We at Jacobin admittedly don’t usually provide you with a typical summer beach read list. Last year’s included a Weimar-era German Communist’s memoir that Europe editor David Broder claimed would make you say, “I wish I had got to smuggle booze for the Communist International’s shipping organization,” alongside more mainstream fare like Joshua Cohen’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Netanyahus. It’s called the dialectic.
This year’s books, too, may seem as completely unsuitable for beach reading as books could be. Historical studies of fanaticism, dictators’ memoirs, and tomes over five hundred pages? That’s our bread and butter here. But we like well-balanced meals, so we’ve included plenty of lighter fare, too. Happy beach reading.
What makes an ideal socialist beach read? Obviously, outstanding gossip, serious political debates, and the frisson and devastation of romance. In other words, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins.
The Mandarins focuses on Parisian socialist intellectuals just after World War II, grappling with the aftermath of fascism and the possibility of its return, as well as with the place of the Western left in an emerging cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In one of many eerie echoes with the present, the book is set against the backdrop of a society’s awkward attempts to return to some semblance of normalcy after devastating upheaval. The novel also poignantly captures an intoxicating but fleeting middle-aged romance.
First, the gossip. De Beauvoir admitted that the central love story in the book — between the main character, Anne, a Parisian psychoanalyst married to a leading socialist writer, and Lewis, an American author — was based on her own intense and difficult transatlantic affair with Chicago writer Nelson Algren. While she strenuously denied specific real-life inspirations for characters other than Anne and Lewis, it’s clear that the personal dramas and especially the political arguments were drawn from her left-wing Parisian circle.
Politics are foregrounded in The Mandarins. De Beauvoir’s characters struggle to respond ethically and effectively to Nazi collaborators in their circle. Significant plot developments turn on debates over how the Left should relate to the Soviet Union.
These are more compelling political problems than fiction usually explores. But also irresistibly real is the novel’s portrayal of politically charged friendship and comradeship. Two main characters, both writers prominent in the socialist movement, are as closely aligned on the big issues of the day as two people could be — yet for a time, a subtle disagreement tears their friendship apart. With so many comradely bonds among leftists fraying over COVID policy, Ukraine, and other issues today, this dimension of the novel offers a startling reminder that our inner lives are shaped by political conditions that, sadly, have not changed much over six decades.
— Liza Featherstone
Many liberals and leftists have an abstract idea that unions are good. They know that unions build power for working people, and they’ve seen The Graph that links strong unions and reduced inequality. But what does organizing a union actually look like? What does it mean for workers and organizers, on an intimate, personal level, to make the conscious choice to pick a fight with the person who signs their paychecks? What personal transformations occur? What toll does the fight take? What is the actual stuff of a union drive for the human beings that carry them out?
Daisy Pitkin’s On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union explores those questions and more. It’s a memoir of the author’s time organizing a union with mostly undocumented Mexican immigrant industrial laundry workers in Arizona (with a particular focus on one worker leader, Alma) in the 2000s — under anti-worker conditions that are particularly brutal and worse than the average drive, but only by degree rather than in kind. It’s maddening, it’s heartbreaking, it’s inspiring, it’s beautiful, and it seamlessly weaves Pitkin’s and the workers’ personal stories with labor history and an extended metaphor about moths. It’s one of the best labor memoirs ever published, and you won’t be able to put it down.
— Micah Uetricht
Long before Karl Marx had ever been heard of, there were centuries of past attempts to create a radically different social order. Many followed in the spirit of millenarianism — an abrupt upheaval that would cast aside existing secular and religious authorities and usher in paradise on earth. Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages is the classic study of such movements in medieval and early modern Christian Europe.
Cohn’s gripping prose illustrates the more terrifying products of Christian fanaticism — not least the attempt to form an army of children to continue the Crusades, only for most of them to drown, starve, or be sold into slavery before ever making it to the Holy Land. It shows how even peasants and lowly townsfolk could overthrow princes, tear down churches, and declare that property must be held in common, all in the interests of getting closer to God.
Often, these experiments turned out badly. In one case, a puritanical Anabaptist regime drove such high emigration rates that it was forced to change tack and impose polygamy. The author is explicit in his intention of warning against revolutionary politics in general. Still, if you choose to ignore this premise, you can ponder what it would be like to pursue your own plans for changing society, with full confidence that God is on your side.
— David Broder
Last summer, when I was nine months pregnant, a friend lent me a copy of A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk’s memoir of her grueling journey to motherhood.
Is it a beach read? It may not be a page-turner for everyone. But in the precious, disconnected minutes of my early postpartum days, I devoured this book. It’s funny, honest, and offers profound insight into the frequently terrifying and painful work of mothering a baby while experiencing extreme shifts in body and psyche. Cusk manages to fill most pages with brilliant passages that can make you pause and ponder your own life, parent or not.
