There is a huge amount at stake this Election Day but, no matter what happens or who wins, we have to remember that the buck stops with us. We have the ultimate privilege and responsibility of deciding how we will live.
In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.
This list could easily run to 25 titles, or 50, or more. I love factual writing. Done right, it calls for curiosity, insight, empathy, humility and the willingness to face (as Orwell puts it) unpleasant facts.
George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London
Orwell took everything seriously, except himself, which makes this account of his experience as a Parisian kitchen drudge and London tramp insightful and grimly funny.
Susan Faludi – The Terror Dream
A brilliant, audacious polemic that argues America’s post-9/11 self-perception is shaped more by the enemy within than the threat from without.
Germaine Greer – The Female Eunuch
Even if you don’t agree with a word she says Greer is worth reading for the way she says it. Genius writing and bracing politics.
Barbara Ehrenreich – Nickle & Dimed
The essential text on the myth of the American Dream that, worryingly, gets more relevant every year.
Aiden Hartley – The Zanzibar Chest
Intense, disturbing and profoundly insightful first-person account of life as a war correspondent in Africa.
Martha Gellhorn – Travels With Myself & Another
Possibly my favourite travel book of all time. Gellhorn, like Orwell, has no truck with self-pity (“moaning is unseemly,” she notes) which makes these tales of horror journeys perversely enjoyable.
Hunter S Thompson – Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail
You don’t need to know or care about American politics to be enthralled by Thompson’s account of the 1972 Presidential race. Essential reading in an election year.
Charles Bowden – Murder City
Almost hallucinogenic account of a year in Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico, where the “War on Drugs” is a catalyst/excuse/smokescreen for a culture of brutality that, Bowden argues convincingly, is the natural end-product of unfettered 21st century globalised capitalism.
Phillip Caputo – A Rumour of War
Classic first-person account of the Vietnam War.
David Simon & Ed Burns – The Corner
Before The Wire Simon and Burns were on the corner, sharing the lives the victims of yet another American war of attrition as they crafted this masterpiece. One of the single best sustained acts of reportage I’ve ever read.
Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times is my new literary crush. She writes acerbic, funny, insightful things about language and its (mis)-uses. Think George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ for the 21st century.
A brief excerpt from one of her recent FT columns on the troublesome issue of bios…
The other day I was invited to a dinner for non-executive directors to talk about women on boards. Even though I would much rather watch MasterChef on the television than go out and discuss this most worn-out of subjects, I said yes because I liked the person arranging it.
Before the event I had to send in a “brief bio”, so I dashed off something like: “Lucy Kellaway is a journalist at the FT, on the board of Admiral and has written various books.” It was short, to the point and based on a model favoured by Ronald Reagan. A friend told me he had seen his delightfully succinct bio at a grand do in the 1980s: “Ronald Reagan is President of the United States”.
In due course I received a list of the other guests’ bios and saw how outlandish my single sentence looked among the short essays they had submitted. I now see that there is a problem with the Reagan model: it doesn’t work quite as well if you aren’t president of the US. Indeed, the less important you are, the more words it seems you need. But looking at these bios – containing facts like “x played intercollegiate basketball three decades ago” or “y serves on the boards of 17 charities” – made me wonder about this trickiest of literary genres. How long should they be? What should they contain? It seems that the bio is trying to do two things: to say who you are and to show you are different from (and more interesting than) other people. Most overdo the first by being too long, and underdo the second.
Thanks to a dreadful Guardian interview I have discovered the incredible Arundhati Roy. I had vaguely filed her in my mind as a contemporary novelist. How wrong. She is an artist, feminist, social activist and genius for life. This is an excerpt from her essay The End of Imagination.
There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honourable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing advance that they will fail…. The only dream worth having… is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.
It was one of Hunter S Thompson’s favourites so, after buying and carting it from Glasgow, I finally got around to sinking into All The King’s Men. According to the New York Times blurb on the back it is: “The definitive novel about American politics.” Which is on par with saying Macbeth is the definitive play about Scottish politics, and therefore not entirely inaccurate. All The King’s Men has a distinctly Shakespearean sweep and stride, with its fine language and inexorable tragedies. Warren conjures a world always just beyond the control of its occupants:
The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which, if he had it, would save him.