Verso authors pick their favorite books of the year
As 2021 wraps up we asked Verso authors to choose a book they read this year that made an impact on their thinking, brought them joy, or that they would simply whole-heartedly recommend.
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Enzo Traverso, author of Revolution: An Intellectual History:
In 2021, the anniversary of the Paris Commune gave rise to a wave of books in many languages. My preferred one – and my favorite reading of the year – is an original and beautiful dictionary edited by Michel Cordillot, La Commune de Paris 1981: Les acteurs, les événements, les lieux (Paris: Editions de l’Atelier, 2020). Bringing together dozens of contributions, this extraordinary book helps us to discover, far beyond the handful of canonized figures, a multitude of unknown and forgotten actors, and to contextualize and reassess a number of crucial events (from the birth of the Commune itself to the bloody week of its tragic defeat). In it we admire many portraits and photos, scrutinize several official documents; and we are guided through the labyrinth of the ideological, political, aesthetic, and literary currents that conducted and shaped this experience. Finally, we learn the history of the Commune memory and of its various historical interpretations across the last century and a half. Many commonplaces fall, most notably the vision of the Commune as a prefiguration of October 1917. The Commune involved all the currents of the left – socialists, anarchists, republicans, and radical democrats – and its actors did not feel themselves to be heroes or martyrs; they were ordinary people – laboring women and men, bohemian artists and writers – who had suddenly become subjects of history and taken their destiny into their own hands. Throughout its 1,438 pages, this book shows the incredible diversity, dazzling richness, and meaningful legacy of such an event. The opposite of a boring dictionary, Michel Cordillot’s book is neither a monument nor a cold archive – it is the living portrait of a revolution that still speaks to us.
Laurie Laybourn-Langton, co-author of Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown:
Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (Viking, 2021). The environmental crisis is not a problem of the last 5 or 50 years, but the last five hundred. You cannot understand the bind the world is now in without understanding the inseparable, exploitative histories of empire, capitalism, and environmental harm. Ten generations on from the advent of imperialism, its latest phase sees the barbarism of the gunboat and the slaver succeeded by that of the Category 5 cyclone and the Frontex patrol drone. So it is imperative that an appreciation of this history - in Britain of all places - forms part of mainstream politics. Empireland is one of the latest, greatest examples of the effort to do exactly this and Sanghera's recent companion documentary, Empire State of Mind, goes even further in popularising a relatable history of Britain's imperial past. While other books go deeper into the depths of the relationship between capitalism and empire, this book complements them by touching on different angles to broaden the appeal of facing a past that sears our present and future - and can productively become part of our politics.
Stella Dadzie, author of A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance:
Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur (Hurst, 2016). By weaving the story of her great-grandmother, who gave birth on a ship to Guyana in 1903, into the wider story of indentured women from India, the author unearths yet another hidden 'herstory'. She also shines a fierce light on Empire, and the myriad ways the lives of indentured women overlapped with those of the recently enslaved. To me, this is women's history at its zenith.
Geo Maher, author of A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete:
Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism by Harsha Walia (Haymarket, 2021). Longtime organizer and organic intellectual Harsha Walia has given us one of the best books ever written about borders, in part because it is about much more. Rather than see borders as mere things, Walia charts their dynamic formation as both producer and product of colonial-racial hierarchies, alerting us in the process to their role as a powerful fulcrum for global capital and generator of fascisms in the present. It's on my Spring syllabus.
Ewa Majewska, author of Feminist Antifascism: Counterpublics of the Common:
Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment by Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk (Routledge, 2021). I pick this book not because it is a pleasure to read it. Unfortunately, it is not a pleasure, and we find no consolation in it either, it is in many ways a very difficult book, although it also offers hope. The Authors confront us with the international networks of anti-gender activism across the globe, the networks which could be called "The fascist International", although the Authors of the book decided not to use the word fascism to depict them. Graff and Korolczuk guide us through statements, organizations, meetings And publications of today's right-wing movements, meticulously reconstructing their arguments, aims and tactics. This book proves necessary for any study of today's antifascism. It also shows the importance of feminist and queer perspectives in diagnosing, opposing and dismantling today's fascist politics. I am sure that this academic reconstruction and analysis of the right-wing will inspire and strengthen antifascist resistance. It will also constitute a relevant, contextualized answer to the constant efforts to marginalize feminist and queer thought and activism in antifascist politics. I am grateful to the Authors for the synthetic image they created of the politics that needs to be opposed. Their call for a leftist, feminist populism, is a necessary one. Knowing their academic and activist work for many years now, only makes my praise for their book stronger, as it testifies their genuine engagement in the making of feminist solidarity today. Thanx to their inspiring work we can move forward.
