Tuesday, January 1, 2013

read red in 2013

I’ve always had a pretty slapdash philosophy about shelving books in my own house.  No subject divisions, no alpha by author, no books as decor.  I stick them where they fit. 
There are three exceptions which get their own dedicated cases: my Anita Brookner collection, surely the largest in North America; my growing assortment of the wonderfully addictive Persephone Press books by forgotten women novelists; and- yes, call it what it is- my shrine to Ivy Compton-Burnett, an all time favorite writer.

When I worked in the bookstore, subject categorization was everything.  And now, when I meet with booksellers as a rep, we spend a lot of time working out where to shelve each title.  So it’s a great relief to not have to think about coherence on my own shelves. 
My friend Patrick, who sometimes stays at the house and likes the scattershot approach, disapproves of more subject groups.  (He works in a library so the random may have a similar appeal to him.)  But this year I took another step toward reorganization by subject and created a section in the dining room bookcases that might be called “Marxism/socialism/old commie memoirs/offbeat East German advertising/oddball Soviet children’s books/etc.”

It was a revelation to see what a large supply I’ve amassed over a lifetime once rounded up in one place.   Oddly, that section of the wall of books now has a red hue, and not only in subject matter- kind of like the Gardening section in a bookstore always glows green.

One goal in bringing them all together was to serve as inspiration for a writing project I’ve undertaken that’s loosely related to these subjects.  Alas, being re-exposed to all these fascinating books has led me to lots of time-wasting diversions from the writing.  I suppose I can call it research.

But my new crazy Red section has provided another unexpected pleasure: it's a reminder of a lost world that has been all but expunged from public consciousness.  The communist world has collapsed, the Left parties are mainly empty shells, and when I start to natter on to younger people about socialism I’m afraid I sound like Grandpa Simpson.  And why wouldn’t I, when there’s nothing in our daily political life that would hint at socialism as anything but madness?

Of course, straw man "socialism" gets a big megaphone.  The ludicrous assertion that Obama is some kind of socialist is mainly rebutted by people who seem equally horrified by the idea, and are anxious to prove that there’s nothing remotely socialist about his administration.  Not hard to do if you’re paying attention.  What’s missing are the voices of socialists and communists themselves, defending and explaining socialist ideas.  

Our political discourse is too partisan, say the hand-wringers.  But the bandwidth on the political spectrum where all this supposedly polarized debate takes place is incredibly narrow.   Classic example: New York Times house conservative Ross Douthat’s column “How to Read in 2013,” wherein he advises you to “let your mind rove more widely and freely” by reading magazines with a political viewpoint opposite your own.  For example, National Review subscribers should check out New Republic, and vice versa. 
It's as if the vast breadth of political possibility in the real world is a black hole.   It's like saying wear blue socks for a change instead of brown.  This kind of sorry thinking is itself a great example of why political discourse is paralyzed.  Our collective political imagination has been strangled so tightly by market fantasy orthodoxy that we’ve become- as Borges vividly described Argentina and Britain in their war over the Falklands- two bald men fighting over a comb.

Here’s a resolution for 2013: whenever you hear a description of a supposedly intractable political calamity, ask yourself what assumptions lie behind the definition of the problem.  What are the givens?   

When the litany of what we supposedly can’t afford as a society grows again this year because national energy resources are in private hands and therefore can’t be harvested for social profit; because essential infrastructure like transportation systems are at the mercy of private, short term get rich quick schemes; and because health care is assumed to be a for profit instead of for health enterprise- remember to mentally finish the phrase "we can't afford..." with the more important clause  "given that....."
Try to imagine what a different conversation we could be having if profiting from the collectively held energy reserves of the nation was forbidden or tightly controlled;  if rational planning and a science of actual need dictated where trains and roads and airports were to be sited;  and if the enormous and largely untapped power of collectively shared risk were really brought to bear on solving the health care crisis.  Social ownership and control in all of these areas could actually be profitable enough to fund any government program you can think of, rendering all the hot air about tax rates and debt beside the point. 

That’s socialism. It's more than a feel-good sense of community, though real socialism would indeed feel very good.  It's about who manipulates the levers of power and in whose behalf.  Who creates wealth?  The lucky few who have amassed obscene pools of capital?  Or the ordinary workers who invest products and services with value?  Everything depends on where you stand on that issue.

