A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
New Directions 1958
Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco bookshop, City Lights, is my favourite bookshop in the world. Ferlinghetti was one of the major figures of beat culture and later associated with left libertarian politics and opposition to the gentrification of San Francisco. Some of his poems in A Coney Island of the Mind also have a political edge, though this is no didactic tract. Rather it gathers together fragments of America’s post-war reality and presents them in critical juxtaposition. Some pieces are written to accompany jazz and in rhythm seem to anticipate Gil-Scott Heron’s later proto hip-hop.
Live Working, Die Fighting by Paul Mason
Paul Mason really brings to life the history of workers’ struggle as he examines different episodes of it, from the 1871 Paris Commune to the experience of the Jewish workers’ Bund organisation in Poland. Alongside this, Mason draws parallels with 21st century struggles in the global south, allowing him not only to present a fascinating historical narrative, but to draw out of it key dilemmas which have informed the alternative strategies pursued by different parts of the international workers movement over time.
The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
Zone Books edition 1995
Many theoretical tracts lose relevance as history overtakes their insights, but in many ways this one seems more relevant today than when it was written in the 60s. Less self-indulgent than other situationist writing, its not an easy read, but some of its insights into mass consumer society are crucial.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
I’ve yet to come across anyone who’s read this book and didn’t like it. Definitely Atwood’s best novel, it utilises both a common theme of hers, that of people trapped by their circumstances, and her talent for verisimilitude. The result is a book that does what truly great novels can – engross you so thoroughly that you use every spare moment to carry on reading.
The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes
Thames and Hudson second edition 1991
This is the classic account of modernism in visual art in the 20th Century and should be read in conjunction with regular trips to the Tate Modern. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually managed to get through all of the copious text, interesting though it is, but the book is worth owning just for the colour prints. From impressionism to expressionism, dada to pop art, the historical context of artistic movements shines through, helping not just to explain art through history, but history through art too.
The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge
New York Review of Books new edition 2004
Though Serge was essentially an anarchist, when he arrived in Russia in 1919 he joined the Bolshevik party to support the revolution. His ended up exiled to Siberia for his opposition to Stalinism, eventually escaping the country but to great personal cost. This novel, set in 1930s Europe stands out as an illumination the Soviet dictatorship and its foreign policy as great as Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.
Detroit, I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin
St Martin’s Press 1975
US history is full of exciting revolutionary moments you never hear about, and 1968-72 in Detroit was one of them. This is the definitive account of revolutionary unionism amongst the mainly black workforce in Detroit’s massive car industry. Far more than the ‘counterculture’ which was at least partly absorbed into neoliberal consumer culture, this was a movement which really scared the US establishment and which, along with the rest of the radical black liberation movement had to be definitively defeated.
Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood
University of Minnesota Press edition 2001
Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is well known, not least because it eventually became the basis for the film Cabaret. Yet the ‘Christopher’ character is that novel is only loosely based on Isherwood. By 1976 the gay liberation movement had happened and Isherwood felt able to write this properly autobiographical account of his life between 1929 and 1939, covering not just his time in Berlin but his subsequent journey around pre-war Europe and attempts to rescue his German lover Heinz from the Nazis. It’s a fascinating and intimate account.
James O’Nions’ selections can be purchased here.
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