Four books reviewed —
(or ‘what I learned this year
from reading books
by Nicola Washington
We’re 10 months, and I’m 23 books, into 2018. One of my non-New Year’s resolutions was to make more time to read. Partly as an act of “self-care”, but also to get back in touch with the kid who kept a stack of partly read books on her bedside table. That me dipped in and out on a whim, juggling multiple characters and plots in my head, not caring when they melded into one long arc across my imagination.
These days I’m a “completer finisher” (apparently) and struggle to put a book down even when I’m hating it.
But with two kids, a job and a partner making their share of demands on my time, I’ve imposed a 100 page rule - if it’s not grabbing me I guiltily stash it under my bedside table and lie to myself about coming back to it later.
Finished books - those that grab me, challenge and change my thinking, or self-indulgently confirm my worldview - make it from my bedside to a teetering tower on my kitchen-corner desk. They gleefully mark the snatched minutes to myself, smugly flipping the bird to that inclination to keep others warm by setting myself on fire.
No Is Not Enough
Not all of this reading has been fun though. Naomi Klein’s latest study in shock politics made my head, heart and soul hurt - it nearly didn’t make it to the tower because much of it had me keening in despair.
No Is Not Enough expertly guides the reader through global power plays and players, drawing new (for me) connections between environmentalism, capitalism and the politics of hate that has cast its net over so much of the Western world.The cover promises “an essential blueprint for worldwide counterattack” (Owen Jones) but after 185 pages the idea of hope felt absurd. Surely the only thing left to do was to walk towards the fire when the end of the world arrived; the best possible outcome was that the end would be painless.
Then it arrives. Across lines of privilege and interest, reaching over countries and continents, Klein’s vision of not just refusal, but of resistance can be captured in one simple act - the act of caring.
And with this principle at its core, she explains what resistance looks like in practice and politics, constructing a compelling counter-narrative with which to recover our world. A must-read if you sometimes look around and wonder what the hell we’re supposed to do now.
I travelled more familiar, but no less important, territory with Akala’s Natives, and Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish). Common threads underlining how our society is structured to privilege whiteness on all levels are at their core. And reading these books in close succession slams home the truth that there is no such thing as one single “black experience”.
Hirsch is middle class and female, Akala is working class and male; elements of their experiences are as different as their delivery. The difference in style also caused reflection: I was much more at ease with the tone and timbre of Hirsch’s book. A personal preference, perhaps? Maybe I just find it easier to relate to a female voice? Something else?
The sharp urgency of Akala’s commentary stung and slapped me around.
Hirsch’s book was calmer, more measured, more authoritative, and… less angry. It was here that my creeping unconscious bias gave itself away. Perhaps the reason I preferred Hirsch’s book was because it sounded like the voices we’re told we should listen to... I already believe we’re all victims of narratives unconsciously absorbed from the world around us - we can’t escape them. Instead we have to be watchful, catch them when they arise and work to counter their toxic influence.
Reading these books reminded me that when it comes to this work, there is no finish line.
Ten pages in, I wanted to give up. The self-conscious speech, and the painful intelligence of the first-person narrator, tweaking nerves already inflamed by the discovery that the writer is only 27.
I pushed back against my most unattractive traits however, and read on. And I’m so glad I did.
I won’t say Conversations with Friends was uplifting, exactly (the books in this review so far confirm that pith and whimsy are not quite my scene) but there was joy. Joy in a total absence of plot and instead layers of exquisitely drawn characters being slowly peeled away, pages effortlessly turning.
I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that at any point in the whole novel did I actually like any of the characters and yet somehow I felt sympathy and sadness for each in turn.
By the end I also felt immensely relieved that the turmoil of my 20s is far behind me. It’s a suspicion I’ve had for a while, but this book confirmed that perhaps getting old(er) really isn’t so bad after all.