There is a massive shift happening globally right now, with people in the left movement asking questions of how we can best get through this crisis, and finding that the same message is coming through, regardless of where they are: “We’re not going back to business as usual after this!”
The other night, I tuned into an online teach-in organised by a US-based organisation, The Rising Majority, with Naomi Klein, Angela Davis, and 10,000 others! My favourite message of the night came from Naomi Klein – unsurprisingly, as she’s always incredibly quotable – who said:
“Our job (right now) is to open the door of radical possibility as wide as possible”
I feel inspired these days, by the way that people around the world are finding new avenues for coming together to think our way out of the crisis and into a better world than before. But many other factors are affecting my cautious optimism these days. One of them being feminist literature. I just finished reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and I was so inspired by her writing that I have shared this information with dozens of others by now.
And then I thought: I want to be able to spread this message of hope as far as possible. Hence this blog post.
This is my list of inspiring reads that I found incredibly helpful in this time of global crisis, despair, and finding hope in unlikely places. I do hope that it goes some way to helping others find some light in these dark and strange times too:
- The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit – takes first place because it was the book that I read in the early days of this crisis and I found incredibly enlightening in this time when I needed some light in my life. The story of a very painful period in her life is intertwined with fairytales, creating a dreamy landscape of surviving while discovering key truths of life through adversity. Hope can come from unlikely places. “Trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming” Solnit says here. I tend to agree. I used to despair at the thought that humanity seems to need a crisis to wake up. Today, I choose to feel hopeful in the face of this sentiment. I have to. Hope is a necessary ingredient of survival.
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – arguably. One of the comments that I received when I posted about it in the last few days was about how the person writing it wished they weren’t stuck in their room right now. And I can totally understand. It’s a testing time for us all. But another way to look at it is that we have come a long way – although we have a long way to go still – and this is a time for those of us who do have rooms of our own when we can be extra creative, use the extra time that we’ve got to learn something new, make positive change, find new ways to connect. And connecting globally has never been easier. Not for all, I am well aware. But for those of us who can, it’s worth reminding ourselves: “I am afraid it will not be taken seriously.” Woolf wrote in her diary just before the publication… so there is obviously no telling what could come out of our creativity at this difficult and change-provoking time!
- Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit – a book that fell into my lap, accidentally, while I was in the middle of reading the other title by her. It was offered by the publisher of the Polish translation as a free book during the time of crisis, and a friend sent me the link, just as I was halfway through The Faraway. I thought I must have it to read next. If there was ever an ironically perfect time to read this book, it is now. This book is built on the premise that: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” And it builds up a (pretty convincing, I think) picture of collective hope through action.
- Brain Pickings by Maria Popova – a blog rather than a book, but one that I came across when following up on a quote by her that I found in Hope in the Dark: “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is is naivete.” – and then I proceeded to discover a whole world of hope there that Popova has created, which seems perfect for this stark time of confusion and despair. A little bit of heaven. A retreat for the soul. Or, in her own words: “Calibration and consolation for those moments when it seems impossible that we should ever again recompose the world’s broken fragments into a harmonious whole.” In her latest, she also recommends another one of Virginia Woolf’s – To the Lighthouse – as another good read for a time like this. I have to admit, I haven’t read it, but Popova describes it as “the kind of book that leaves you feeling nothing less than reborn.” Sounds tempting to me.
- Fairytales for Emergencies by Rebecca Solnit – if you think fairytales are for children, I did too not so long ago, trust me! But Solnit brings her signature storytelling style into an accessible (video) format here, and tells the tales from a new perspective – to help shine a new light of hope onto what’s happening in the world today. She actually spends relatively little time on the fairytales themselves, focusing instead on the universal messages that can carry us all through this storm. Her hope is palpable and contagious: “I think the world is changing and when we come out of our homes we’ll be very different people in some very important ways.”
- Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy by Lynne Segal – I have seen this book in the Feminist Library bookshop some time ago now, but tended to, somewhat reluctantly, ignore it. I have a reading list that is long enough already, I thought, and I don’t have the time to add more. It was always a ‘nice to have’ rather than a must-read before. Until now. Now, suddenly, it seems like the perfect time for it. I’m yet to start, but it’s definitely next on my list now. I have read a few other articles in the past few weeks that spell out the same message: that it is through human connection that we find happiness, rather than through capitalist individualistic gratification. But the message has never been more crucial, as we are seeing the capitalist system crumble right in front of our eyes in the face of a global health crisis. And we need to connect not just with each other, but also the dots so that we can all unite to replace it with a better system – one in service of all peoples, not just big money.
- Recollections of My Non-existence by Rebecca Solnit – “she lights the way, holding up her experience, her insight, that others might find her, and find hope” in the words of Florence Welch. It has just landed on my doorstep, so I can’t recommend it from my own experience. But it was recommended by a Feminist Library friend when we were talking about what we were reading to help us cope in this time of crisis, and Welch’s words seem to confirm my suspicions – similarly as in The Faraway Nearby, Solnit uses her experiences of life’s challenges to create a story of finding hope through a time of difficulty. It is also a story of her early days trying to make it as a woman writer in a man’s world, which makes it perhaps the most explicitly feminist one of her titles recommended here. (Yes, a lot of Solnit, I know! One might say that I’ve become obsessed, but I honestly think that she’s the perfect writer for today. I’m not even trying to hide it.)
- Just Kids by Patti Smith – a story of youth, of dreams, of naivete, but also of survival and, ultimately, making it. A memoir of her early days, when she had no money and no name that anyone recognised. It might be a personal story, but it’s one of making it against all odds, triumphing as a poor woman in a man’s world. Smith’s writing is timeless, poetic and it speaks to me like few others do. Devotion is my personal favourite of hers though – although the story is much more poetic than triumphant, her writing is to die for. “Inspiration is the unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour.” It’s one of those books that helped me through some hard moments – when Smith’s unique ability to turn despair and darkness into art was exactly what I needed to learn. And I think that it’s a lesson that’s even more precious to me today.
- Still I Rise by Maya Angelou – or literally anything by her! The power of both her writing and her conviction is as inspirational as they come. There is also a great documentary about Maya Angelou on Netflix too. In moments, wonderful – especially when Maya Angelou herself speaks. It’s a voice of wisdom and hope. There are few voices as powerful as Maya Angelou. Also recommend listening to On the Pulse of Morning – a poem she wrote for the inauguration for president Clinton – full of hope, but also brave words of both call to action and warning. “You, created only a little lower than / The angels, have crouched too long in / The bruising darkness / Have lain too long / Facedown in ignorance.” You can listen to it on YouTube.
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – despite of the horror of the circumstances in which it was written, and the knowledge of Anne’s tragic end, the young author still manages to keep the message of hope throughout: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.” It is a story of the incredible resilience of the human spirit through adversity. And a very young spirit at that. It forces us to ask ourselves: who are we to despair if this young Jewish girl in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland managed to stay hopeful?
And if you have been encouraged, to feel more hopeful, you might ask yourself, as I have been over the past few weeks, what to do with it in this uncertain time. And so my list continues with some suggested titles that might help answer that question:
- The Pandemic is a Portal by Arundhati Roy – who is my all-time favourite feminists to quote as she famously said “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” I have used this quote more times than I can count. It is plastered above my desk. And it has been one of those thoughts that has stayed with me over the years, helping me stay relatively sane in this crazy world. But here she writes specifically in the current context of the global pandemic, and she still manages to come out with a strong message of hope. And, needless to say, the message is decidedly political. Well worth a read.
- Revolution in the Age of Social Media by Linda Herrera – this book is based on the story of the the Egyptian uprising of 2011 and the role that social media played in it. And yet, I find that it has a new power now. With more or less the whole world on lockdown, we, the movements, have been challenged to find new ways to connect and organise. More than ever, we are reliant on the internet to build our movement. It offers both opportunities and challenges. Perhaps the greatest of them all being that we could find a way to a new, global movement for system change. But can we to do this reliant on a tool situated within the current corrupt system? This is the book that attempts to provide us some priceless lessons to answer this exact question. Available as a free download on Academia.edu.
