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22 September 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Ben Mezrich, Eve Livingston, Billie Jean King and Maggie Nelson

The Antisocial Network by Mezrich, Make Bosses Pay by Livingston, All In by Jean King and On Freedom by Nelson.

By Oscar Williams, Sarah Manavis, Katherine Cowles and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich

“Historically, revolutions fed by anger tend to go in the same direction,” writes Ben Mezrich. “At some point, once the pillars start to shake, the walls inevitably fall.” In the bestselling business author’s latest book, The Antisocial Network, the revolutionaries are a disparate group of investors who joined forces on Reddit in January to take on Wall Street and revive the share price of the American chain store GameStop. Described by Mezrich as a “dramatic, narrative account” of the saga, the book follows the changing fortunes of both amateur investors and their Wall Street rivals as they ride the company’s fluctuating share price. While sources’ names have been changed and dialogue has been “recreated”, Mezrich compellingly captures the sentiment behind the meme stock uprising.

Nevertheless, his claim that online revolutionaries could bring down Wall Street contradicts his account. After all, as he persuasively explains, the Robinhood trading app that supported the “revolution” was dependent on a powerful American financial services firm – and those who made the largest profit from GameStop weren’t amateur investors, but hedge fund managers at the heart of the Wall Street establishment.
By Oscar Williams
HarperCollins, 288pp, £16.99

Make Bosses Pay: Why We Need Unions by Eve Livingston

In Make Bosses Pay, the journalist Eve Livingston argues that unions are crucial to the improvement of workers’ lives, highlighting the ways in which the managerial class seeks to exploit workers and why collective action is the most effective way to fight back. The book explores the rich history of unions and how they help people in modern working set-ups, such as the gig economy. It addresses young people’s reluctance to join unions because of the presumption that they’re for “shouty old men” and don’t achieve much, giving case studies that prove the opposite.

The book is one title in the “Outspoken” series from Pluto Press, publishing dissenting opinions from under-represented writers that focus on the ways in which our capitalist system could be radically changed. Although Make Bosses Pay feels like it would benefit from more space – it only just begins to tackle complex issues – it successfully shows what unions can achieve. As a beginner’s guide to the value of collective campaigning in the workplace, it makes a compelling argument that may motivate an otherwise demoralised labour force.
By Sarah Manavis
Pluto Press, 160pp, £9.99

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All In: An Autobiography by Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King is best known as the female tennis player who beat the male tennis player, Bobby Riggs, in the Battle of the Sexes in 1973. It’s a thrilling story: King was carried in on an Egyptian throne, thrashed the former champion in straight sets and humiliated chauvinists everywhere. But King is full of incredible stories: there was the time she played in Russia at the height of the Cold War, and then in apartheid South Africa; the time Elton John wrote her a song; the time her ex-girlfriend blackmailed her and outed her as gay. I loved the story about a teenage King feasting on Wimpy burgers when she was in London – without a chaperone – for Wimbledon in 1960. Imagine that today.

But then tennis has changed a lot since King, now 77, first took up the game – in no small part thanks to her own initiative. The 39-time grand slam winner helped found the Women’s Tennis Association, fought for equal pay and brought the game to underserved communities. She is an effective LGBT activist, and writes candidly of her struggles with her sexuality and her internalised homophobia. All In is both a moving memoir and a piece of social history – a record of a life, a sport and a world transformed.
By Katherine Cowles
Penguin, 496pp, £20

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson writes with a luminosity that is, upon opening any one of her books, immediately enlivening. The American author of the cult favourites The Argonauts and Bluets maintains her singular voice in her latest book On Freedom, which is – surprisingly straightforwardly, given her affection for genre blending – composed of four essays. In turn they investigate, Nelson writes, the “freedom drive” in “art, sex, drugs and climate – wherein the coexistence of freedom, care and constraint seems to me particularly thorny and acute”. As she goes, she quotes from authors as varied as James Baldwin and Denise Riley.

Most enlightening is the essay on climate, an issue tackled with impressive forthrightness, given Nelson’s background in poetry and art criticism. That humanity has left it this long to really tackle the environmental crisis head-on means we will face far more disruption and “unfreedom” than we would have done had we acted decades ago, she asserts. Though free-thinkers – novelists, artists – will always be needed: it is they who will be called upon to imagine what our future world, utopia or dystopia, will look like.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Vintage, 304pp, £20

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This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play