Kyle Lewis and Will Stronge, authors of Overtime: Why We Need A Shorter Working Week:
Despite tough competition, including Nunes' fantastic Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal, our pick for 2021 has to be Phil Jones' Work Without the Worker (Verso, 2021). Phil is really out on his own in this field and the book is as original as any we've read on the topic. There is such a scarcity of knowledge around microwork and how labour-saving technology often forges human material into 'supplement' labour. Refusing humanist or neo-Luddite stances towards work however, the spirit of Work Without the Worker urges us to consider the absurdity of labour within today's capitalism in general: the anatomy of the clickworker is key to the waged worker.
Gavin Mueller, author of Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job:
Value (What is Political Economy?) by Frederick Harry Pitts (Polity, 2021). "Value" is one of the most important concepts in economics, one that Marx deeply focused upon in his analysis of capitalist society. However there is a great deal of disagreement and confusion over the term, even among Marxists. In this handy book, Frederick Harry Pitts reconstructs debates over value within political economy, sociology, and critical theory, carefully weighing the analytical and political implications. Useful both as an introduction to value theory and as a reference for experts, Value is a book I anticipate coming back often as a teaching tool and as an aid for my own work.
Alexander R. Galloway, author of Uncomputable: Play and Politics in the Long Digital Age:
Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (Cambridge, MIT, 2021). I remember snickering when Chris Anderson announced "The End of Theory" in 2008. Writing in Wired magazine, Anderson claimed that the structure of knowledge had inverted. It wasn't that models and principles revealed the facts of the world, but the reverse, that the data of the world spoke their truth unassisted. Anderson's simple conclusion was that "correlation supersedes causation...correlation is enough." Wendy Chun's excellent new book shows the social and political shortcomings of a contemporary technical infrastructure built around correlation, including the algorithms driving social media, search, consumer tracking, AI, and many other things. As Chun argues, power today operates through likeness, similarity, and correlated identity ("homophily"). Tech bros hope that by ignoring difference they can overcome it. Yet for Chun the attempt to find an unmarked category of subjectivity will necessarily erase and exclude those structurally denied access to the universal. Correlation isn't enough. It ratifies the past rather than reimagining the present. Chun ends with an eloquent call to acknowledge "a world that resonates with and in difference."
Stuart Jeffries, author of Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern:
Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Allen Lane, 2021; W. W. Norton, 2022 in the US). Like a Balkan Jojo Rabbit, little Lea Ypi was as a kid in thrall to an evil dictator. In this memoir of her Albanian childhood, she recalls hugging the legs of statue of Stalin, only to look up and see that rioters had chopped off beloved Uncle Joe’s head. The rest of this brilliantly observed, politically nuanced and – best of all – funny book tells the story of how she disabused herself of her faith in Stalinist Communism, as well as the heretical Albanian version of Marx propagated by Enver Hoxha, as her homeland dreamed of becoming as “free” and consumerist as western Europe before collapsing during the late 1990s into gangsterdom. There’s a tremendous sense of Albanian secrets and lies coming to the surface, not least of all when she realises her Islamic heritage long suppressed under state socialism, and her parents’ ancestral links to pre-socialist Albanian movers and shakers. What’s especially appealing about the book, written by a professor who now teaches Marx at the London School of Economics. is how she is neither seduced by ostalgie for a time before the consumer society nor by the likes of Francis Fukuyama, who took the end of the cold war to argue that western liberalism, with all its materialist delusions and hubis, represents the realisation of what it is to be free. Professor Ypi is too savvy to get fooled again.
David McDermott Hughes, author of Who Owns the Wind? Climate Crisis and the Hope of Renewable Energy:
Andreas Malm’s new book How to Blow up a Pipeline (Verso, 2021) really rocked my world this year. The case for environmentalist, anti-industrial sabotage has been made before, of course. Edward Abbey stands out in that regard. Somehow, environmentalists have lost that hard edge, first succumbing to legality and then coming positively to value it. Malm explains this history of movements in a way that – to my mind – amply justifies the destruction of property in the fossil fuel sector. He’s caused me to rethink my own forms of activism. I’ve even added the book – mid-semester – to my course on energy and culture.
Mark Neocleous, author of A Critical Theory of Police Power: The Fabrication of the Social Order:
The book that has stayed with me most from 2021 was Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System by Christopher Chitty (Duke University Press, 2020). Chitty elaborates the history of sodomy in Europe and the plethora of police powers ranged against it. Much of the detail was fascinating, for example the 'Officers of the Night' established in Florence in the late-fifteenth century for the express purpose of prosecuting male homosexuality. But as well as powerfully documenting the history of sexual hegemony, Chitty develops a queer realism in conjunction with an open Marxism that enables him to read the policing of sodomy in terms of shifting class relations, and thus the very category of homosexuality as a category of bourgeois society. And as a kind of Marxist 'history of sexuality', one of the provocative undercurrents in the book is a nuanced rethinking of Foucault's relation to Marx and Marxism. The book is also radically incomplete, in that it was unfinished before Chitty's suicide - the final published version was put together by his friends from various notes and draft chapters. This gives the book a remarkable intellectual openness, though one somewhat overshadowed by the loss of a such a sharp thinker.
