Home Books What I read in: May 2019

What I read in: May 2019

by Ellie Hopgood

My plan to focus my reading on political and economic books went well, but was harder than I thought. Clearly, part of the reason I am able to read so much is because I switch often between genres, reading books of all different lengths, styles and topics. After three fairly academic, hardcore books on climate change and capitalism, I needed a break. So maybe we’ll go back to the old system of reading whatever I feel like in that moment, which is sometimes a dense political manifesto and other times a fun, easy novel. Good? Good.

The Great Derangement – Amitav Ghosh

This book was not what I was expecting at all. I wanted to read more about climate change (I still do) and found good reviews online for Ghosh’s book, subtitled ‘climate change and the unthinkable.’

I started reading the first section, stories, and immediately struggled. Ghosh is primarily a fiction writer (and while I was reading this book a number of people told me how much they love his novels) and the first section of the book is dedicated to analysing the relationship between climate change and literature, specifically how few non-fantasy/sci-fi novels have been written about climate change in the past few decades. I don’t read a lot of literary criticism and analysis and I can’t say this book made me want to start. I don’t think it was bad necessarily, just very much not the kind of climate change content I was looking to consume. I felt very meh about the stories section but decided to persevere to get to the history and politics sections.

Here, for me, was where the book came into its own. I loved the final two sections of this book and thought they were a brilliant, unusual look into why and how climate change came about when it did and how we can hope to tackle it in the future. The book has a heavy focus on the role of Asia in climate change, which is often sorely missing from Western-centric books, despite that fact that India and China, among other Asian countries, are crucial pieces of the climate change puzzle. I loved reading about climate change through an Asia-centric lens and it really shone a light on how much a global perspective is missing from discussions in the US and UK.

I also enjoyed the politics sections, especially the exploration of the idea that climate change is an affront to individual freedom, which is what makes people so reticent to make lifestyle changes despite believing the science. It was the first time I’d had that perspective elucidated for me and it went a long way to answering the question I’ve been considering for a while now – how do we get ourselves to make the necessary changes, and why is it so hard?

Clearly, I am in two minds about this book. Personally, the stories section and the other parts focusing on climate change and culture were not for me. But the history and politics sections were exactly what I was looking for. I guess you’ll have to read it to see for yourself!

Why Capitalists Need Communists – Charles Seaford

Another book that got right to the heart of an idea I was weighing up. This book is aiming, primarily, to suggest a way for us to deal with the great problems of our time – climate change, inequality, automation, the housing shortage and the rising cost of public services – and flourish in the future, through an economic and political lens. He contrasts his ideology, the politics of flourishing, with market liberalism, localism and social democratism. The politics of flourishing is another way of saying that wellbeing should be at the heart of policy, an idea that is also discussed in Ruther Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape.

Seaford considers the anatomy of past revolutions and how counter-elites have come together at different points in history – in the last century, even – to fight back against harmful policies. He’s trying to do more that just suggest a better way; he’s trying to map out how we might get there. It’s an admirable task (though ‘the politics of flourishing’ is not quite as pithy as socialism or capitalism) and one that I’ve read a lot about recently, with this book adding to my growing pile of books extoling the virtues of universal basic income and other more socialist policies. I like that this book mainly discussed these issues through a British lens (though other countries and political situations are mentioned frequently) and touched on Brexit, as it was written very recently. This is quite an academic book, so while each individual section is decently accessible, the whole thing is a bit of task, despite being fairly short. Given I’ve read so much about these ideas this year, I’m starting to develop an ‘of course it’s doable’ echo chamber around policies like this, so I have to remember that these ideas are still considered radical, or at the very least, incredibly niche. I mean, this book is so niche that I had to create the Goodreads submission for it!

This was a good book, if dense. It is full of a wealth of information on our recent political history and how we can use those lessons to propel us toward a fairer future, where wellbeing is more important than the economic bottom line.

This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein

Okay, if you want to start somewhere with the social and political causes and implications of climate change, then this is the book for you. This Changes Everything is five hundred pages of hardcore climate change analysis that is almost frighteningly comprehensive. I can’t imagine how much work and research went into a book like this, especially given the rapid pace of change in climate science, environmental activism and politics. But Klein persevered and the results are something special. I found this book a bit of a slog, but that might just be because I was reading it as I was struck down by a kidney infection and rendered incapable of focusing on anything for more than five minutes. Regardless, I have marked a number of pages to go back to, as there were so many gems in there.

