Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

Isn’t Christmas a magical time? A time for loving and giving. A time for stuffing our faces and making merry late into the night.

It is also, for many of us, a time to leave the warm echo chamber of our daily lives where almost everyone we know thinks the same way we do, and thrust ourselves into a world of bloody-minded stepdads, old-fashioned aunts and cousins with a propensity for internet conspiracy theories. 

If this rings a bell, you’re going to need some help. From immigration to gender equality, Brexit to climate change, here are eleven books to help prepare for any argument that could break out this Christmas. 

First, the basics…

How to be Right by James O’Brien (2019)

To James O’Brien, ignorance is an inflatable dartboard and his words are… no need for a bad metaphor – it’s easier to tell it straight, just like O’Brien would do. The LBC talk-show host has made a glittering career of puncturing blunt assumptions and putting prejudice in its place. Every morning, he listens to puce-faced callers foaming over the topical of the day then he calmly and carefully bulldozes their arguments into the Thames.

How To Be Right… builds each chapter around transcripts of his phone-ins, burning issue by burning issue, as O’Brien teaches you the subtle art of talking truth to anyone who doesn’t agree with your hard-earned (and unassailably correct) opinions.

Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

Argument: 'It’s time to rebrand Brussels Sprouts to British Sprouts'

A Short History of Brexit by Kevin O’Rourke (2019)

There you all are, sitting around your mum’s dining table, tucking into the festive fowl. The wine is flowing, the tension is growing, and Uncle Ian is holding forth about how it’s high time to rebrand Brussels Sprouts as British Sprouts because, well… Brexit.

Then he suggests a vote.

We all have an Uncle Ian, even if he’s not your uncle and his name’s not Ian. Or maybe you are Uncle Ian. Either way, this is the moment you wish you knew Brexit back to front. To do so, you really should read Kevin O’Rourke’s erudite, authoritative and highly accessible exploration of the roads that led to Brexit: globalisation, the unresolved legacy of Thatcher, crippling austerity measures, Tory Party in-fighting, nostalgia for a time when wars were won on Bovril and Blighty ruled the waves and much more besides. Essential reading, whichever side of the debate you're on.

Argument: 'Climate change is a hoax'

On Fire by Naomi Klein (2019)

Did you know that king penguins have never been in better shape? Or that polar bears are doing so well they’re becoming a public safety threat? And have you noticed how cold it is this Christmas?

If you are unfortunate enough to be sat at the same table as someone determined to prove the climate crisis is a conspiracy, Naomi Klein can help.

On Fire gathers more than a decade of her impassioned writing from the frontline of climate breakdown, taking readers on a journey from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in 2010 through the refugee crisis in Africa and the Middle East, all the way to the Pope’s 'ecological conversion' before pointing towards the possible political path forwards. 

Read an excerpt from the book here.

Argument: 'There's nothing new to say about gender equality in 2020'

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (2019)

The fight for female rights in areas like equal pay, abortion and representation in public life have rarely been far from the headlines in 2019. So much so it would be easy to think the key battlegrounds for feminism have all already been established.

Caroline Criado Perez's book is about the subtle but pernicious biases built into the digital age. For example: did you know the average smartphone is too big (5.5 inches long) for most women’s hands, and often doesn’t fit in their pockets? Or that Google’s speech-recognition software, trained on male voices, is 70% more likely to understand men? Or how about the horrifying fact women are nearly 50% more likely to be seriously hurt in a car crash because cars are designed around the body of ‘Reference Man’? Invisible Women is both an education and a call-to-arms for modern feminism - and proof we have further to go than anyone thought. 

Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

Argument: 'You'll never turn ME into a vegan'

We are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer (2019)

'Oh, you brought a … nut roast' your Auntie Irene winces across the table, as if you’ve just tucked into the contents of a vacuum bag for lunch. But you’ve arrived armed for such scepticism, because you’ve read We are the Weather.

Climate collapse, soil loss, the death and destruction of species and habitats, insectageddon: our world is dying. But Mother Earth may yet pull through - if we all just eat a little less meat. Not no meat, mind you; just less. In fact, according to Jonathan Safran Foer, we only need to go vegan until dinner. 

