Reads for times of crises, part 3

Spines of selected books from the list

Books for times of crises

I was so inspired by the latest Universe in Verse that I decided to write the next part straight away. While I was watching it, in fact, when listening to the first piece on the list. It was just what the doctor ordered, as it turned out. Inspiration struck again.

That was a month ago now… This month has been a challenge. At the start of the lockdown, I was quite naive to think I could get through it without much effort by just applying a few simple rules, like reading hopeful stories. Still, these have been enormously helpful. In low moments, a bit of Hope in the Dark, helped me up every single time. And in the lowest ones, when reading seemed like too much effort, podcasts have proven to be a lifeline. I have also finally become, somewhat anyway, an audio-books convert, for the same reason.

So here goes, the latest edition of my list of great reads for times of crises:

  1. Singularity by Marie Howe – perhaps the most poignant piece of poetry ever written, about the ultimate interconnection between us all, as humans. This year’s Universe in Verse also managed to create an animation to go with it. It was incredible. Tear-jerking. And inspiring, like I already mentioned. This blog post exists thanks to it. There’s no point quoting from it – I believe it needs to be read in full for full impact (or listened too – you can do it, and see the accompanying animation, on the Brainpickings website (my second top find over the past couple of months, btw), among other wonderful clips from the Universe in Verse 2020).
  2. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron – I first came across this beautiful book when listening to one of the latest episodes of the On Being podcast (the sanity-restoring podcast series that I have become addicted to during this testing time). This episode was, as usual, an interview, an experimental as it might have been. But it was also – or at least it felt like it to me – a meditation. A meditation on life and finding hope in the most unlikely moments in life. Exactly the kind that I needed on that particular day, and we all need these days. “Hope is a muscle” Krista Tippett says. And this book has proven to be an absolute find on the route to discovering this truth. “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth” is the opening line of the first chapter and possibly the clearest reflection of one of the strongest sentiments that has followed me through the lockdown – it has not been easy, but it has certainly been interesting, eye-opening even, in many ways.
  3. Solidarity in a Disaster with Rebecca Solnit – another life-saving podcast, especially for those having trouble focusing on reading during these anxiety-inducing times, like me. On how humans really react to a disaster. While one of the most persistent myths of our world is that chaos and violence ensues, Rebecca Solnit paints a much more hopeful picture, one of humanity’s immense capacity for solidarity and connection. And yes, it’s backed up with facts. It’s based on the stories that she documented in Paradise Built in Hell, which I’ve quoted here before. And it’s a version of the story that is still counter-intuitive and rarely recognised in our culture, and one that we urgently need to hear. And see – looking at the incredible mutual aid response of the communities around us – and pass on.  It is also an open call to use this time to profoundly rethink our ‘normal’ ways and the stories we tell ourselves: “Your life pauses and you wonder – what really sustains me…” Solnit says. This is a good time to also think about what sustains us – our communities and our world. Which leads me onto…
  4. Expletives Deleted by Angela Carter – a very personal choice, for Carter’s way with words is one of those reading experiences that I would call formative, for the power of the form as much as the writing itself. Her essay in the collection, The Alchemy of the Word, seems particularly timely, for it searches for a new perspective, new ways of perceiving and describing the world, which, again, I think we desperately need in times like these. “The Russian Revolution of 1917 suggested the end of one world might mark the commencement of another world… The conviction that struggle can bring something better”, Carter says in the opening of the chapter. This is a sentiment and a vision of the world that I personally needed, when the pandemic and the lockdown started. But I also think it is one that we all are (or should perhaps be) searching for these days.
  5. A Planet to Win by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Thea Riofrancos – not on this crisis, as you have probably guessed by looking at the titles, but perhaps now is the perfect time for it also. Perhaps somewhat intuitively, but, as we start coming out of the immediate crisis of coronavirus (and arguably so, and admittedly very slowly), could be the one last real opportunity we will get to salvaging this planet. As countries such as Britain try to force their way out of the lockdown, pushed largely by economic forces, we have a small window of opportunity to think about how this transition should proceed. An opening when many across the country, and the world are saying: we are not going back to business as usual! When I started reading this book I felt very inspired because it seemed to be creating a road map – one that wasn’t necessarily purpose-built for the current crisis, but could be the perfect one for it. At the same time as I listened to this podcast, and the two made perfect sense together:
  6. Manifesto for a Moral Revolution by Jacqueline Novogratz – a book, and in fact, my first successful experiment with an e-book, which is a format that I could never quite get myself to accept before. I found it while tuning into another brilliant episode of the On Being podcast on a lazy weekend. And, in combination with the book I mentioned above, my quest for a solution to this huge problem (or an avalanche of problems, rather) that we have right now seemed to come together. I know, it might sound a bit grandiose to say that. I don’t mean that I came up with the solution! All I’m saying is that they restored my hope in a way out of this terrible mess of multiple crises that we found ourselves in. That perhaps it’s not too late yet, and that maybe there even is a road map out of this horrendous storm. As draft and untested as it is at this stage… “We are always in the process of becoming,” Novogratz says in her book. Perhaps never more than at times like these. Perhaps now, more than ever, is a time and an opportunity for humanity to become something else, something better. But the road is not an easy one. It has never been taken before, after all.