We all begin as helpless infants who need at least one vigilant person to keep us alive, but it’s rare for writers to interrogate this shared aspect of our humanity. With much of modern parenting confined to the home and few support structures in place, Cusk’s wisdom and humor are a salve for the loneliness of it all.
— Roz Hunter
Several great novelists have tried to capture the mentality of a dictator, whether real or fictional: Gabriel García Márquez in The Autumn of the Patriarch, Mario Vargas Llosa in The Feast of the Goat. But The Artful Albanian: The Memoirs of Enver Hoxha may be the only instance of a dictator performing the task himself.
Hoxha didn’t present his political autobiography as a work of fiction, of course. But it’s safe to assume he purged any inconvenient facts from his memory before sitting down to write, just as he purged every potential rival from Albania’s Party of Labour until his death in 1985. Irish historian Jon Halliday did what no publisher in Tirana would have dared to do and trimmed the fat from the multivolume sequence of memoirs that Hoxha began churning out, to general bewilderment, in the late 1970s. What’s left is a unique record of a Stalinist dictator’s worldview, expressed in his own inimitable voice.
Reading this book may sound like a very solemn affair, but The Artful Albanian is actually full of comedy. Sometimes it’s intentional: the description of a postwar meeting with the Yugoslav leader Tito, which concentrates almost entirely on the antics of a flatulent dog, should have anyone in stitches. More often, the humor derives from Hoxha’s complete lack of self-awareness.
At one point, he recalls with horror the time he heard Mao Zedong say that he found Joseph Stalin to be arrogant and overbearing. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Hoxha: Stalin was both infinitely wise and faultlessly humble; why, he even took the trouble to show Hoxha the way to the toilet himself. Hoxha appears not to have noticed Stalin’s gargantuan personality cult, although he mocks erstwhile allies such as Mao and Kim Il-sung for their own pharaonic pretentions.
Albanian authorities banned Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams soon after it appeared in 1981, rightly suspecting that Kadare had used an Ottoman historical setting as camouflage for a satire of Hoxha’s Albania. They might as well have censored Hoxha’s own memoirs, which end up producing a very different kind of satirical effect.
— Daniel Finn
Do you enjoy gossip? What about laughing at the petty miseries of the ruling class? If the answer is yes, you might enjoy Edith Wharton’s 1920 subtly hilarious classic, The Age of Innocence. Set in Gilded Age New York, the novel follows recently engaged Newland Archer as he navigates the moral maze created by the contradictions between the societal pressures of aristocracy and his personal desires.
Will he make it out alive? Read to find out, and sleep a little easier knowing that the bourgeois morality required to perpetuate the power of the ruling class runs counter to any kind of human happiness.
A Far Cry from Kensington is a charmingly provincial novel about the postwar London publishing scene, written by the Scottish and Catholic writer Muriel Spark. The characters rarely trek outside of a three-mile radius within London’s West End, and even within this world, their interactions are pretty circumscribed.
You could comfortably finish it in an afternoon, laying on a beach or sitting in a café. Nancy, our narrator, sets out to destroy the reputation of a hack writer named Hector Bartlett, whom she describes as a “pisseur de copie.” This decision sets off a series of convoluted events; the rest of the novel is a loosely related murder mystery.
Written in 1988 but attempting to recap on the quiet sadness of the postwar years, there’s something very gentle about A Far Cry. It isn’t really a novel about big ideas or ambitions — Nancy has no energy for either of these — but just about muddling along, which can be pretty fun. Called into a meeting with her boss, Nancy rightly suspects “he was offering things abominable . . . like decaffeinated coffee or coitus interruptus.” Chicness is probably the most unambiguously estimable quality in fiction, and Spark has it in abundance.
— John-Baptiste Oduor
What if Upton Sinclair — muckraker, mega-prolific novelist, and onetime candidate to be governor of California — came back from the dead and tried to make sense of the twenty-first century? In Chris Bachelder’s hilarious novel, it turns out that he would write a novel called Pharmaceutical!; he would gross out the schoolchildren he was wheeled in to lecture; he would become a target all over again; and he still wouldn’t be able to get a decent review in the Times. But also, just maybe, some young people would listen to what he had to say.
I’ve been trying to get people to read this novel ever since it came out in 2006, and it just seems more prescient, funny, and sad every year. Maybe someone can put out an edition with the words “The book that predicted the resurgence of socialism” across the top.
— Laura Tanenbaum
On the day her son is conceived, a beautiful idea occurs to Sibylla, the protagonist of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai: Today’s novels use language like a beginner’s painting uses color, telling a whole story in English for the same reasons a child paints the sky an obligatory blue. If writers could hear the music of languages in the way nonrepresentational painters sense the possibilities of color, then a novelist might use many tongues in one sentence, placing “long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels” next to the “lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese” next to “Hungarian all prefixes suffixes.”
