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  1. Long reads
6 August 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:59am

Red Reads: 21-30

21-30 in our countdown of 50 books that will change your life including William Morris, Naomi Klein

By Staff Blogger

21. News from Nowhere
William Morris (1890)

Morris’s great novel of the future is the first and finest example of the visionary fiction he wrote in his last decade. It fast-forwards the reader into a scarcely recognisable England of 2102, transformed by the workers’ revolution of the 1950s into a country of pastoral contentment. This is Morris’s idea of what a truly socialist society might feel like. The links with our own aspirations are potent. His Nowhere is pro-craft and pro-greening, pro-feminism, pro-cultural diversity, pro-organic farming and pro good but healthy eating. No one
in Nowhere is obese. Nowhere is anti-commercial exploitation, anti-capitalism and fiercely anti-parliament. When Tony Blair came to power and named Morris as one of his heroes, he clearly did not register that in News from Nowhere the Houses of Parliament have been converted to a storehouse for manure. Now is a good moment to return to this brilliant and disconcerting book.
Fiona MacCarthy

22. V
Tony Harrison (1985)
Written during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, V describes a trip to the vandalised graveyard where Harrison’s parents are buried, and explores the painful tension between the author’s working-class background and the different culture he enters through his education. A Channel 4 broadcast of the poem in 1987 caused public outcry, and led to a group of Conservative MPs tabling an early-day motion on “television obscenity”.

23. No Logo
Naomi Klein (2000)

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This forensic investigation into the relentless rise of corporate brands established the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein as one of the left’s sharpest voices and became the bible of the anti-globalisation movement. Dazzling in its scope and intelligent in its anger, No Logo provided an urgent guide to resisting the creeping privatisation of public space and exploded the myth of “consumer choice”. Klein’s faith in the ability of human agency to triumph over corporate power shook the left from its post-cold war inertia.

24. North and South
Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

Published a few years after the Chartist uprising of 1848, Gaskell’s fourth novel aims to educate her middle-class readership about the living and working conditions of Britain’s industrial proletariat. Young Margaret Hale is obliged to move from the rural Home Counties to the fictional Milton (Manchester) when her minister father takes up a new job. Her horror at the wretched conditions in which the people are forced to live soon brings her into conflict with the local factory owner, John Thornton. As the young couple fall in love, part, and are finally reconciled, they learn about the “other” England that each represents. Thornton begins to take on moral responsibility for his workers, while Margaret learns to jettison her earlier snobbery about anything touched by “trade”.

Gaskell’s bold attempt to get England’s “two nations” to understand one another came as a surprise to those who knew her only for the quasi-pastoral Cranford. North and South provided the template for David Lodge’s 1988 novel Nice Work, which reprised the plot of two divergent cultures obliged to confront their shadow, this time in Thatcher’s Britain.
Kathryn Hughes

25. Love on the dole
Walter Greenwood (1933)

Sean O’Casey, reviewing the play of this novel in the NS in 1935, claimed “there isn’t a thought in it worth remembering”. We disagree. Not
for nothing did Greenwood quote James Russell Lowell in the epigraph: “The Time is ripe, and rotten ripe, for change; then let it come . . .” The force of his depiction of the wretched poverty and degrading unemployment of Depression-era Salford was such that the film censors initially deemed it too dangerous for adaptation for the big screen. The novel’s slums and lengthening dole queues speak volumes today.

26. Persepolis
Marjane Satrapi (2000)

In the vein of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust tale Maus or Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Persepolis is an exemplar of how the graphic novel can convey the trauma of political events. Satrapi’s account of her life before, during and after the Iranian Revolution is a savagely funny attack on religious and political dogma, and depicts beautifully the way citizens resist oppression in their daily lives. Satrapi’s conviction that ordinary Iranians are the agents of their own destiny is a corrective to those who see citizens of her country and elsewhere as pawns in a struggle against US power, as well as to those who look at an Islamic state and see only fear.

27. The Other America
Michael Harrington (1962)

All his life, Harrington spoke and wrote on behalf of what he called “The Other America”, a “separate culture” of poverty and neglect
that was invisible to most affluent Americans. This other America, Harrington wrote, was “a monstrous example of needless suffering
in the most advanced society in the world”. The author was credited with inspiring Lyndon B Johnson to launch his “War on Poverty” in 1964.

28. The Society of the Spectacle
Guy Debord (1967)

This tract by the Marxist theorist and film-maker inspired Paris students to rise against bourgeois society in 1968. Its critique of how fashion, advertising, film, TV and the press poison the mind and degrade the soul became the staple fare of cultural and media courses. The “stars” who obsess the public, Debord argued, were “spectacular representations of living human beings”. The real world was being replaced “by a selection of images . . . projected above it”. In the age of reality TV, many have made similar comments. Debord said it first and said it best.

29. The Iron Heel
Jack London (1908)

Anyone familiar with the realism of London’s White Fang or the social reporting of The People of the Abyss may be surprised by this dystopian fantasy, helped along by a generous serving of Marx’s theory of surplus value, but they should enjoy it nonetheless. London’s prediction that the middle class would disappear was wide of the mark, but the novel did foreshadow the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the suppression
of republican Spain and Allende’s Chile.

30. Kani Kosen
Takiji Kobayashi (1929)

A classic of Japanese proletarian literature, Kani Kosen (“The Crab Processing Ship”) has been making a comeback in its homeland, appealing to a new generation disaffected by capitalism and the economic recession. The novella follows a group of sailors as they struggle against brutal working conditions; when they attempt a mutiny, they are quashed by the military. Kobayashi, a 29-year-old banker-turned-Marxist writer, was tortured to death by the police. His writing, however, continues to speak out.

 

We could compile a whole new top 50 made up entirely of books by New Statesman writers, from George Bernard Shaw to Martin Amis and John Pilger-and perhaps, one day, we will. For now, you can find a selection of our favourites here.