I am starting to fear the news.
Europe is scrambling rightwards. The Middle East is caught between the fire of Daesh and the hot place of tyrants and their supporters. Russia is gleefully making the most of it. The world is overheating, and people seem intent on stoking the flames. I went to bed confident that Brexit would never happen, and had an unpleasant morning trying to drink enough coffee to wake me up enough to make the whole thing go away. I was innocently drinking a cocktail when my phone informed me that not only had Theresa May become Prime Minister in the UK, she had appointed Boris Johnson as her Foreign Secretary. A man whose main achievement is a colour no orange would dream of aspiring to is moments from getting his fingers on the big red button that signals a global Apocalypse. And a vicious rhetoric of hate has become mainstream: Bashing foreigners or anyone who might conceivably be foreign, homosexuals and women as somehow subhuman, or just plain shooting black men, seems to be about to become elevated to the national sport of several self-proclaimed liberal democracies. I have been rooting for a woman who is so far to the right of my politics I can barely see her. And that failed. If things deteriorate in France, the heads of state behind the UN Security Council are likely to be Donald Trump, Theresa May, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
There are consequently three alternatives:
1) Drown in a bucket of gin.
2) Run. Hide. Preferably in a nuclear shelter stocked with chocolate.
3) Read. And react.
I am still keeping one and two open as options, but on that third note, I have been thinking of the narratives I use to interpret the present moment and why it terrifies me so. Or, more importantly, the narratives a number of people are not using. So here is a list of books I recommend in order to instil a healthy paranoia about current political events and/or counter the poison currently being distributed in the foulest kind of political rhetoric. Mix and match at your leisure. I have.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Because dystopia is where it's at. This novel paints a particular one in which women have lost all bodily autonomy, being reduced to their childbearing capabilities; where abortion is punishable by death, and where only powerful men and men who fall in line with their power get to procreate. It is patriarchy distilled to its core, but what makes the book terrifying is as much the protagonist who remembers life before, and how it all went wrong:
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on Islamic fanatics at the time.What can I say, the combination of Christian fundamentalists setting out to control women's bodies and riding to power on a fear of Muslim others ... resonates.
Flat Earth News by Nick Davies
Because when Trump said there was something very wrong with the media, he was right. He was just not right about how he was right. This book written by one of my favourite investigative journalists is horrifying in its description of the advent of "churnalism" and uncritical publication. A free press is not a press reliant on financial interests or clickbait.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Because, let's face it, in the middle of all this you are going to need to be able to escape to a book where the apocalypse is thwarted by an angel and a demon who both think their employers are being a little too rigidly ideological. Also contains essential gardening advice which might come in handy at the collapse of civilization.
The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham
Because clearly we need a reminder. It argues that the rule of law is not just about governing according to laws that are properly set down (though there is that, too), but that a democratic mandate and a protection of fundamental rights (as a safeguard against demagoguery) are essential. Bingham illustrates this argument, and its continuing relevance) with examples from legal cases he has participated in.
The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa
Because it is lovely, but also because we need a reminder of the importance of looking out beyond our own culture and borders. Fukuzawa Yukichi was one of the first Japanese to learn English, at a time when Japan was first tentatively opening to the West and then experienced a reaction of violent isolationism under the Tokugawa shogunate.
Migritude by Shailja Patel
Because we are going to need poetry, and poetry with a political kick is the best kind. A collection complete with commentary, on imperialism, tyranny, appropriation, sexuality and power. And migration. Make sure you get the edition which includes "Eater of Death" and "Notes from a Lost Country".
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Because dystopia is still where it's at. Particularly a dystopia in which a rejection of knowledge features so heavily.
If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. ... Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.I think it was supposed to be a warning, not a roadmap.
Guantanamo Diary -- Mouhamedou Ould Slahi
Because we need a reminder of what happened under a president who did not argue publicly that Muslims were second-class humans, who did not openly embrace torture, and who did not reject wholesale the rules of War. Written in Guantanamo by a man who was imprisoned from 2001 till about a month ago, six years after he was ordered released by a judge.
Orientalism by Edward Saïd
Because the same old patterns keep resurfacing. The same old categories of "us" and "them" are being used to paint whole groups of people as simultaneously irrational, weak, servile, yet threatening and violent. Recognising these categories for what they are is the first step in removing their power to persuade.
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Because we need to ask the questions about what we are willing to sacrifice for the status quo, how far we are willing to compromise our ideals, and to what extent the choices we make to keep things smooth for some of us has dire consequences for others. And what better way to ask those questions than in a (post-)apocalyptic meeting of ninjas and pirates with a sprinkling of mimes and martial arts.
On Violence by Hannah Arendt
Because we may have to start thinking about the difference between strength, force and power, and the importance of thinking in the face of the unthinkable. Because thoughtlessness, and the lack of critical agency is what will get us in the end. If we act, we can interrupt the apparent trajectory.
It is the function, however, of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably.And when action has unintended consequences, more action is needed to counteract them.
Them by Jon Ronson
Because conspiracy theories are taking over public discourse, and while Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" might do the job, Ronson is funnier by about six orders of magnitude. From Salafi Islamists to Ku Klux Klan, it consists of a series of light journalistic pieces of interactions with extremists who are convinced they are the victims of a world conspiracy. But it also has a chapter on the Bilderberg group.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Because it might be useful to think about how fast things can change, and how things can still remain the same while they do. It is the memoir of teaching English Literature at the University in Tehran as a woman before and during the Islamic revolution. And the importance of fiction in understanding the world.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Because it has recently come to my attention that there are otherwise capable and informed adults who do not know of this book, and that to me is a sign of the times if anything is. The book's emphasis on pervasive surveillance is one thing, and rather topical considering the apparatus Obama is about to hand over to Trump; but it is as important for its illustration of gaslighting as a mode of control. Without firm footing with regard to what has happened and what has not, without confidence in a communal memory (even as something to be critical of), action becomes very difficult.
Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Because we need to think about why we think the way we do, why we accept certain narratives, and why we reject others. We must have the vocabulary to point out that some of the things that seem natural or "just the way things are", that the immediate images that come to mind for any given concept are not natural, but naturalised. And we need to know why myths are so hard to pin down.
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf
Because the West really, really needs to take a step outside its own perceptions of history and the world. We need to stop seeing ourselves as the victims and the protectors by default. And it might be easier to do that at first through a historical lens. Also, Saladin was quite cool.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Because the silencing of women and the dismissal of our (I originally wrote "their") experience and expertise is a dangerous pattern which goes beyond men on the internet attempting to explain basic physics to a female doctor of astrophysics to the refusal to believe women when they claim to have been harassed, raped or hurt in other ways.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertholt Brecht
Because fascism rears its ugly head and does not generally play by the rules. In the translation of Tabori:
If we could learn to look instead of gawking,Which pretty much sums it all up.
We'd see the horror in the heart of farce.
If only we could act instead of talking,
We wouldn't always end up on our arse.
That was the thing that nearly had us mastered.
So let's not drop our guard too quickly then:
Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard
The bitch that bore him is in heat again.
In short, we need books to learn, laugh, inspire and warn. Feel free to add to the list.