Reading list

7 must-read classics for the post-truth era

As the fake news machine whirrs and alternative facts abound, one thing is clear: we need classic literature more than ever. These are the books we can trust, the books that help us make sense of a mad world. As Italo Calvino put it, ‘a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’.

The themes of these 7 books – resistance against tyranny, censorship, freedom – may be timeless, but right now they’re as important as they’ve ever been.

 

The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick

 ‘All these hundreds of thousands in this city, here. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth...?’

Imagine the world if the Allies had lost the Second World War... Philip K Dick writes a vision of the world as it might have been: the African continent virtually wiped out, the Mediterranean drained to make farmland, the United States divided between the Japanese and the Nazis... In the neutral zone that divides the rival superpowers in America lives the author of an underground best-seller. His book – a rallying cry for all those who dream of overthrowing the occupiers – offers an alternative theory of world history. Does ‘reality’ lie with him, or is his world just one among many others?

 

The Captive Mind

Czeslaw Milosz

Written in Paris in 1951, while he was in exile from his native Poland, Milosz’s denunciation of Stalinism created instant controversy at a time when modern society was allowing itself to become hypnotized by the socio-political doctrines of Communist Russia.

Hailed today as a classic alongside the works of Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, The Captive Mind analyses the power of tyrannical regimes to enslave men and women, not just through terror, but through ideas, achieving ‘mastery over the human spirit’. Championing intellectual freedom, Milosz’s brilliantly perspective polemic played a significant liberating role in Poland, and is still chilling today. 

 

Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell

 ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’

Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.

 

All The King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren

 ‘The definitive novel about American politics’ The New York Times

Young, passionate and determined, Willie Stark begins his political life as an idealistic man of the people, compelled by a desire to transform America. But when he is betrayed while running for governor in the Deep South’s Mason Country, he soon realizes that pure ideals are worth very little in the political world and that in order to succeed he must not be afraid of corruption. A bittersweet meditation on human weakness, All the King’s Men is based on the true story of Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana in the 1930s. 

 

The Winter of Our Discontent

John Steinbeck

A searing examination of the evil influences of money, immorality, greed and ambition in America, The Winter of Our Discontent remains Steinbeck's last great novel.

Reflecting back on his New England family's past fortune, and his father's loss of the family wealth, Ethan Allen Hawley Ethan is scarred by failure and now works as a grocery clerk in a store his family once owned. But his wife is restless and his teenage children troubled and hungry for the material comforts he cannot provide. Until a series of unusual events reignites Ethan's ambition, and he is pitched on to a bold course where all scruples are put aside... 

 

It Can’t Happen Here

Sinclair Lewis

‘An eerily prescient foreshadowing of current affairs’ - Guardian

A vain, outlandish, anti-immigrant, fearmongering demagogue runs for President of the United States – and wins. Sinclair Lewis's chilling 1935 bestseller is the story of Buzz Windrip, 'Professional Common Man', who promises poor, angry voters that he will make America proud and prosperous once more, but takes the country down a far darker path. A terrifying cautionary tale, which pits liberal complacency against popular fascism and shows: yes, it really can happen here.

 

The Emperor

Ryszard Kapuscinski

Dramatic and mesmerising, The Emperor is one of the great works of reportage and a haunting epitaph on the last moments of a dying regime.

After the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, which ended the ancient rule of the Abyssinian monarch, Ryszard Kapuscinski travelled to Ethiopia and sought out surviving courtiers to listen to their stories. Here, their eloquent and ironic voices depict the lavish, corrupt world they had known – from the rituals, hierarchies and intrigues at court to the vagaries of a ruler who maintained absolute power over his impoverished people.

 

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