'We cannot keep the kinds of meals we have known and also keep the planet we have known,' he writes, pointing out that animal products create more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector. A beautiful work of narrative non-fiction punctuated with enough terrifying facts to turn even the most committed of turkey guzzlers into sprout-waving vegan-gelists (well, at least some of the time), this is the fallible person's guide to saving the planet.

Read our recent interview with him here.

Argument: 'I don't have a racist bone in my body'

How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (2019)

There is no such thing, argues Ibram X.  Kendi, as being 'not racist' or 'colourblind - there is only being actively racist or actively antiracist, only advancing racist ideas or antiracist ones. 

If that sounds unforgiving or difficult to get your head around, don't worry: his book is a calm, clear and powerful argument that weaves ethics, history, law and science to interrogate the language we use and the assumptions we make about ourselves when it comes to race. It's also an electrifying narrative of his own personal awakening.

Read our interview with Ibram X. Kendi here.

Argument: 'Praise be to God this Christmas'

Outgrowing God by Richard Dawkins (2019)

It might a feel a trifle unseasonal to dispute the existence of God while gorging on Christmas pudding. But if you do, Richard Dawkins will back you.

Drawing on science, philosophy and history to interrogate the hypocrisies of all religious systems, Outgrowing God attempts to disprove the notion the universe had a Creator at all. The proof, he argues, is in the evolutionary pudding.

[This] is not God Delusion lite, or God Delusion for the Young,’ he wrote on this website in September. ‘[It] goes beyond The God Delusion on the subject of morality, and the deeply wrong-headed but lamentably influential idea that the Bible is a good source of moral lessons.’ A handy companion for anyone in the mood for a spot of festive iconoclasm this Christmas.
 

Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

The argument: 'Hang on, I just need to take a pic of the turkey for Instagram'

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier (2019)

How many phones do you think will be on the table by the time the sherry comes out this Christmas? If the answer is 'all of them', your family might have a social media problem. Time to tell them about Silicon Valley maverick Jarod Lanier’s manifesto for getting off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter - and yes, even Whatsapp - for good.

The essence of his argument is simple: social media is toxic. It makes us sadder, angrier, less empathetic, more tribal and yet more isolated. Companies like Facebook and Google deploy constant surveillance and subconscious manipulation of their users. They monetise our online activity (which, in any other context, could be called labour), for which we get little, if anything, in return. 

His arguments are compelling and wide-ranging, witty and profound. It will, at the very least make you want to take your phone off the table this Christmas, and implore those around you to do the same.

Argument: 'The NHS has gone to the dogs'

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Story by Christie Watson (2018)

We should all spare a thought for our doctors and nurses at Christmas. While we’re stuffing our faces with turkey and mince pies, they’re facing the busiest time of year.

Christie Watson’s beautifully compassionate memoir is, as doctor-turned-bestselling-author Adam Kay describes it, a 'remarkable book about what it means to be a nurse and what it means to care.’

It is also about what it means to love - not only one’s patients, but one’s colleagues and one’s work. Her anecdotes range from the heart-clutchingly beautiful to the gut-wringingly sad as she takes you down the corridors, cubicles and operating theatres of the largest national health service in the world.

Argument: 'So, what are you actually doing with your life?'

Money Lessons by Lisa Conway-Hughes (2019)

‘So,’ your dad says from the sofa as a Netflix thriller unfolds in the background, ‘what are your plans for next year?’ You know what that means. The most direct translation: ‘What the hell are you doing with your life, and when are you going to get serious about money?’ 

This time, be prepared. Money Lessons by Lisa Conway-Hughes is your own pocket-sized financial expert. How do you ask for a pay rise? How do you save for a house? How do you budget for a wedding? And what about squirrelling for retirement? 

Conway is a money-saving savant who will help you turn your life upside down, and shake it by the ankles until the coins tumble out. Stuffed with tips, hacks and inspiring stories of success, it's essential reading for anyone who wants to turn a dream into a plan, and then a reality. And it’ll get your dad off your back.

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