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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Books to keep us going through lockdown

First, some fiction:

The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne's marvellous expose of Puritan society in 17th century New England (1850). One of those wonderful 19th century novels that draws you into another world.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. This early twentieth century Russian's masterpiece (1924) deserves a wider readership. Set in a dystopian future of an authoritarian state; Zamyatin himself lived under both Tsarism (when he abandoned Christianity, his father was an Orthodox priest, and embraced Bolshevism) and Marxist-Leninism (when he abandoned Bolshevism). He died in 1937 in poverty in Paris. The book is said to have inspired George Orwell's 1984. It isn't a 'casual' read but it is an interesting one.

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong is set in Mongolia in the 1970s and tells of one man's relationship with a wolf. It is semi autobiographical as Rong was sent from Beijing to Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. There is much of the culture and folklore of the Mongols which is contrasted with that of the Chinese. You can read into it much of the modern politics of China. The book has come in for much criticism both in China and outside. yet many regard it as a masterpiece. Best thing to do is to approach it in a spirit of enquiry and draw your own conclusions.


There is a plethora of books being published both here and in The States on the current political situation. Most of these books are so fresh off the press discussing current events that perhaps by necessity they are all to some degree or more polemical. However, to push one's own thinking forward they are worth a read:-

Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum (mentioned by me before but worth repeating)

A less satisfactory volume, based on lectures previously given is Michael Burleigh's Populism. Burleigh is a first rate academic at The LSE (author of the acclaimed The Third Reich), and perhaps in that context he might have thought twice before publishing this volume; yet it is thought provoking in many places and worth a read. You don't have to agree with him, I didn't all the time. I hope he will write a more considered book at some stage.

How Britain Ends by Gavin Esler is an historical analysis of English nationalism and the possible break-up which we face of The United Kingdom. Many will know of Esler from BBC television journalism, and as such the book is well written, and eminently readable. It is quite a personal tour and not an academic history, but none the worse for that - one could describe it as an expanded (348 pages) journalistic piece for a serious Sunday newspaper. There is, however, an excellent short bibliography.

Populism by Mudde & Kaltwasser in the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series. This is the most academic and serious book of those I have listed, and as such a balance to the others.

Finally, another short polemic, published on 4th February. It is significant I think that there are so many similar polemics being written about the current state of democracy in Britain and America (or at least Trump America). The Assault on Truth by Peter Oborne, the right of centre journalist and writer. Oborne spares neither Johnson nor Trump as he seeks to expose the lack of integrity within these Governments. It is particularly interesting because by no means is Oborne left of centre or even centre, in fact he has previously written concerning what he thought was the lack of integrity in the Blair Government. In short, he believes lack of integrity and accountability is a canker at the core of most modern liberal democratic states.


For those missing their overseas holidays, how about these histories

Switzerland - A Village History by David Birmingham. The focus is on an alpine village, but through its history the history of Switzerland itself is revealed.

Savage Frontier by Matthew Carr. A history of the Pyrenees. So interesting, I took lots of notes when reading it as I had so much to learn.

Lauragais by Colin Duncan Taylor. How could anyone resist a book which carries as a banner across the front cover the words, 'Steeped in history, soaked in blood'? Not me, that's for sure.

The area lies between Toulouse and Carcassonne. There is so much history here, not just 'local' history as such but wider history too, The Black Prince, the Duke of Wellington and many more 'names'. It is also a very personal account by the author, which is in itself charming, thus more of an enthusiastic memoir than an academic history, although the history is sound and fascinating. A lovely book.

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