A List of Books That’ll Help You Narrow the Empathy Gap and Inspire You to Fight the Tighty-Righty-Whities
I find myself growing more and more furious by the day. I know, right? You feel the same way. FUUUUUCK! What are we gonna do? How can we keep our energy-levels up? Being this angry, trying to remain active, trying to resist the overtly monstrous administration of the Loofa-Faced Shit Gibbon, and working to support others as they fight for their own rights can be exhausting as fuck. I’ve faced a number of mornings lately that have made me feel so knackered that I’ve wondered how I’d have enough energy to face the rest of the day.
What can you do? I mean, we’ve been through only one month with this administration full of Tighty-Righty-Whities. I don’t have time to rest, and neither do you. Real people face threats to their freedoms, their rights, and their lives, after all. BUT — you will certainly need inspiration from time to time, right? You’ll need to find ways to re-charge your batteries so that you can continue to connect with allies and have enough gamma radiation to smash the racist, constitution-hating, authoritarian fucks.
I have always found solace and inspiration in reading the kinds of books that helped me to empathize with those who’ve experienced a life different from the overprotected, middle-class, white bullshittery that I grew up with. I mean, reading recharges the goddamn batteries while providing the added benefit of exposing you to new ideas and allowing you access to lives that often differ drastically from your own. So, I made a list of books that have not only inspired me to fight the trollish pasty-faced, self-rimming assholes of the world but also to believe that fighting against those trollish assholes remains a worthwhile pursuit, that it’s a fight we can — and must — win.
I know what you’re thinking. Sure, a lot of people are making book lists right now. That’s great. Yay lists! Read those lists. That’s fine. When you’re done looking through those lists, come back and read these TEN books. Novels and memoirs work as empathy machines. They can teach you how other people think and feel. So, read these, and then send them to those conservative friends (you know the ones) who are NOT totally beyond redemption, the ones who can question themselves without drowning in a pool of their own pathetic white-boy tears.
Written by Ralph Ellison
What can I say? Invisible Man’s a game-changer. It tracks the epic wanderings of a young African-American man seeking autonomy and identity in pre-civil rights era America. Read it, take it seriously, live with its protagonist for a while, and you’ll emerge a different person. It’s as simple as that. Ellison taught me a valuable lesson about the struggle for democracy. He taught me that if you’re simply aiming to score a private victory, to find a place where you can rest and hide from the horrors of the world, then you’re FUCKING DOING IT WRONG! Fighting for equality and democracy requires a difficult balancing-act, a lifelong struggle, yo. You can’t escape. Life allows neither easy paths nor easy answers. Ellison says it a bit more eloquently, of course. When he says it, it sounds more like this:
I sell you no phony forgiveness, I’m a desperate man — but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Written and Drawn by Allison Bechdel
You’ll hear a lot of people say that Fun Home was the best graphic novel of 2006. I’ll go a step further. That year saw the publication of such critically-acclaimed novels as David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and important non-fiction pieces like Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but Bechdel’s Fun Home was the best book published in English in 2006 (end-fucking-stop. That’s right. Suck it, McCarthy. I know you’re a great writer, but in 2006, Bechdel owned you.) An examination of her own blossoming sexuality and her struggle to come out to her parents, Bechdel’s memoir also provides us with the contrasting story of Alison’s father and his deeply closeted life as a gay man in the 1970s and 80s. Of course, the book’s smart, clever, and literate. I could say the same thing about any number of ‘great books,’ but Fun Home makes you feel every success, every loss, every tragedy, and every hope experienced by its characters. That’s a claim I’d make about very few books, and I read like a motherfucker, so there. Don’t take my word on it, though. Listen to how Bechdel’s narrator explains the troubles faced by those who can neither deal with their sexual longings nor have those longings acknowledged by so-called ‘decent’ society:
I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.
When you shame someone for his/her consensually-realized sexual desires, you’re shaming the basic life-seeking, life-affirming instinct that drives the human race. So, if you fear or hate someone’s sexual desires, (a) don’t fuck them and (b) consider fucking yourself.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Written by Mohsin Hamid
Published in 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told by and about Changez, a Pakastani man who meets a suspiciously quiet American visitor on the streets of Lahore. Changez spends a long afternoon describing his time as an immigrant and a student in the United States to this visitor. Hamid depicts Changez as a thoughtful westernizing Muslim who suffers mistreatment by the paranoid white culture that springs up in post-9/11 America. We hear of how Changez’s love affair with a brilliant fellow Princeton Student turns ugly. The Reluctant Fundamentalist never takes the easy way out. Is Changez dangerous? Is the American visitor an assassin sent to eliminate ‘Islamic Radicals?’ You’ll have to read the damn book to find out, but Hamid makes one thing very clear: no one acts in a void. When humans interact with each other or with communities they form relationships, for good or for ill. For Hamid, any relationship breaks you, any interaction changes you (see what i did there?). But Changez says it best when he explains:
Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us.