Sibylla hopes this kind of writing will arrive in several hundred years, unaware that she already lives in DeWitt’s multilingual and formally visionary work. First published in 2000, The Last Samurai was out of print until 2016, when New Directions reissued it to critical acclaim. For all DeWitt’s experimentation, her novel is fundamentally an intimate page-turner about a single mother and her son. Sibylla is a brilliant American expatriate in London who earns a tiny income transcribing old magazines; Ludo is a rambunctious child prodigy, able to read ancient Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew by age six. The text is a collage, cutting between their voices, these languages (with translations), and material from Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai, drawing us in like a conversation overheard in fragments across a loud room.
The Last Samurai is also quietly angry — at capitalism, at bad art, at how hard it is to produce good art under capitalism. Sibylla comes from a long line of stifled creative minds. She tries to escape their legacy by faking her way into Oxford but ends up riding the Circle Line all winter because she can’t afford to heat her flat. Throughout the novel, Sibylla holds on to critical imagination as a form of protest, refusing to introduce Ludo to his father, a hack travel writer, until he can see what’s wrong with three pieces of boring but popular art. There is no greater creative or political failure, she reminds her son (and us), than “someone who accepts without thinking limitations which are entirely within his power to set aside.”
— Tadhg Larabee
Inspired by Matt Weir’s recent Jacobin essay on Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 exploration of the Midwestern midsize city, Babbitt, I decided to read Lewis’s previous novel, Main Street. It’s about early twentieth-century small-town life in Minnesota, and the experiences of a college-educated young woman who leaves her librarian job in Saint Paul for the fictional town of Gopher Prairie when she marries a doctor who lives there. Carol, the protagonist, is idealistic, intellectual, and positively radical compared to the narrow-minded petite bourgeois society she encounters in her new home. She is at first drawn to small-town life, believing she can help civilize and shape a growing prairie town, but over time, she realizes there is no changing the social conservatism and cultural emptiness of Gopher Prairie and its residents.
Having moved to a small college town in Minnesota myself last summer, following a partner in academia, I’m on something of a Midwestern literature kick, and reading the description of Carol’s lonely, frustrated years in Gopher Prairie struck a chord with me. Although it was more than a century ago, Lewis’s precise descriptions of vacuous small-town boosterism and American middle-class aspiration skewer his subjects (including Carol) in a way that feels immediately familiar. If you’ve ever felt stifled, frustrated, or suffocated by your surroundings, Main Street is an eerily perfect portrait of “the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking.”
— Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino
In the Statesman, Plato compares political leadership with the labor of herding, the craft of weaving, and the judging of . . . a judge. The goal of the statesman’s “royal (political) science” is to know how each part of a city relates to the totality. They must navigate perennial dichotomies, between valor and discretion, for example, or between upholding law and deciding to break laws and establish new ones. The dialogue concludes that without a “divine statesman,” a lawful democracy is our best bet against tyranny and oligarchy. It’s an ancient book that helps us think about modern, practical politics.
The Statesman will thrill fans of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, György Lukács’s Lenin, and Antonio Gramsci’s The Modern Prince. Oh, and don’t miss the detour into myth at the book’s heart! Imagine, if you will, the “Age of Cronos,” when time went backward, we aged in reverse, and all our needs were met. Back then, we were free to sit under a plane tree and eat figs with a lover, contemplating the forms. The ideal socialist summer!
— Daniel Lopez
Seven years ago, when my wife, Jennifer, and I were getting ready to return to the United States from South Korea, I sorted my books into two piles: one to somehow smoosh into our luggage, and a much larger collection to leave at a book exchange in a local expat bar. I put Philip Roth’s American Pastoral in the latter one. Jennifer fished it out. “That’s ridiculous. You love this book way too much to give it away.”
She wasn’t wrong. Roth has the kind of prose style you can only achieve if you’re willing to spend all day, every day, at your keyboard revising each sentence over and over until it sings —but he somehow combines that skill with the compulsive momentum that makes American Pastoral an easy read about the riots, political bombings, and descent into the “American berserk” of the New Left era. The radicals in the novel are frightening and confusing to the protagonist Swede Levov, an assimilated and comfortable American Jew, because they’re frightening and confusing to Roth himself.
The way Roth sees the world is not the way I see it. He was an old-school liberal who loved FDR and the New Deal while instinctively distrusting revolutionary malcontents. But one of the things literature can do for us is to help us understand our political opponents by letting us take up temporary residence in their heads. There’s value in that, and there are much worse ways for a socialist to spend a day reading at the beach.
— Ben Burgis