Paul Mason’s Booktopia

Paul Mason picks the eight books he'd take to the ends of the earth with him

September 20, 2008
5 min read

Life and Fate

Vasily Grossman (First published in Switzerland, 1980)

The first chapter left me in a cold sweat: it’s 1942 and an engine driver is shunting a train of empty cattle trucks out of a prison camp – but is it a German camp or a Russian one? It’s not immediately clear. Grossman, the Red Army’s star journalist during Stalingrad, sees the battle from the point of view of those trapped within the Soviet system who just can’t stop fighting for freedom. He died in 1964 with the book unpublished and believing every copy of the manuscript was in the KGB vaults, but photos of the pages were later smuggled to the west.

Red Virgin: the memoirs of Louise Michel

Louise Michel (University of Alabama Press, 1981)

Michel’s memoir of radicalisation, the Paris Commune and transportation to New Caledonia reads like magic realism – except much of the magic is going on inside her head. One transcendental experience after another turns her from slum teacher into revolutionary icon. She gathers shattered cherry blossom under shellfire, rescues a cat from a barricade and heckles her prosecutors: ‘If you are not cowards, kill me.’ A story of human greatness.

Vineland

Thomas Pynchon (Little, Brown, 1990)

If you sat down and free-associated the history of American popular culture, while simultaneously trying to explain the defeat of the 1968 generation and the fatal attraction of the Washington elite, smoking dope and watching a DVD box set of the early Star Trek, you would be in the place where Pynchon begins this book. I am haunted by his satire of idealism and betrayal, kung fu, postmodernism and grief.

My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943

George Orwell (Secker & Warburg, 1968)

‘As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ Orwell’s collected non-fiction documents his political journey from pacifist to social patriot. Alongside the journalism are his diaries: he wanders through bomb-torn London, sees working-class drinkers switch off vital BBC news bulletins in the pub because the voices are too posh, and flings acid cynicism at the pro-Nazi wing of the British elite as the ‘people’s war’ begins.

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck (Viking Press, 1939)

I don’t know why the Salesians of Don Bosco put this on our sixth form reading list: after reading it, a large number of my schoolmates went fruit picking during their summer holidays and promptly went on strike. I, meanwhile, was working in a factory, where the main topics for discussion were socialism and the coming winter of discontent. By the time we put our school blazers on for the upper sixth, life – and Steinbeck – had taught us everything we needed to know. We were uncontrollable.

The Insurrectionist

Jules Vallès (First published in France, 1886)

Vallès was the first gonzo journalist, and here, in razor-sharp first person paragraphs of action and introspection, he tells his barely-fictionalised life story – from abused kid to starving student to hounded newspaper hack in second empire Paris. Elected to the Commune of 1871 as its final fate becomes clear, he writes of ‘a cloak of silence over everything. It lasted long enough for everyone to say goodbye to his life.’

Dispatches

Michael Herr (Knopf, 1977)

When I was about seven years old I saw a Vietnamese man on TV news burning to death with napalm. A few years later I picked up Michael Herr’s account of being a journalist in Vietnam. I won’t say it’s what made me decide to be a journalist, but when I did, it’s the kind of journalist I wanted to be. I don’t mean the adrenaline – I mean the unflinching truthfulness of his gaze, like when he meets the American colonel with a plan to drop piranhas into the rice paddies: ‘He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death.’

Ten Days That Shook The World

John Reed (Boni & Liveright, 1919)

Sometimes, as a mental exercise, I imagine how the modern media would have covered the Russian revolution. Then I read a page from this book at random. It’s always a great cure for complacency.

Paul Mason is BBC Newsnight‘s economics editor. His book Live Working or Die Fighting: how the working class went global is published by Vintage.

His selections can be purchased here.

A portion of the sales from purchases made through Red Pepper/Eclector’s book store contribute money to Red Pepper. Not all titles are available.


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

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

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

#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

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