  7. A Global Green New Deal in conversation with Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein. And yes, even more on green issues! Originally streamed online on the 19th May 2020, the conversation happened in the midst of the pandemic, so it became a helpful addition to the book I was reading on this, as everything has suddenly shifted since it was published. Hope isn’t as easy as to find in the talk as I’d wished when I tuned into it. But that’s why it’s a wise and a much needed exchange. Putting the current crisis in the context of the wider, larger crises we’ve already been living with for years, decades, reminding us of the urgency of connecting the dots – including how it’s all connected in the current context (“Sometimes I think we need this Covid crisis to tell us what are the structural things going on,” Roy mused on that point), and, crucially, trying to pinpoint solutions. There are no easy ones, that’s a fact. We need nothing short of a radical system change. But the Green New Deal could be the road map that we’ve been searching for for a long time. Or at least an important part of it. It’s hope. And that is everything in today’s world.
  8. Why Women Will Save the Planet by Friends of the Earth and C40 Cities – is a book that’s been sitting on my too-read bookshelf (or one of a number now!), and now I’ve finally dusted it off. It’s another timely reminder of everything discussed above, and more. With 50th anniversary of Earth Day just gone, and lots of accompanying calls to focus on the other, perhaps larger emergency facing us – at least as much as we’re focusing on dealing with the coronavirus, I realised that now is the time to read it. And perhaps there is another reason I’m gravitating towards this topic more than ever now… The forced isolation has strangely proven a much needed time to reflect for me, personally. I was reminded of why I first became an activist, of the things that I care about that I have perhaps not paid enough attention to recently. Perhaps it’s high time for me to get back to my roots?
  9. A House of Her Own by Krista Tippett with Sandra Cisneros – another podcast. “Solitude is sacred” Cisneros says in the interview to the young students asking for her tops tips for life. But I feel like this is a way of looking at these days of forced self-isolation we’d be blessed to remember. I try. It’s not always easy. I was reminded of this in a comment when I wrote about A Room of Our Own in the first piece in the series. But the solitude can be an opportunity if seen this way – at least for those of us with the privilege to isolate safely in our own homes – both in life generally and in these times of crisis, particularly. This conversation is also a timely reminder of the transformative power of poetry, reading and writing. Which leads me nicely to the next position on my list:
  10. Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde – a book that has provided a shining beacon of hope at previous times in my life that I needed it. So I decided this was another good one to dust off. A combination of prose and poetry – it also seems to be the perfect reading at this junction in my life. I just fell in love with poetry for the first time during these last few months. Even though I have always admired Lorde’s work, as it’s intensely, powerfully political, I never much understood the point of poetry – not just hers, I mean in general – before. I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to say the same things in a more straightforward manner? But these days, for some reason, all of a sudden it provides both solace and a much needed reminder of everything that’s precious in life. And what’s not – the things that perhaps we pay too much attention to in the everyday, in ‘normal’ times. “It is a waste of time hating a mirror / or its reflection / instead of stopping the hand / that makes glass with distortions” (Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap).
  11. The Virago Book of Witches by Shahrukh Husain – a book that is “a celebration of anger, tomfoolery, fun, strife and victory – because the witch never really disappears”. A world to escape into, for those moments when constantly thinking of the multiple crises facing humanity right now gets a bit much. Something light for a change, in my perhaps-too-political reading list. Much needed. Nobody – as I was forced to admit to myself after one or two cases of burnout over the last few years – can keep living a 100% politically engaged life all the time, as much as we might fool ourselves sometimes that we’re strong enough. We all need a break every once in a while. And for me, this crisis has also been a time that reminded me of this. Of my own humanity…
  12. She Is Fierce by Ana Sampson – a poetry collection – all women, all stories from some of the bravest, herstory changing female voices. “For many [female poets], the act of publishing poetry was a rebellion in itself” the author says. But they did not stop there, for many have written poetry that was fiercely political and took action as well! A collection that will provide the perfect escape in this difficult period in all of our lives. But also a source of courage for any activist stuck at home right now.  I am loving it so much, I am already excited about her new collection coming out later this year, She Will Soar.

I hope you enjoy some of these titles, and that they will go some way to helping you through this crisis, as they did for me.

And to end on – a gentle, but passionate, heartfelt reminder – please buy any of these books from your local independent or radical bookshop, and NOT Amazon! Let’s support our local bookstores, so that they can survive through this difficult time. Let’s make sure we don’t wake up to a world without independent bookshops tomorrow…

And here are some links that can help with that: 

Alliance of Radical Booksellers list

Books Are my Bag bookshop finder

Indie Bookshops map

London Bookshop Crawl virtual tours