Mitchell Dean, author of The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution:
The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History by Jamie Mackay (Verso, 2021). Compulsory reading for first-time visitors and those who think they know the island – no, continent – at the centre of the Mediterranean.
Mark McGurl, author of Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon:
2021 was the year I found time to read Martin Hägglund’s masterwork of existential and political philosophy This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019). I found it a profoundly orienting and inspiring book, defusing at least for a moment my usual impulses toward darkly comic despair. Whether we will find a way to act upon its insights is another matter, but one can at least hope that Hägglund’s relentlessly rigorous arguments for democratic socialism will someday win out. It is a book built to last as long as that might take.
Andreas Malm, author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire and co-author of White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism:
In this historical moment, the best novel of the year is always written by an Arab. Or so it seems to me. In 2019, it was The Parisian by Isabella Hammad; in 2020, Minor Detail by Adiana Shibli; this year, it is What Strange Paradise: A novel by Omar El Akkad (Knopf, 2021), a tale about a Syrian boy who finds himself on an overcrowded refugee boat in that liquid graveyard we know as the Mediterranean. A girl receives him on an unnamed island. With propulsive force and an exquisite symmetrical structure, What Strange Paradise pulls the reader to the incandescent point where two lines meet. I have revenge fantasies about forcing every Priti Patel and Jimmie Åkesson of this continent into a dark cellar, where they will have to listen to the audio version of this novel blaring out of loudspeakers. If there is a smidge of humanity left in them, they should stagger into the light.
But the novel that made the greatest impact on me this year is written by a Jew, more precisely a Soviet Jew: Vasily Grossman. I read Life and Fate some time ago and only now corked up the prequel, Stalingrad (NYRB Classics, 2019) which does not express the same committed anti-Stalinism; to the contrary, this is a bottle of anti-fascist Stalinism vintage 1943. Worst of all is a section of Stakhanovite panegyrics to work in the coal mines. Even so, it’s impossible not to surrender, devour, gulp down, get intoxicated. Will literature with something approaching the grandeur of this ever be written again? The power of the prose, the animation of the characters, the intensity of the horror and endurance, the swarm of socialist humanity on the march – all of this makes Grossman fly higher than any other twentieth-century novelist I have read. I mourn the end of Stalingrad like the passing of a close friend. If I can keep them in a cellar for a long night, I would play this one too: a reminder of how things can end.
Katherine Angel, author of Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent:
This year I loved reading Deborah Levy’s Real Estate: A Living Autobiography (Bloomsbury, 2021), a meditation on women, property, and age – on what we own and bequeath -- in Levy’s lovely, conversational prose. Olivia Laing’s Everybody was fascinating and gorgeous. Three books circling power, violence, and sex that I loved reading were Jacqueline Rose’s On Violence and On Violence Against Women, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right To Sex, and Alexandra Brodsky’s Sexual Justice: Supporting Victims, Ensuring Due Process, and Resisting the Conservative Backlash. Camille Kouchner’s La Familia Grande, about abuse in the elite of French society, was a gut-punch. I adored Mattilda B Sycamore’s The Freezer Door: the book really lives out questions about identity and community that so often surface as mere questions. Nick Blackburn’s The Reactor (out in 2022), about grief, nuclear reactors, and psychoanalysis, is mesmerising. And Samuel Fisher’s novel Wivenhoe (also out in 2022) got my heart racing on the first page: it's eerie and beautiful.
Mathew Lawrence, co-author of Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown:
When Ever Green blocked the Suez Canal, it was the ship that launched a thousand memes. In Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (Verso, 2021), Laleh Khalili traces how shipping is central to the fabric of global capitalism - and the interconnection of Anglo-American imperialism and Gulf autocracies in the construction of the maritime economy.
As the pandemic further consolidates lethal border regimes, Harsha Walia's account of the migration crisis and function of borders traces their root: instead showing them to be the inevitable outcomes of conquest, capitalist globalization, and climate change generating mass dispossession worldwide.
Last year, I was blown away by Greg Grandin's The End of the Myth, tracing the constitutive role violence has played in the formation of America's continental empire. In Our History is the Future, Nick Estes - advocate of the Red Deal - beautifully explores the traditions of Indigenous resistance to that long violence.
Amber Husain's debut, Replace Me, is at once a razor-sharp and wide-ranging critique of the physic harm of neoliberalism and a powerful affirmation of the potential for political transformation in an age of replaceability. White Skin, Black Fuel is an extraordinary contribution from the Zetkin Collective.
Ranging from the autobahns of the Third Reich to the contemporary far-Right's evolving climate politics, it dazzlingly traces the deep and entwined connection between fossil capital and fascism. At once a warning and a guide, it shows the constellation of forces that ecosocialist movements must overcome. Not strictly a book of this year, but Dan Georgakas, author of, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, recently passed away. The book is a genuine must-read.
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