Reading Material

Introducing the Jacobin books section.

Illustration by Daniel Haskett
Illustration by Daniel Haskett

In a notebook he kept while imprisoned in the late 1960s, Régis Debray recorded a scene from Che Guevara’s final ill-fated mission in Bolivia. The authorities had arrested the young philosopher as an accomplice to the guerrillas — something he denied, never very plausibly. That is how his oeuvre came to include a volume called Prison Writings.

Comandante Che, known to his troops as Ramón, carried “a whole library on his back,” writes Debray, “which his comrades gradually managed to insist on sharing, to lighten his load.” They probably regretted doing so soon enough. Books were “a fearful load when added to the ammunition clips, the bags of rice and sugar, the bottle of oil, and so on.” Marching through the jungle day after day could only make the difference between a luxury and a necessity feel keener. No doubt the men were tempted to “lose” a few books along the way.

When the guerrillas set up camp, Debray writes, he would find Guevara “sitting on his hammock, with a book on economics in his hand, teeth clenched, fighting the heat, the mosquitoes, the torpor of mind and body, after several days with no more than his morning’s black coffee, reading and re-reading words he could not take in, but refusing to admit defeat.”

The image is compelling; one need not be a votary of the Cult of Che to feel its power. For one thing, it exemplifies the commitment to learning as very nearly a moral absolute. I imagine it will appeal to anyone who has had to endure a brainless misconstrual of the “Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach” just a few times too many. But the scene does something else as well, something more challenging. It depicts something little recognized in American culture: the force of intellectual hunger.

It also reminds us of something almost impossible to conceive now in what C. Wright Mills called “the overdeveloped countries”: a condition of extreme, persistent scarcity of access to information, knowledge, or aesthetic pleasure. (The guerrilla library included poetry and novels.) When Guevara had to struggle to concentrate, it was because of exhaustion, not from self-inflicted damage to the attention span.

The invitation to serve as the editor of Jacobin’s book coverage was gratifying for the first three minutes or so, then intimidating from that point on. We are now several years into a worldwide resurgence of the Left — or, more accurately perhaps, of the Lefts. The idea that more unites than divides us is, at this point, a sentiment for inspirational posters rather than a sober assessment of forces. Jacobin is both a manifestation of the revival and a process of continuing reflection on it. As “a magazine of culture and polemic,” it has been dealing with books all along, of course. But now the responsibility for organizing that effort has come my way, and it is hard not to think of the standard set by another comrade’s prison writings:

Individually nobody can follow all the literature published on a group of topics or even on a single topic. . . . Just as those in power have a secretariat or a press office which keeps them informed daily or from time to time about everything published they need to know about, so a similar service will be provided for its public by a periodical. . . . Reviews should not be casual and occasional, but systematic; and they also need to be accompanied by retrospective “surveys” that “sum up” the most essential topics.

That is Antonio Gramsci, in one of numerous passages of his notebooks reflecting on journalism as a medium for radical politics. If only our radical professoriat had considered the matter half so seriously! The Left might have learned to exercise hegemony over the past few decades, instead of just having theories about it.

In the back of Gramsci’s call for reviewing that would be systematic and comprehensive, not to mention synoptic, I detect something implied by his actual work in editing newspapers and writing for them. He could assume that the journal was part of a movement — supporting it, yes, but also supported by it, financially and in the dozen other ways that follow from common solidarity. Contributors, like readers, would be drawn from that movement, and would be adding to it; helping it grow, both in numbers and in depth.

By no means did that imply “giving the public what it wants,” ever the rationale of cynics, con artists, and vendors of shoddy or contaminated merchandise. After describing his ambitious standards for radical reviewing, Gramsci stresses that it “cannot satisfy everyone to an equal degree, be equally useful to everyone, etc.” Provoking “a multiplicity of criticisms” is not a cause for worry: “indeed, the multiplicity of criticisms is the proof that one is on the right road.”

That last point does not seem to me entirely persuasive (a multiplicity of criticisms could mean you’re doing it all wrong). And, in any case, Jacobin does not yet have tens of thousands of supporters reading it as they occupy factories — which, among other consequences, means that many titles deserving reviews here won’t get them.

That hardly counts as one of the world’s more pressing injustices. But I must admit that that it bothers me even so, because bringing readers together with the radical books they should know — or, conversely, challenging the ideological pollution dumped in the public sphere by our unstable, unequal, moribund society — is part of this magazine’s mission.

“I have been waiting for the last six months to study a book you can find in any local bookshop in a big town,” Guevara tells Debray in the jungle. “I want ten years of peace and quiet after this war is over so as to work out and set down what matters.”

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Scott McLemee has served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and received its citation for excellence in reviewing. He writes the weekly column “Intellectual Affairs” for Inside Higher Ed.

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