To Read Is to Resist: An Annotated Reading List in the Age of Trump
It is sometimes necessary to unplug, to turn off push notifications, to find space to think, to feel, to reflect, and to grow. Reading books can be nourishing, powerful, even essential.
Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny brings into focus a line of inquiry, a pursuit of context and understanding that the current political moment demands.
Snyder, a Yale historian whose academic focus includes the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century, provides a concise primer that synthesizes key insights from these historical developments into practical lessons, that is things we can do.
Perhaps not surprisingly, reading books — not screens — is a crucial prescription.
Snyder begins to address the question of what to read: “Any good novel enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others.” He goes on to recommend titles ranging from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which “offers an account of tyranny and resistance”), to the Bible.
I think, then, it makes sense to begin my reading list with Snyder. From there I have organized titles alphabetically by author. The year published for each work links to Goodreads.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Timothy Snyder, 2017)
This short work from Yale historian, Timothy Snyder, can be read in an afternoon. Snyder seeks to synthesize lessons from the history of 20th century authoritarianism. The book is organized into twenty lessons, framed in simple language in the imperative verb tense.
Some of these lessons are chilling: “12. Make eye contact and small talk.” or “13. Practice corporeal politics” — as in, stop clicking. Go outside:
“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.”
It is from lesson 9: “Be kind to our language” that I take my premise, that to read is to #resist. Reading and history are context, and the natural human impulse of curiosity, the thirst for understanding, is important in dark times.
Beyond the general prescription to read, Snyder credits certain political and historical texts that inform his argument:
“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (1946); The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer (1947); The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1951); The Rebel by Albert Camus (1951); The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953); “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel (1978); “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” by Leszek Kołakowski (1978); The Uses of Adversity by Timothy Garton Ash (1989); The Burden of Responsibility by Tony Judt (1998); Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning (1992); and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (2014).
“10. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Antigone (Sophocles, 441 BCE / Jean Anouilh, 1944)
A tale of tyranny (and misogyny) at the birthplace of democracy, and Sophocles’ memorable heroine who has continued to inspire courage and resistance throughout the ages.
Anouilh’s take on this ancient story is a particularly striking example: the play was initially produced in Nazi-occupied Paris. It is both an existential response to Hitler’s fascism, and a commentary on the French Resistance.
Both Antigone’s courage and the discussion of what principled rule should be resonate these millennia later.
The Origins of Totalitarianism (Hannah Arendt, 1951)
I have to read Arendt with a pen. This is close reading, not page turning. Her ideas come up over and over in these discussions. But this is about the furthest thing from a beach read. I am slowly working my way through, and considering this work essential reference material.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari, 2011)
The work of Israeli historian, Yuval Harari, takes a sweeping view of our species, focusing on three moments of rapid change: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution.
He argues that the key to our species’ success harkens back to (what we suppose to be) a genetic mutation that resulted in homo sapiens’ capacity for language — language that is immensely more supple than any other species. This capacity has enabled us to work together in communities much bigger than those of say, chimpanzees.
Our species’ achievement depends on our ability not just to describe our objective reality, but to tell useful fictions that allow us to collaborate on a massive scale. These fictions include not just ancient mythologies and religions, but ideologies like the idea of the nation as imagined community, or human rights, as well as legal fictions.
History moves us beyond biological determinism.
Language, as we learn in Orwell, is a powerful political tool. Snyder concurs. One of his twenty lessons from his study of tyranny in the 20th century is to “Be kind to our language.” Harari goes back further, and establishes the centrality of language to the species.
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 (Adam Hochschild, 2016)
A gripping account of courage and conviction in the face of fascism and injustice, that transcends the traditional boundaries of nationalism. And a heartbreaking historical narrative of what happens when freedom and democracy lose to authoritarianism.
There is nothing inevitable about history.
