Good Books for Dark Times
Afflicting the comfortable is more or less The Baffler’s raison d’être. But right now we need comfort as much as anybody. Some of us got to thinking and talking about our go-to reading in dark times and decided we’d post a few suggestions. Some titles are here because they offer clarity at a confusing moment. Others are for those who are wondering what is to be done. And some are meant to transport you—we know already that too much Trump is bad for the heart, the mind, and the soul. Here’s hoping some of you find solace—or even a spur to action—somewhere among these recommendations.
Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment (1978). Now that we’ve elected a self-styled billionaire populist to the presidency, it’s more urgent than ever to revisit the (capital-P) Populist insurgency of the Gilded Age: a grassroots revolt of small farmers, urban workers, Single-Taxers, and other left-leaning reformers that set out to stem the ruinous spread of the monopoly money power at the dawn of industrial capitalism. Contrary to the many depictions of the historical Populists as intolerant demagogues, race-baiters, proto-McCarthyites and worse, Goodwyn shows that the leaders of the nineteenth-century People’s Party were keen to build a biracial movement of uprooted farmers and agricultural workers in the South and West. (For a study in just why and how the specter of such a movement terrified the white Southern ruling class, see C. Vann Woodward’s classic study The Strange Career of Jim Crow.) The Populists of the nineteenth century, like today’s inchoate left resistance, were badly outflanked and outspent by the moneyed power elite and their political retainers, but the story of their rise, and their near-capture of the Democratic Party, still holds out many invaluable lessons for today’s demoralized and fragmented American left.
Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (1979). The spirit of Lasch, the arch critic of American progress and American liberal complacency, seemed to be everywhere one turned during this torturous election season. Donald Trump’s unlikely seduction of working-class white America, which dragged the GOP establishment kicking and screaming in its wake, bespoke nothing if not a revolt of the elites (to borrow the title of Lasch’s prophetic 1992 broadside against the deeply unbalanced state of the fledgling American knowledge economy). And inveterate neoliberal child saver Hillary Clinton perfectly embodied the serene self-regard and unthinking entitlement of the powerful-yet-clueless cohort of American privilege that Lasch dubbed “the caring class.” Still, Lasch’s best known work, The Culture of Narcissism, which improbably scaled the bestseller lists at the end of the seventies, stands up with remarkable power at the dawn of the Trump age: It’s a merciless catalogue of the many spheres of modern life in which Americans systematically lie to themselves, from the post-New Left transports of the human-potential movement to the coerced cheer of the corporate workplace. Lasch diagnosed the pinched, distrustful mood of narcissism as a self-protective adaptation to the spiritual isolation of consumer capitalism, amid the stunning, culture-wide collapse of earlier forms of social solidarity. As The Culture of Narcissism and Lasch’s successor works gained serious worldwide attention, critics dismissed him as an incorrigibly dour doom-and-gloomer, but in the light of the present calamity, it seems like he was far too easy on us. (Disclaimer: One reason I feel Lasch’s legacy everywhere I turn is that he was my graduate adviser.)
P.G. Wodehouse. Anything at all. Forget the present derangement of American public life, at least for a while, and retreat to Blandings Castle, the slapstick intrigues of Bertie Wooster, the soliloquies of Mr. Mulliner, and the reliably addled adventures of Bingo Little, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Roderick Glossop et al. Lord knows the vast, inviting Wodehouse corpus has gotten me through all the other many traumas of my misbegotten adult life.
Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (2011). If you want to trace how U.S. intellectual culture in the last quarter of the twentieth century paved the way to our current moment of “post-truth,” dive into this masterpiece. In a voice of steady narrative that contrasts with that of his bomb-hurling subject, Rodgers covers a multitude of debates across the disciplines. From market “fluidity” to “decentering the subject,” he argues, magic-talk across the political spectrum ushered in our present unmooring.
Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (2009). The South is indeed another country, and not only because the legacy of slavery runs through its roots. Unlike the industrial north, Moreton argues, the region jumped headlong into the postindustrial service economy without having passed through a period of mass production, as Marxist and liberal story lines have it. Rural, Protestant, white, and poor, they were pulled into Sam Walton’s expanding retail empire, which recast their ethic of Christian service, patriarchal business leadership, and small-town patriotism as an ascendant, “sanctified” pro-business worldview—one that spilled beyond the bounds of Wal-Mart into suburbs across the globe. Essential reading for making sense of the religious right and the rise of Trumpism.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989). Pull up a chair and take a front seat to the period when “yuppie” professionals pulled away from the deindustrialized middle classes and Reagan Democrats began identifying with corporate business leaders as fellow “producers.” With her characteristic drollery, Ehrenreich explores political debate and popular culture in the 1970s and ’80s, as middle class elites rediscovered the poor and working classes only to walk away—upward, into the lofty precincts of neoliberal power. Note: I’m also going to second Chris Lehmann’s nod to The Culture of Narcissism (I too studied with Lasch), although if what Lasch says about feminism makes you wince, check out The Minimal Self (1984), in which he refines his ideas in response to his critics and offers a more legibly sympathetic take.
Richard Rorty, “Love and Money” in Philosophy and Social Hope (1999). This is actually a fairly despairing essay, addressed to “the fear that is beginning to gnaw at the hearts of all us liberal gentlefolk in the North that there are no initiatives which will save the southern hemisphere, that there will never be enough money in the world to redeem the South.” Rorty looks briefly and with utter honesty at the grim prospect and admits that all he can offer “is the suggestion that we Northern gentlefolk at least keep ourselves honest,” that we “remind ourselves that love is not enough.” What’s comforting about this essay is not anything it says but the unaffected decency of the man who wrote it.
Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975). More than forty years ago, this utopian novel combined ecological savvy, psychological penetration, and political astuteness in astonishing proportions, portraying a society we could achieve in a month, sustain for a millennium, and would (most of us, anyway) actually like to live in. We’re even further from Ecotopia today than in 1975, when the book was published. But it still inspires.
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy (1992, 1993, 1996). If you simply cannot face the present for a little while, this is the perfect escape. Robinson performs the miracle of writing lyrically about Martian biology, geology, meteorology, and metallurgy, all the while choreographing dozens of three-dimensional characters and a couple of political revolutions. This is just about everything science fiction can be.
Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994). Is this mega-bestselling memoir by the erstwhile film producer, capacious narcissist, and self-styled cocksman Robert Evans a blissful escape into the cocaine snow globe of ’70s and ’80s Hollywood? You bet your ass it is. Will reading indoctrinate you into the Cult of the Sweary Rhetorical Question, of which Evans is both Sultan and Grand Vizier? Fuckin’ A, it will.
From Seder with Roman Polanski to ping-pong with Henry Miller, The Kid Stays in the Picture contains enough surreal encounters to salve most tragedy. But can it help a reader stare down four years under a DayGlo potentate? Hell yes! Squint the right way, and Evans proves a handy guide to the psychology of a certain rich, demagogic showman. Born to a wealthy New York family, married seven times, fond of self-aggrandizing rhetoric about his business acumen, Evans has much in common with you-know-who. Pay close attention to his bromance with Henry Kissinger, a two-man mutual admiration society founded on each man’s ability to sway the fortunes of massive productions and/or small, third-world countries, which converge in the filming of Robert Altman’s Popeye.
If only Trump’s timing had been different, he may have been content snorting cocaine from platinum bowls before living out his twilight years in an opulent estate. “Putting pussy before property changed the course of my fortunes,” Evans writes, explaining his Hollywood discovery, which happened, poolside, while Eisenhower was being reelected by those who had bothered to vote. “Putting pussy before patriotism changed the course of my life.”
Will a Hollywood tell-all leave you unprepared for the coming global apocalypse? Maybe. But at least Evans provides some reassurance. “Never plan, kid,” he tells wife number two, Ali “McGroo” McGraw, on an early date. “Planning’s for the poor.”
Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics (1962). This book has long been an inspiration for hard-headed activists and organizers. Crick was a British socialist who wrote a biography of Orwell—and he writes with Orwell’s clarity. He begins by declaring his intention to “make some old platitudes pregnant.” Politics is simply this: “a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.” He then writes a “defence of politics against ideology,” and “…against nationalism,” and “…against technology” – even “a defense of politics against democracy.” Among the “false friends” of politics: the a-political liberal, who “overestimates the power of reason and the coherence of public opinion; he underestimates the force of political passions and the perversity of men in often not seeming to want what is so obviously good for them.” Another false friend: the anti-political socialist: “the making of gestures becomes an end in itself.”
Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country (1998). An excerpt flew around Twitter after the election of Trump, quoting Rorty’s passage (written in 1997) imagining the moment when “The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.” That prediction occurs in his chapter on “A Cultural Left,” which could not be more relevant to the current predicament of the American left. He juxtaposes the reformist left that faded through the 1940s and 1950s with the cultural/academic left that emerged out of the 1960s. I especially like this formulation: the difference between the two lefts is the difference between those who would read Thomas Geoghegan’s Which Side Are You On? and those who would turn to Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism. “After reading Geoghegan, you have views on some of the things which need to be done. After reading Jameson, you have views on practically everything except what needs to be done.”
Suzi Gablik, Conversations Before the End of Time (1995). This book took shape in the early 1990s, when the first President Bush was dropping bombs in the Middle East. Gablik, an artist and art critic, recognized an “apocalyptic strain in my own thinking,” due to her belief that it might already be too late to save the natural world from “ecocide.” What then is the role of the artist, the writer, the thinker? While seeking a “connective” aesthetics, she found her way to a book of deep conversations with artists, environmentalists, maverick psychotherapists such as James Hillman and Thomas Moore, as well as art activists such as the Guerrilla Girls. It remains a luminous book for these times not just because of the content of these conversations—but because it upholds the transformational power of dialogue. She recognizes that in today’s hyper-individualistic, tech-mediated culture we are in constant danger of losing our ability to comprehend the people outside our own bubble.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937). Whether you are religious or not, the calling Bonhoeffer sees for us is transcendent—yet, somehow, he always remains grounded. Of course, Trump’s “fascism”—if we’re willing to call it that—calls for a different type of resistance than what Bonhoeffer himself experienced. Nevertheless, given that Trump was propelled to the White House on the back, in part, of cheap Christian fundamentalism, Bonhoeffer’s 1937 work is fundamental. “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock,” he writes. “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner.”
Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (1973 edition). America won’t become a totalitarian state under Donald Trump, but the “crystalized elements” that Arendt identified as making fascism possible in her groundbreaking—albeit occasionally controversial—study are certainly present to a certain extent. Drawing too many parallels is a futile exercise, but Arendt’s calculus is at least instructive for assessing the rise of movements, such as the alt-right, beyond a shallow study. These fascistic movements that have been emboldened by Trump may have realized, too, that—as Arendt pointed out in her final revised chapter—the seeds of totalitarianism remain. Then, as is now, “the crisis of our time and its central experience have brought forth an entirely new form of government which as a potentiality and an ever-present danger is only too likely to stay with us from now on.”
Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) was a Jewish convert to Protestantism in Germany. Because he was married to an Aryan, he was able to avoid going to the camps, instead having the privilege of living in slum housing and being harassed by the Gestapo daily. He compiled two secret pieces of writing. His diary of events, the most important volume of which was published many years later as I Will Bear Witness, and the Lingua Tertii Imperii (published in English as Language of the Third Reich). This is a combination of memoir diary and as he called it a “philologist’s notebook.” He set himself to cataloguing all the ways the Nazis created their own language of dissimulation and deceit. He knew that a “crisis” meant the German Army had suffered a defeat, and that if someone received sonderbehandlung (special treatment) they had been murdered. It is both a record of how an authoritarian regime works, how to survive one, and how to keep one’s mind from being overwhelmed by the propaganda. “The poison is everwhere. It is borne by the drinking water of the LTI, nobody is immune to its effects.” Build some immunity now.
Saul Alinsky, the great twentieth century Chicago radical organizer, and his 1971 Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, are now chiefly infamous because of how they have been used on the right. Glenn Beck believed Alinsky was key to his conspiratorial image of the liberal-left world (the fact that Hillary Clinton wrote her undergraduate thesis on Alinsky and that Obama was also a Chicago community organizer did not help). Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks gave a copy to its employees and it helped guide the Tea Party. The left should reclaim this book. I do not recommend it as a bible, there are many problems with the book: it is too focused on confrontation and not enough on forms of cooperation, and it is too focused on the local to the exclusion of the larger picture. But as a stimulus to rigorous analytical thinking about how to effect change in the world, nothing can beat it. Read it, argue with it, and then do something.
George Eliot’s Middlemarch has no direct application, unlike the other two books I have recommended. While I agree with Jacob Silverman that fiction should not be used as some kind of manual, fiction is an excellent tool to think with. Middlemarch has a reputation as being a great novel because of its portrait of people and a community, but it is also a great novel of politics, of intellectual hubris, and of the manifold corruptions that attend power. Reading this book won’t teach you how to save the republic. It probably won’t teach you anything practical. But it will get you thinking and perhaps give you a little hope.