Being changed or thrown off-course by others can feel humiliating, sometimes even horrifying, but it also has the potential to be powerful, transformative, and enlightening. Hamid knows this, and by the novel’s conclusion, you can feel the truth of it deep down in your bones.
The Left Hand of Darkness
Written by Ursula K. Le Guin
A word of caution about this one: Don’t read The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) if you’re frightened by the thought of having all of your views about the world and humanity shaken. Chicken-shits aren’t gonna finish this one. Ursula K. Le Guin is a brain-breaking badass, and for my money, The Left Hand of Darkness is her finest achievement (Yeah, come at me Earthsea peeps.) The book begins when a Terran envoy named Genly AI is sent to invite the world of Gethen to join a growing federation of planets. The one problem: The individuals of Gethen don’t experience gender the way that we do. The ‘ambisexual’ Gethens change genders throughout their lives. As a result, they comprehend the needs and desires of others far more deeply than we do. The novel allows you to see how our inflexible boundaries concerning gender and sexuality limit our capacity to engage with and understand difference. It’s also a spectacularly imaginative adventure story. In the end, The Left Hand of Darkness forces us to confront the limitations placed on us by nearly all our boundaries, including the literal ones that divide nations. When faced with the problem of hate and war, the character Estraven asks:
What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one musn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession…Insofar as I love life, I love [my country], but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.
Yes, that! Breaking down your walls and rebuilding yourself because you’ve been exposed to another culture can teach you a lot about your limitations. BUT Even if you can’t go somewhere and experience a new or different culture, you can still read Le Guin’s goddamn book. Then you’ll get the picture.
Written by Zadie Smith
2000 feels like it was the last year that people seemed mostly sane to me. Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, came out that year, and it’s a funny, sad, provocative, and insightful multi-generational masterpiece about negotiating identity in the multi-ethnic city of contemporary London. The novel tells the interlocking stories of the Iqbal family, whose father is Bengali Muslim, and the Jones’s, a multi-racial family whose father is a white working-class Brit. The families, plagued on the one side by racial prejudice and white-liberal condescension and on the other by religious extremism and poverty, face a tremendously fucked-up world. Like Ellison, Smith denounces and defends, hates and loves the culture that her novel depicts. BUT, her narrator’s voice remains so compelling, so funny, so confident, and so earnest that she speaks for and to anyone who is wise enough to listen. The narrative voice sounds fantastic throughout, and in one of her most perfect moments, she explains:
We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.
Fucking’ A on that. She’s right. Truer words were never spoken.
The Bluest Eye
Written by Toni Morrison
First off, no-fucking-body writes with as much tenacious sympathy and sensitivity as Morrison. The Bluest Eye published in 1970, is Morrison’s first novel, and i love the shit out of it. It’s complex, for sure. The novel centers on Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl who has already suffered more trauma than anyone deserves by the time the book starts. Pecola’s skin is exceptionally dark, and when she comes to live with the McTeer family as the novel commences, she finds herself mocked by many in the community. As a result, she develops an impossible, all-consuming passion to be be seen as beautiful by the standards of her day. In the time and place where Pecola lives, of course, beauty is defined by its proximity to whiteness, by its blonde hair, by its blue eyes. Like all of Morrison’s work, The Bluest Eye is not a book for the faint of heart. For many of us, the troubles faced by Pecola might feel unspeakably horrific — but that’s exactly why we have to be shown them, why we must see them. Culture teaches us to recognize and limit what counts as beauty, and it’s about damn time that we expand the fucking definition. Morrison showed me that there should never be a single standard for judging others. People are just too damned complex. There is unfathomable beauty in what mainstream culture finds ugly and appalling ugliness in what the mainstream finds beautiful. The novel’s narrator, Claudia McTeer, explains it this way:
She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.
ALSO, wimpy conservative whiney-holes are scared shitless by The Bluest Eye. It’s a book about self-loathing, racism, incest, and rape, SO it’s consistently on the ALA’s list of novels that book-burning douche-waffles want removed from your local library. It’s worth reading for that reason alone.
Written by Kurt Vonnegut
I have loved Kurt Vonnegut since the moment I first picked up Breakfast of Champions in the 1990s. Mother Night (1961) reads unlike Vonnegut’s other books, though. But what it lacks in humor, it makes up for in pathos and insight. As the confession of Howard W. Campbell Jr., Mother Night criticizes our willingness to use wholly unethical means to achieve what we consider to be just ends. Campbell professes to be an American spy working in Germany. We witness his rise within the Nazi propaganda machine of the 30s and 40s, and then we see him fall. We see him confuse his mission and his identity. The book delivers an unflinching rebuke of those who stand by while others are brutalized. Mother Night also suggests that whatever side you’re on, you’re responsible for the lives of your enemies as well as your friends. If you embrace hate and violence for long enough — even if you tell yourself that you’re working to undermine them — you become a violent, grotesque, human shit-stain. OK, I’ll admit that Campbell’s way of cautioning us sounds a little better. He warns:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
So, POTUS, just to be clear: if you pretend to be a white supremacist just to win the favor of that particular voting block, you’re a goddamn white supremacist.
