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.

Nervous States by William Davies (2018) 

For the past 40 years, we have been living within a particular economic paradigm, one based on a logic of ever-greater competition – between people, communities, regions and nations. That paradigm that is now mired in crisis, a crisis which underpins all the political shocks and tumult we see today. There is no better analyst of what has come to be known as ‘neoliberalism’ than William Davies, who probes its assumptions, contradictions and frailties with penetrating insight; his book, Nervous States, explains how tensions between scientific reason and human feeling are restructuring contemporary democracies. 
 

The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James (1938)

In my own work, the central characters tend to be those at the sharp end of political and economic marginalisation, but whose stories of oppression and (even more importantly) resistance rarely get told – at least not on their own terms. C. L. R. James, a Trinidadian historian and intellectual giant, was keenly alert to the dangers of reducing people to the status of passive victims. The Black Jacobins, his magisterial history of the Haitian slave revolution, is a thrilling, spine-tingling story of political organisation, struggle and victory from below. 

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972)

Cities are where we are thrown together in our millions to work, play and contest our futures, and from 19th century industrial slums to space-age metropolises in science fiction, they often serve as the crucible in which alternative, insurgent forms of politics are forged. Cuba-born revolutionary and Italian partisan Italo Calvino was fascinated by urban spaces, and his Invisible Cities is a weird and beguiling meditation on what they represent, and why. 

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.

 

  • Now We Have Your Attention

  • "One of the most important and compelling books I've ever read, by one of Britain's most gifted writers. If you want to understand why we are in this crisis, listen to the voices all too often airbrushed from the political conversation" OWEN JONES

    Now We Have Your Attention makes sense of what is happening in British politics by taking a radically different perspective: the people’s.

    From a warehouse in Manchester to a pub in Essex, from the outskirts of Glasgow to a racecourse in Durham, Jack Shenker uncovers the root causes of our current crisis and the future direction of British politics through the lives of ordinary individuals. Taking us deep into communities hollowed out by austerity and decades of economic disadvantage, among a generation crippled by precarious work and unaffordable housing, he shows where the chaos at Westminster ultimately springs from – and how disillusionment with it is fuelling a passionate engagement with politics of a completely different kind: local, personal, effective and utterly fearless.

    Joining a ‘McStrike’ protest on a roundabout in Cambridge and a gathering of the London Renters’ Union in the aftermath of Grenfell, meeting hard-right bloggers in Newcastle and climate change protesters in Brighton, Shenker draws on exceptional access to campaign groups, activist movements and grassroots gatherings throughout the country – including unique access to Momentum, who have re-radicalised the Labour party from the outside in – to introduce us to the citizens and leaders of tomorrow: people who are changing things for themselves.

    Inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, Now We Have Your Attention uncovers a revolutionary transformation in attitudes and behaviour, and a future that will shape us all.

  • Buy the book

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