helena Kennedy QC is a leading barrister and expert in human rights law and civil liberties


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