Written by Margaret Atwood
I almost didn’t include this novel on my list because — much like Orwell’s 1984 — The Handmaid’s Tale is on most everyone’s list these days. It belongs there. Where Orwell’s novel is certainly brilliant, Atwood’s gives us fully realized characters rather than vague allegories. (Yeah, whatever Orwell people! You have your place in history already, and 1984 gets co-opted by the right and their crusade against that beast they call “political correctness” but that you and I refer to as “not being a slug-fucking, insensitive, white asshole.”) Atwood’s dystopia is religious, of course. The protagonist, Offred, lives in a world where a militant group of right-wing religious fanatics has overthrown the American government. The Republic of Gilead that follows eliminates women’s rights, criminalizes reading, and converts most healthy women into servants known as “handmaids” whose sole purpose in life is to reproduce offspring for the ruling class. I know! WHAT IN THE ACTUAL FUCK, right? Leaving aside the fact that Atwood can write circles around almost all of her peers, The Handmaid’s Tale grows more important by the year simply because it seems less far-fetched today than it did when it was published back in 1985! (I know! What the fuck, again!?) For me, the real horror of the novel comes from watching the cynicism of the so-called fanatics, who — like that bag-of-zombie dicks that calls itself the alt-right — know that their actions are actually morally bankrupt. Even the fanatics don’t really see what their doing as righteous. In one of his calmer moments, the Commander who keeps Offred as one of his “handmaids” explains that despite the fact that the Republic of Gilead says it’s making a better, purer world:
Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.
That’s right, folks. The true believers care more about power than purity. They always have and always will. (Also, purity is probably of the most overrated, easily abused concept ever. Let’s get rid of it, shall we?)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Written by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Right after I finished college, a friend of mine bought a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Spike Lee’s film had just come out, and I thought that my friend was simply trying to look hip, but i picked up the book, and I started reading. While my defensive white boy self disagreed with Malcolm X on several points, I had to admit that he seemed right about the ugly shit-storm that is the history of race relations in the United States. Let me be clear and honest, though. I am not the intended audience of this book, and I don’t want to appropriate or soften its message. SURE, The Autobiography, written with Alex Haley’s cautious, guiding hand, provides the story of a search for identity in our modern, oppressive world. BUT Malcolm X speaks about that issue with a practicality, a clarity, and an urgency that’s never clouded by platitudes or by heady idealism. For him, an African-American must struggle for identity. If you are to be your own person, you must work at it. That means, You can’t simply accept the condescending hand of those above you on the social ladder. If you do, you’re just aiding their sense of self and you’re not really building your own. Malcolm doesn’t like white liberals anymore than he likes white racists. In fact, he refuses to accept the vocabulary of identity or of right and wrong offered to him by white culture. He resists. He builds himself brick by brick. Most importantly, Malcolm X gets angry as fuck when he sees that the decks are so clearly stacked against the disempowered. I think that kind of anger — the anger that motivates you to stand up, to disagree, and to put yourself on the line — is precisely the kind of anger that the left needs right now. He explains it like this:
I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.
Thanks for that, Malcolm. You’re right, and you opened my eyes.
V for Vendetta
Written by Alan Moore, Art by David Lloyd
V for Vendetta (originally published between 1982–1985) might seem like an odd addition to this list, but just hold on a damn second there, smart ass. Alan Moore wrote superhero comics for DC for years, right? Why would a particularly violent superhero comic be on the list? First off, Moore has a kind of disdain for the genre that makes his writing far more critical of heroism than that of his peers. Secondly, like The Handmaid’s Tale, V for Vendetta explores a dystopian future where fears provoked by religious intolerance and xenophobic opposition to immigration rule the day. Does that sound fucking familiar to you, now? Moore’s writing has always seemed shrewd to me, and in V he interrogates the problem of a repressive regime with a mixture of unyielding scrutiny and humane sympathy. BUT you wanna know what makes the book even more powerful? Alan Moore understands that violent revolutionaries don’t always fit into the civil societies that they are working to build. Those founders who broke ground, who spilled a lot of blood don’t always belong in the building they helped to construct. Why? A civil society really must abhor violence and hatred. After a revolution, you don’t go backwards. You go forwards! In the end, V for Vendetta gives its readers hope that the fight against fascist wankmasters can and will go on, that those who want a more humane world won’t ever give up, that we can’t be eliminated. The character of V puts it succinctly when he asks:
Did you think to kill me? There’s no flesh and blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.
Fuck yeah! Keep the ideas alive. Keep fighting. Never give in. While you’re at it, keep reading, too. Oh, and don’t forget to send some of those mind-bending books to any conservative friends you might have. They might struggle and fight against the stories and ideas at first, but Alan Moore is right. Ideas are bulletproof.
STILL HERE? OK. I’ll leave you with one last quote to ponder. This one’s not from a memoirist or a novelist. It’s from a famous, time-traveling Doctor:
You want weapons? … Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!