- The Will to Change by Adrienne Rich – or just her poetry, full stop. Political, eye-opening, change-making, hopeful – called a precursor to a new type of poet, ‘the poetics of becoming’, ‘poetry of ideas’, reflective of the age in which it came to be. Poetry, in the world of Adrienne Rich, is, or has the potential, a responsibility even to be, a call to action: “In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing—disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.” in her own words. And I have been encouraged to hope also by seeing just how much new creativity the lockdown has provoked.
- The Inner Life of Rebellion by Krista Tippett, in conversation with Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin – a podcast (although the transcript can be read on the website as well). On the human aspect of rebellion. Martin says: “You should be able to honour your own anger.” But then continues with a timely reminder of the importance of community, empathy and self-care as an activist. Especially in the face of burnout, something that many of us who are activists know all too well. And particularly living in a time of so many crises – phenomena that so implore us to action that we often forget to take enough moments to stop, think and breathe. “Doing social justice entails a huge psychological risk” (C. Martin), but it’s not to say we shouldn’t act – it’s a call to remember our own humanity while we do, to connect with our community, and to take time to process before we do act. Perhaps now is a time to step back and reflect as much as it is for planning and organising rebellions? It also reminds us that the revolution is unlikely to happen overnight or to solve all of our problems if it does. We have to be patient.
- The Will to Change by bell hooks – as always a visionary, in this book bell hooks convinces us, feminists, that men too can change. It is not a book about crisis as we see it unfolding on the world today, but it’s definitely one about finding hope and ‘the will to change’, even in the most unlikely of places. About the crisis of masculinity, and about our fear of men, and how we can overcome it. I have to admit that I found the book challenging – evidence for the conviction that hooks expresses is often hard to come by, even in today’s world. And yet, she makes a compelling case. I do share her hope – I believe we need to, for a chance of a better world – and I deeply want to share her conviction. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge facing us today: finding ways to retrieve our belief that humanity really is capable of change – and then, and only then, we can work on ways of implementing this new belief system. Or in her own words: “Many of us have lived the truth that recognising the ways we are wounded is often a simpler process than finding and sustaining a practice of healing.”
- The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt – more philosophically, on the human condition, the power of action and the creative possibilities of being human. On the sheer power and boundless potential that lies in us, as human beings. A perfect read for today, especially if you’re feeling a bit hopeless. For it exposes the endless possibility of change and action in this grave time: “The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.”
- Feminism and the Contradictions of Oppression by Caroline Ramazanoglu – talks about the seemingly irreconcilable differences between various types of feminisms and attempts to reconcile them. This is a textbook and so might be a bit heavy for some readers, especially today. If you’re in need of a lighter read today, it’s totally understandable. But for anyone who’s trying to imagine how we might arrive in a better world at the end of this troubling period, despite all the contradictions between the different movements, it should be an illuminating read. It instils much needed belief that working together is possible, against even the most seemingly incompatible differences. Perhaps it could even be argued that we have to learn to embrace those differences if we’re to arrive at solutions that really work.
- Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai – another powerful autobiography, and a story of struggle, activism and positive change through adversity. Maathai was at least as much a political activist as she was a distinguished writer, and the message of her story is political too. It’s a call to action: “We owe it to the present, and future generations, to rise up and walk.” It’s an autobiography, yet the writing is less personal than clearly, unapologetically, political in its intent.
- The Identities of Persons by Amelie Rorty – another one on the human condition, a perfect read for today if you like philosophy. But also a great one for these cloudy days, for it proposes humans are infinitely capable of change. Combined with a reading of any one of Solnit’s countless stories, it provides a compelling narrative: it is through the stories that we tell ourselves of ourselves – and that is the way that we mould our worlds. Stories are powerful. Or in the words of the author herself: “Humans are just the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves.”