George Orwell (as well as Ernest Hemingway) looms large in this historical narrative. Orwell’s experiences in Spain; voluntarily enlisting to fight alongside the anarchists, seeing Stalin exercise more and more control in the Republic, and ultimately seeing the communists turn their weapons on their comrades, the anarchists, in the streets of Barcelona powerfully shaped his political consciousness. His deep skepticism of totalitarianism, both fascist and communist, takes root in this moment.
Hochschild suggests that perhaps the best epitaph for the international brigades in Spain might be from a letter written by a 23-year-old to his mother, some months before he was killed in combat. The young man wrote that if he had not come to Spain, he would forever afterward have asked himself,
“Why didn’t I wake up when the alarm-clock rang?”
Democracy (Papadatos, Kawa, Di Donna, 2015)
This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is a fast read. Historical fiction that dramatizes the arduous birth of democracy, and the persistent threat of tyranny — a word that comes to our language from the ancient Greek. This work brings us into a key moment in the development of our civilization, a moment that resonates now as much as ever. There is nothing inevitable about history.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Ibram X. Kendi, 2016)
The National Book Award winner for nonfiction in 2016, this lucid and enlightening work brings perspective to the persistent questions of racism in America.
Kendi, a professor of history at the University of Florida, argues that racist ideas spring from racist practices, and not the other way around. There have always been three sides to the question: segregationism, assimilationism, and anti-racism. Understanding any given moment is a matter of understanding the relationship between these three shifting perspectives.
“Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” — Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram Kendi dispels popular myths, many of which have gained a resurgence after the election of Donald Trump. By engaging the evolution of racist ideas in context, Kendi provides a framework for moving beyond the grade-school basics, the sanitized MLK, and what Robin Di Angelo calls the “racist=bad” dichotomy — which underpins white fragility. Kendi does all this with an elegant simplicity in his prose that makes it hard to put the book down.
While knee-deep in this book, I caught Jamelle Bouie’s discussion with Dr. Kendi on the Trumpcast podcast, which addresses the explicit racism of the alt-right, the Muslim ban, and of course, the current president of the United States.
1984 (George Orwell, 1949)
Orwell’s prescient novel has shot up to the top of the Amazon best-seller list after the election of Trump. I have not reread this book in #2017, although it is one of my favorite books of all time and I have reread it multiple times over the years.
I did listen to a brilliant conversation on rereading the work in 2017 on one of my favorite podcasts, Slate’s Culture Gabfest.
One of the most striking insights from that discussion of this work is the sense to which the development of human consciousness, and freedom, starves for interiority, aloneness. The Party in 1984 understands this, and looks suspiciously on its citizens spending time apart from carefully regimented activities and screen-time. For Winston, interiority becomes key to the development of thought, and ultimately resistance.
This idea is consonant with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as the play’s fulfillment is ultimately earned through the soliloquies.
“Post-truth is pre-fascism” — Timothy Snyder
Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders, 2017)
A bold experiment in fiction and form from the lauded George Saunders, in which newspaper clippings, letters, journals and artifacts, both actual and invented, are juxtaposed with a fictitious discussion between post-death souls in a kind of holding pattern (see the Tibetan Buddhist concept of bardo.) These souls are able to see into the consciousness of the man considered to be our greatest president, in one dark night after experiencing the great loss of his 11-year-old son. A truly beautiful rendering which affirms our greatest ideals. Compassion. Resolution. Justice.
The climactic progression of logic and pathos is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.
Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 1600)
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Shakespeare’s greatest protagonist is forced inward to confront the full implications of the corruption, the treachery, the lechery of the new regime — and ultimately, to act.
The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
In the epilogue to On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder rightly claims that our own time is out of joint. Harold Bloom, an authority on Shakespeare, argues that Hamlet is the invention of modern consciousness. If authoritarianism is psychological and corporeal violence that ultimately aims to radically reshape human nature, diving into this play takes us back to the source, and reminds us of our capability of logic and careful parsing, reason, reflection, and agency.
What titles would you add to this list?
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