I particularly liked the section on the rights of Native and Indigenous communities to land and the pivotal role these precedents may play in addressing the climate crisis. In fact, the whole chapter on Blockadia was enlightening. I had no idea how much powerful activism has been done by small groups over the past few decades. Those ideas led to this blog post, all about imagining a life where you felt deeply connected to the Earth rather than crammed into a city all the time. I was touched to read about people not just defending the Earth as an abstract area, but fighting against fracking in their back garden or the pollution of their local river. I felt bad that I am so removed from the actions of the oil industry that climate change still feels fairly abstract to me, even as I cough cycling through London or notice the unexpectedly high temperatures.

I also enjoyed her fairly experimental chapter on the environment and fertility. I’m a bit of a reproductive science nerd, and a bit of an Earth mother when it comes to my own body, so this played right into all those interests. I also liked that she got more personal in that chapter.

Another part that stood out to me as totally shocking was the section where she chronicled the lacklustre attempts of billionaires and public figures to address climate change. Not only were these attempts poorly implemented, it was truly shocking to read about how Richard Branson quietly pivoted the aim of his environmental prize so that it rewarded scientists developing techniques that increased oil yields, rather than searching for green fuels.

Really, I thought this was a tremendously impressive book. If I had written this, I’d doubt I’d ever stop talking about it (both the contents and my own achievement). Klein covers the political, social, environmental, legal, reproductive, intergenerational, practical and economic causes and implications of climate change, and then some. As you might expect, it’s pretty terrifying. We’re not in a great place. This book spurred me to also write a follow-up to my blog on who pays for environmental destruction, exploring the nature of climate creditors in more detail. It also inspired me to write a post about the intersection between climate change and the individual, as I grappled with my own approach to the planet and our environment. If you’re at all interested in what’s happening with our climate (which you probably should be), then this book is the perfect place to start. I have, however, been struck by the lack of detailed climate science in the books I’ve read so far, so hopefully I’ll crack open a book about the science of climate change soon.

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

After three dense and intense non-fiction books, I had to switch it up. I’d wanted to read some Murakami for ages and every list I found recommend this book, so I started with this complicated love story.

Norwegian Wood tells the story of a few years in Toru Watanbe’s late teens and early twenties, as he grapples with two complicated relationships and his place in the world. It’s a pretty sad book, though the sadness is tempered by the clean, efficient prose. I haven’t read much fiction lately, let alone a straight love story (I mean, it’s pretty twisted at points, but it’s still ultimately a book about young relationships) so it was a bit of an adjustment for me. It didn’t make me adore Murakami but it did make me curious about some of his other work, which is enough.

1984 – George Orwell

I read 1984 six or seven years ago and loved it, despite its dark and depressing tone. It felt time to read it again, especially as questionable political administrations are on the rise around the world.

Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and follows Ministry of Truth (the government department tasked with constantly perpetuating lies) employee Winston Smith as he tries to push back against the regime. It is heartbreaking to realise, as the novel unfolds, just how extensive and repressive the Party is and Winston’s fate remains just as shocking as when I read it the first time years ago. Orwell’s political commentary is second to none and it is always worth spending some time in his worlds, even if it’s not exactly pleasant to do so. 

Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde

One of my reading aims this year is to read a number of books from the core feminist canon, rather than just learning about feminism from people of my generation on the Internet. Audre Lorde has written a number of poems, essays and books about gender, race, class, sexuality, art, travel and combinations of all these things.

I loved this book. I was completely taken by how Lorde shares her thoughts and experiences with such openness and strength. She addresses white women for their racism, black men for their misogyny and homophobia and anyone who upholds prejudice and bigotry as they move through the world. I loved her exploration of raising a black son, especially as a lesbian, in her essay Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response and her extremely moving essay about black women’s anger Eye to Eye. Really, almost every essay in this collection is powerful, especially for young women who have so much to learn about the experiences of other women in the world. It shows the importance of going back sometimes and reading the works that have propelled movements forward in the past rather than only reading things that have been published in the last few years. Women who have lived more, especially in circumstances radically different than your own, have so much to teach us all. If you want to read about feminism then you should read this book.

What should I read next month? Leave any suggestions in the comments below!

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