Issue 184 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published Marrch 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

My favourite books
Sheila Whitaker
Sheila Whitaker works in films and is the director of the London Film Festival

For anyone to choose a few out of the whole range of books which have influenced so many of us seems to me an impossible task.

Out of the writings of Noam Chomsky, RD Laing, Herbert Marcuse, Roland Barthes, Raymond Williams, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller (to mention only a few)--how to choose those few books which really stand above them all? How to choose one influence amongst the many thousands that affect us all throughout our lifetimes?

Ultimately, since prevarication could no longer prevail, I came down to books which had a profound impact on me at the time I first read them over and above all others.

The first such book was Thy Tears Might Cease by Michael Farrell, of which, since 1963 when I read it on publication, I have not read a page. But the memory of the impact of the story of an orphan, Martin Matthew Reilly, and the loves and gradual division of Catholic and Protestant Irish gentry during the period 1910-1920, the Irish rebellion and Reilly's inevitable politicisation has always stayed with me. I fear that if I reread this book today I might be more aware of a broad streak of romanticism that would subvert its overwhelming impact but suffice that it woke one reader out of her ignorance of the land across the water.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I read in 1966, similarly awoke me and I then dipped into it again when Spike Lee's indulgent and self important movie came out. Politics, as we all know, is a dirty and cynical business, and yet here was a man who perhaps contributed more to the self awareness and self pride of black Americans than few, before or since, have achieved. His personal journey struck so many chords: the overwhelmingly powerful story of being black told in the simple terms of being human. And the extraordinary story of his process of self education moves from an almost inevitable hatred of white people to an understanding of the common humanity of all peoples of the world.

Two other books are novels by women--The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and Beloved by Toni Morrison. The former was a milestone in women's writing, having an overt political agenda not only in its accepted sense but, importantly, in sexual politics. The latter, of course, is usually described pejoratively as 'feminism'. In itself this term is not a problem except that it reduces sexual politics to a partisan female crusade. Whereas, of course, it is a strand of politics in which men and women should be involved and stand to gain through change.

The second book is, undoubtedly, one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. On reading it I became aware of how every one of her previous novels, all so different and devoured by me on publication, was another step on the path to this literary milestone. Its subject matter, so movingly and poignantly conveyed through a prose that one cannot imagine ever being exceeded in precision and power, and its rendition of the black slave language which irresistibly draws the reader into its world, is both a testament to black history and an irrefutable political message.

Perhaps one last title, The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe, in which his prose, wit, knowledge and intelligence expose the phoniness and intellectual bankruptcy of the postwar art world in New York, and, by extension, so much modern art and its critics throughout the Western world. Without a wasted word, Wolfe demolishes the intellectual deceit, snobbery and self aggrandisement that characterise such circles and leaves many an emperor clearly visible as having no clothes.

And one day I will have to reread Milton's Paradise Lost and The Odyssey and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.


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