- Had I Known by Barbara Ehrenreich – a collection of some of the best essays from one of the most revered thinkers of our time. It is also another important reminder and a warning to us: this strange and confusing time can be seen as a time of opportunity, but it can be seen as such by both sides. Our story can go either way at this point. As history shows us – change is inevitable but progress is not. We have an opportunity today, to use the crisis to rethink the ways that things have been done so far, on a global and unprecedented scale. We must stay hopeful in this time of great challenges, but we absolutely have to avoid confusing that with being naive. It’s our duty to act, Ehrenreich reminds us, but let’s learn from history while we’re at it and avoid making the same mistakes.
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – it seems it would be wrong not to mention the climate crisis somewhere in this list before finishing it. Rachel Carson writes beautifully about the natural world, and here the focus is on the danger that humans have posed to nature on their way to ‘progress’ in its economically-focused definition. Writing that sparked the global environmental movement. It also reminds us it’s important to challenge unquestioning commitment to the progress of science and technology as we know it. It is crucial that we question everything in the current system if we want to change it, or even better, replace it with something else altogether. Another good one to read on this subject is Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature. And it is available online as free download.
- This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein – read the book or watch the film. Or both! It’s about finding hope through lessons from the environmental movement across the globe – the most affected and oppressed communities fighting back. Finding inspiration and power to fight back in the most unlikely places. I think it has to be read alongside The Shock Doctrine at this point in time – which is another timely warning. Capitalism is not asleep while we plot its overthrow. While we think about how we can use this crisis to change/dismantle the current system of oppression, capitalism is doing some thinking of its own. We shouldn’t forget that.
- Vintage Didion by Joan Didion – a collection of some the best writing by a woman dubbed one of the greatest American writers. And another stark warning to remind us in this potentially culture defining moment: we need to find ways to stay hopeful, but not uncritically so. History teaches us better. If we listen that is. When combined with Ehrenreich and Klein, makes for more than a compelling case for change-making based on careful learning from the past, on an understanding that progress is never straightforward, but change is always possible. Especially in moments like this.
- The Small Work in the Great Work by Victoria Safford – an essay that opens us up to the boundless potential of this moment. What history teaches is that times like these have the potential to be absolutely transformative, to wake us up, on a massive scale. We have the potential in this moment to create a new world, with countless thousands waking up from the lull of capitalism. But we need a vision. Or in her own words: “Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it’s going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live compliant and complacent anymore in the world as it is (…) I am interested in hope on this side of the grave — for me there is no other kind — and in that tidal wave of justice that could rise up if only we would let it.”
- This is Our (Caring) Revolution by Ai-jen Poo in conversation with Krista Tippett – a podcast (but again, can be read as a transcript as well, if you prefer. I find podcasts unexpectedly relaxing these days). I think it’s a great one to end on. On the importance of listening, caring and inclusion. Listening as a revolutionary act. I don’t know if there’s ever been a more crucial time for this message to be heard. “All of us need to understand that we have a profound set of challenges and inequities that we have to deal with and transform, but we have to do it with a boundless sense of compassion and humanity” (Ai-jen Poo). If we’re to build a new global movement to get us through this crisis, and to build it by finding new ways to connect and communicate, we need to hear this message, desperately.
I want to return to my favourite author of the day, and end with another one of her quotes, which I think, as so many others used here, summarises the reasons that justify my, somewhat cautious, admittedly, optimism today:
“The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,”
While the task of ‘inventing the world while no one looks’ might seem a bit tricky in the era of internet-facilitated rebellion, there is no doubt that there is no way any of us could know all the different ways that people are waking up to the fact that the current system is broken beyond repair these days. It is also a timely reminder that we’re are not alone in this. There are movements around the world thinking of new ways of being and acting right now. Let’s take a moment to embrace the immense potential of that thought. There is no telling what tomorrow could bring.
My list is a bit thin on fiction, I know. I’d like to do better, but I’m not a very big reader of fiction, so I would appreciate any pointers.
I also realised that this article was going to be much longer than initially anticipated about half way through writing it, as inspiration led to more inspiration. So I want to apologise that some must-reads are not included. Perhaps this will become an unexpected new series…