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 He died in 1964 with the book unpublished and believing every copy of the manuscript was in the KGB vaults, but photos of the pages were later smuggled to the west.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.
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.
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.’
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.
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