But now I’m stepping into the land of science fiction.   (Or is socialism banished there too?  Dystopia is thriving, but where is utopia?)  Once, even though marginalized, ideas like this were at least on the political table, with live people debating them, experimenting with them, and sometimes dying for them.  But now it’s as if 1989 simply closed the book on all that, and the only thing we’re left to discuss and debate is the rate at which our world is handed over piece by piece to stateless capitalist pirates whose only loyalty is to their personal gain.

So you see what simple home bookcase reorganization can do for you?   Maybe it can make you a little mad.  Or a little hopeful.  Because when I look at my lively red bookshelves I see a wall of resistance.  Books have power, and stand as tangible evidence that, as the socialist optimists would say, a better world is possible.   Our history is filled with the highly improbable becoming the inevitable.
So I will second Mr. Douthat’s suggestion that we expand our reading in 2013.  We surely need more reading and thinking in the coming year.   But I'll cast the ideological net a bit farther.  Here are a few random reading suggestions from my stacks to red up your 2013.  Other suggestions welcome.

You don’t have to read all three volumes of Capital (in fact, don’t!) to understand Marx but The Communist Manifesto, especially the stirring Verso edition with the Eric Hobsbawm introduction, is worth the time. 

In Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton deftly takes on each hackneyed objection to Marxism and punches back. 
Rius’ Marx for Beginners is doubly pleasurable for explaining Marx in cartoon form, and for being an early example of the graphic renaissance (My edition is the 1976 Pantheon Documentary version).

E. P. Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class should be read at least once in a lifetime.  I’ve inherited a 1963 Pantheon edition from David Schwartz’s personal collection, complete with his margin notes and college student scrawls on just about every page. 
In the same vein, Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is a landmark, compulsively readable survey of how English workers became class conscious by way of self-taught books and literature. 
Boyer and Morais’ Labor’s Untold Story is an action-packed reminder of what it meant to win a 40 hour work week and the right to unionize, and acknowledges the communists and socialists who died for the cause of an organized American working-class. 
For both commie-phile and Chicago-phile, Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots 1928-1935 is utterly absorbing. 
Some contemporary writing on socialism worth reading: John Nichols’ The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism; Michael A Lebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development; and Marshall Berman’s still amusing and enlightening (published 1999) Adventures in Marxism.

I’m fascinated by the ordinary people who were drawn to these movements, and there’s rich documentation of their lives and motives in hundreds of biographies and memoirs.  Like the Holocaust memoir, this is a genre that will sadly come to an end when the last live witnesses pass.  Who will write those histories after the eyewitnesses are gone?  

There are lots of superb life stories of Left heroes and heroines but here are a few suggestions:

Red Diapers: Growing up in the Communist Left, an edited collection by and about a couple dozen red diaper babies;
Tony Michels’ A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York;
Mickey Friedman’s A Red Family: Junius, Gladys & Barbara Scales;
Jessica Mitford’s engrossing A Fine Old Conflict (which does double anglophile-interest duty); Dorothy Gallagher’s poignant How I Came Into My Inheritance & Other True Stories;
The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois, (he became a communist at age 93);
and Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold WarSouth which features one of the bravest women I’ve ever encountered in a book.

On the literary front, I plan to re-read an excellent little paperback called New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties, published in 1974 by Seven Seas Books, which no longer exists, in the German Democratic Republic, which no longer exists.  It's an homage to a kind of Left cultural expression that also no longer exists.
Finally, just for fun: There’s been a mini-boom in interest in Soviet children’s books- more for the art and illustrations that for the content.  One of my favorites is Evgeny Steiner’s Stories for Little Comrades: Revolutionary Artists and the Making of Early Soviet Children’s Books. 
On that note…..

If you’ve hurt someone for no reason
Let the calendar turn that page
Let’s move on to new adventures, my friends!
Hey engineer, get up some steam!

-Galina & Olga Chichagov/ How People Travel (Moscow, 1925)


  1. Awesome, John. One to add: Jodi Dean's The Communist Horizon, from Verso. One of my favorite reads of last year, and totally hopeful.



  2. What a beautifully written piece! The point about the narrowness of our politics is undeniably true. Also, the observation about utopia. The word "dystopia" has lost all meaning. I recently read some jacket copy that described a book as "a dystopian romp."

    I admire the way the argument builds and then ends with "So you see what simple home bookcase reorganization can do for you?" followed by the bibliography. Brilliant! More please.

  3. I forgot to mention the book I wanted to add: "One Dimensional Man" by Herbert Marcuse.