Reading lists

Jack Shenker: Books that inspire change and embrace hope

Jack Shenker, the author of Now We Have Your Attention, shares six powerful books that have inspired change and influenced his own writing.    

Jack Shenker
Jack Shenker. Photo: Pete Bartlett
Jack Shenker. Photo: Pete Bartlett

Reading is a curious thing. Curling up with a book often feels like the most private, personal experience in the world. The next moment something can reach out from the page and yank you into a different dimension, populated by myriad people, places and ideas; it can bombard you with collectivity. As a child, I remember the strange sensation that washed over me as I read Robert Tressell’s classic novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists about working men in early 20th century Hastings struggling against exploitation – a sensation that mingled pain, power and possibility, and which seemed to arise from somewhere both outside of me and within. I knew then that some books were capable of remaking reality beyond the mind of a single reader, and I’ve been seeking them out ever since.    

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (1974)

Ursula Le Guin, who died last year, built universes in her imagination brimming with the tools needed to change our own. Foremost among these was an antidote to fatalism, and a reminder that the way things are is not the only way they can or should be. “We live in capitalism,” she once said. “Its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.” The Dispossessed, set between two planets, two time periods and two radically different ideologies, is one of her finest novels. 

Vintage Baldwin by James Baldwin (2004)

James Baldwin’s writing can flow like water and burn like fire, compelling readers to confront the reckonings and unreckonings of the past that run through us all. “People are trapped are history, and history is trapped in them,” he once observed, a truth that plays out again and again in his essays and fiction. Baldwin is one of the greatest chroniclers of American racism but his interrogation of how all manner of social exclusions are justified, internalised and reproduced is just as relevant beyond that country’s borders. This Vintage Reader edition is a great introduction to Baldwin’s work.

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (2004)

Whether they are novels or essays, poems or reportage, the most inspiring political books impart a belief in the reader as a political actor – a person with agency, capable of acting in concert with others to redesign the world around them – rather than as something inert, condemned to play a bit-part role in someone else’s reality. No modern writer captures this better than Rebecca Solnit. This book is both a warning and an exhortation to action, and resonates fiercely with our present chaos. “The future is dark,” Solnit argues, “but with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.”

Jack Shenker is the author of Now We Have Your Attention, out now.

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