Thursday, 27 August 2009

Some books

While I was away on holiday, Bob tagged me, seeking my response to this question:
Which books written for academic purposes deserve, should find (or in some cases have found) a more general readership among intelligent people who are either (a) non-academics, or (b) aren't academic specialists in the discipline that the book is written for?
You can find out which books others have suggested by following the links in this post. Bob himself has already stolen some of my thunder by nominating E.P.Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which would probably have been top of my list too, and I agree with everything he says about the book.

In coming up with my own list, I found myself in a quandary. Should I choose books that have been important to me in the past, but with whose ideas I now find myself at odds? For example, I would once have argued that everyone could benefit from reading some Foucault - The History of Sexuality, say, or Discipline and Punish - if only to have their received notions about how ideas develop up-ended. But these days, keenly aware as I am of the philosophical and political dead-end to which Foucauldianism can lead, I'd rather people read Janet Afary's and Kevin Anderson's Foucault and the Iranian Revolution to see the consequences of his variety of pseudo-Marxian anti-humanism and cultural relativism.

Book that have survived the ebb and flow of my changing opinions are rare: Thompson's classic is one of the few exceptions. A number of possibilities suggested themselves - including books about language, gender and identity that have shaped my thinking and my academic work over the years. But then, looking at the dog-eared, cover-less copy of The Making of the English Working Class on my bookshelf, I came up with a different criterion. I would only choose books that, like the Thompson, were falling apart through repeated use, offering some indication of how important they've been in my intellectual formation. This led me immediately to these three choices:

If I can't have Thompson, I'd better choose the book that was its constant companion on my bookshelves in my early twenties, and which had a comparable impact on my thinking as a young literature graduate, starting work in adult and community education, trying to unite his passion for literature and history with an equal passion for political change. I was fortunate enough to attend some of Williams' lectures as an undergraduate, and though (as with Thompson) I now find myself questioning many of the political positions that he took, his profound humanism, depth of cultural understanding and commitment to the emancipation of the class into which he was born, remain impressive, outlasting the shallow over-theorised posturings of those (like his former student Terry Eagleton) who rejected his ideas as outdated.

I bought my copy in the early '80s, from Centerprise Bookshop on Stoke Newington High Street, when I was working on a community project in the area, and at the high watermark of my attachment to Eurocommunism, when I was an avid reader of Marxism Today and a partisan for the 'New Times' thinking of Stuart Hall et al. I took the book, and its ideas, with me when I moved into academia, and Gramsci's theories of hegemony, civil society, organic intellectuals, etc have continued to inform my thinking. Although I no longer espouse revolutionary communism, whether of the 'Euro' or any other variety, I think the Sardinian Marxist's ideas are still of enormous value in understanding the dynamics of social and political change.

My well-thumbed copy comes from the same period of my life as the Gramsci. Most of the people I worked with, and for, in those days, were African or African-Caribbean and this was a book that enabled many to feel pride in their black British heritage - and opened the eyes of white people like me to a hidden dimension of our history. As well as being a terrific historical narrative, Fryer's book also offers a convincing analysis of the development of British racism, rooted in slavery and our imperial history. Over the years I've used extracts in teaching innumerable times, and I admire the book for many of the same reasons that I value Thompson's volume. My personal copy also has sentimental associations. I inherited it from one of my students, a young African-Caribbean woman, an ex-prisoner and former drug addict, who had just begun a new life as a sociology undergraduate, when she died suddenly of pneumonia.


bob said...

What a fantastic list Martin (of course!). All three are books that are important to me too. I totally agree about Williams' relatively timeless status compared to the "new" (i.e. modish, therefore now outmoded) forms of cultural and literary theory that eclipsed his work.

Gramsci surprised me when I read him, after getting an inkling of his views via Eurocommunists and cultural studies types. I was surprised how Leninist, how revolutionary he was, in a good and a bad way.

Peter Fryer is an absolute classic, which had a big impact on me when I read it in my late teens, at a time when I was very loosely under the influence of the party Fryer was part of, the more sensible wing of the WRP. Fryer himself is interesting, having broken with Stalinism after 1956, and kind of stumbling into black history by accident. I think the influence of his book (as, for a long time, the only available book on the black presence in Britain) on at least two generations of anti-racist activists - and therefore on the development of "race relations" and multicultural policy after 1984 - has probably not really been reckoned with.

Thanks again.

P.S. I took Saramago out the library yesterday.

Martin said...

Hi Bob
Thanks for the nice feedback.

I hope you'll respond to a challenge of my own that I'm going to post on my blog later today.

TNC said...

My list is here: