To provoke some reflection on the world of ideas in 2019, the Omelas Institute has invited its Associates to consider what has made them change their mind this year. Here each has contributed a few paragraphs on the (books/etc.) which have caused them to re-evaluate their views, think differently or see things from a new perspective.
I’ve read a few real game-changers this year:
I only had to get a few pages into REVOLTING PROSTITUTES (Juno Mac and Molly Smith) before I suspected it’d be my year-topper, and it was. My knowledge about sex work before this book was marginal at best, and Mac and Smith are so effective at cutting through the handwringing and bloated symbolism around sex work, instead talking about the material situation of sex workers – sex work as work and exploitative sex work as labour violation. It was a complete paradigm shift for me; it’s really brought home to me how we all have topics we’re not conscious of at all. As soon as I read this book, every half-baked assumption about sex work in the news immediately became excruciating to read, and I always keep an eye out for new watershed moments like that now.
TAKING UP SPACE (Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbuyi) is a fantastic book by two recent Cambridge alumni about the experiences of black women and non-binary people in higher education. This is something I wish I’d read while I was an undergraduate studying a very white curriculum at a very white and historically racist institution; allyship is not a passive role, and I think at the time I believed it was. Taking Up Space is full of both testimonies and data from students of colour, particularly black female and non-binary students, and it celebrates the contributions of black women to university communities while closely analysing how universities repeatedly fail to support those same students. I’ve always thought of myself as a benevolent person, but this book was a substantial part of me moving past lazy assumptions of my own good intentions and starting to work to understand how I can do better, particularly as a white person.
I’ve spent four years analysing all sorts of books, and I can sometimes get a bit into my own head and start thinking of novels only in cerebral terms. BLINDNESS (Jose Saramago) is by no means an uncerebral book, but it’s also one that viscerally grabs you and brings you into its own terrifying, totalising world. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that vivid, where every scene and location easily became realised in my mind – it involves you on a body level; physically you’re so tense, convinced you’re going to go blind at any moment. It adjusted my relationship with reading in a way I’ve found really valuable since graduating from my masters.
And, finally, the two books that were essentially both incarnations of term-long university courses I wish I’d gotten to take: HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (my joint favourite fiction read of the year, with Blindness) and NATIVES by Akala (the best dialogue on race and empire I’ve ever read, with so much specificity, so much life, so much history that I’d never touched before – one of those books that makes you genuinely worry about the alternative timeline where you didn’t read it).
Right at the beginning of 2019, I read PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY by Merlin Coverley, a short book which serves as both an introduction to and intellectual history of the field. Coming away from that book, I would summarize its titular subject as the study of how land- and city-scapes are presented in, and act upon, consciousness. How does walking down a street in any given town or city feel to you?
At this point I had already developed a habit of strolling aimlessly through Oxford, often lost in thought — I had become something of a flaneur myself, so to speak. During the same period I also became aware of how severe Oxford’s homelessness crisis was, and of how easy it is for us to ignore and “phase out” our fellow human beings as we pass them by on the street — perhaps letting an advertisement-poster or some other bright spectacle divert our attention — even if they are obviously in dire need of help. Reading about psychogeography moved me to direct my attention where it really belongs during my everyday interactions with society.
More recently, I also binge-read Sapkowski’s WITCHER-novels. They’re neither high-brow, nor academic, nor experimental. But they feature a strong central cast of characters and an engaging plot which really allowed me to forget about the outside world for a while and let myself be taken on a wonderful journey by the author. I think the experience reacquainted me with the idea of reading to suspend my own disbelief — instead of exercising it relentlessly, as is my habit.
In the summer of this year, I finally got around to reading a book I’d had on my shelf for a long time: VICTOR, AN UNFINISHED SONG, English-Chilean dancer and activist Joan Jara’s memoirs about her life and particularly her years married to the folksinger Victor Jara. As well as being an emotional (and ultimately tragic) account of their lives together, the book made me reconsider the way in which I conceptualise the relationship between the arts and activism.
I’ve always considered the integration of arts and culture in radical programmes a good thing, but largely in abstract terms and peripheral ways – as something to supplement or reinforce radical action. But a key theme of the book is that the arts, rather than being isolated or peripheral, can be the primary way in which people engage with a political movement. I’ve long admired Victor Jara and his work, but it was Joan Jara’s trajectory which ended up fascinating me more: entering political activism through her work in the Chilean National Ballet, and using dance, both as a teacher and a performer, as the primary medium through which she lived out her activism. Things like organising amateur groups and performances in marginalised communities illustrate how artistic expression became a way of communicating with people in their everyday lives about the values and ideals the wider political movement was striving towards, and what these would mean in terms of enriching and expanding those everyday lives. Rather than considering these things in abstract terms, reading this account has made me think about and look into the concrete ways in which people have tried (and can and should try) to make this more central to their organising.
Later in the year I also read THE VILLAGE AGAINST THE WORLD, about the Andalusian village of Marinaleda, and the ways in which radical action has often enabled the village to buck regional trends of unemployment and poverty, with its own co-operatives, social housing, festivals and community initiatives. The book didn’t so much change my mind as refocus it: on the power of collective action at community level to significantly improve people’s lives. And more than anything else, in a year which was often sorely lacking in hope, the story of a small village uniting together in the face of a hostile world restored some of my faith in the possibility of change.
Earlier this year, I took a good friend from abroad around London. Meeting in Trafalgar Square, it occurred to me that a good place to start might be the nearby NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY. It fell to me, as the supposed historian, to provide them with some commentary as we went around chronologically from Plantagenet to present day. I have always held the nationalism of imperial and post-imperial powers in disdain, while respecting nationalism in ‘underdog’ countries, and actively supporting it among aspirant but stateless nations; my undergraduate thesis was based on those on the left-wing of late imperial Britain who misguidedly opposed colonial independence, all the while thinking of themselves as closer to King Solomon than King Canute.
My thoughts on such matters remain broadly the same, albeit textured, I hope, by greater wisdom and knowledge with time and study. Nevertheless, the impressively Whiggish attempt by the curators of the National Portrait Gallery to stake out Britain’s history as one more-or-less continuous line of progression from historic aristocratic imperial power to modern enlightened cosmopolis suggested to me that perhaps treating historic Britain as a foreign country that no longer exists – a Prussia of a nation – is at best an imprudent waste, and at worst a derogation of stewardship. The battle for the soul of England that broke out into fresh fighting during the European referendum cannot be won in retreat. This is not to say the tainted nostalgia of Faragism should go unchallenged, but rather that it might be challenged better if those who challenge it do so with the full arsenal of British history at their willing disposal. Nations are myths; nationalism is myth-making. In the National Portrait Gallery, you will find a vast pantheon of heroes and villains. Today we have our villains. Where are our heroes?
Associate Adam John Ellison was unavailable for this piece. He will be back in the new year.