Here at Jacobin, our summer reading lists may not be something you could accurately describe as “light.” But maybe that’s not what you’re looking for. From last year’s recommendation of Enver Hoxha’s memoirs to 2021’s plug for Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (which remains a leftist literary classic), we must plead guilty to encouraging you to drag a heavy tome along with you on your beach vacation. But we believe you’ll be rewarded by doing so, with this year’s literary delights spanning from a winding Napoleonic narrative to the first book in a masterpiece trilogy on the civil rights movement — with an incursion on commodity fetishism thrown in for good measure.
For the first third of Hiroko Oyamada’s novella The Hole, it seems like nothing will ever happen. After her husband is transferred to an office near his hometown, the narrator, Asa, drifts away from her unfulfilling career in Tokyo and into the equally depressing role of a housewife in rural Japan. Both settings — the unspecified office, and the hot, stagnant countryside, where spring fades into summer, cicadas buzz incessantly, and she is known only as “the bride” — feel like a darkened stage on which a performance will soon begin.
The action starts when Asa follows a mysterious black animal and falls into a metaphor for the meaning of these places, or the lack thereof: a hole. Upon climbing out, she finds that strange new characters have populated the aging, silent town, from a gaggle of unparented children to a man who lives in her mother-in-law’s backyard and claims to be her brother-in-law. Amid this landscape, Oyamada builds not so much a story as an unfolding atmosphere, an eerie re-creation of the dreamscapes we escape into when we sense that neither work nor the conventional family structure can supply us with a meaningful life under capitalism.
Released in Japan in 2014, The Hole is Oyamada’s second novella to be published in English by New Directions. Like her first, The Factory, it is a quick, immersive read, satirical but never didactic. By the end, nothing much has happened to Asa — at least nothing that her phone-addicted husband, her absent father-in-law, or her manipulative mother-in-law can detect. Yet as fall arrives and Asa slips back into her routines, her journey to the surreal underside of labor and domesticity hovers over her like a sour smell, “something familiar” that she can’t quite place.
— Tadhg Larabee
We’re trying to economize space and weight when heading to the beach, so most of us avoid packing thousand-page, doorstop-size books next to the sunscreen and umbrella. But bring an extra tote bag if you have to, because you won’t find a more thrilling narrative about one of the most inspiring and transformative social movements in American history than Taylor Branch’s masterpiece trilogy on the civil rights movement, starting with Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63.
I started reading the books at the beginning of the summer and haven’t been able to put them down since. Branch does it all: seamlessly weaving between the lives of average Southern black people living under the fascistic Jim Crow regime, strategy sessions of movement leaders, and the wrangling at the uppermost reaches of politics in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations; documenting the courage, tenacity, and creative genius of the organizers and the brutal violence and intimidation they constantly faced; narrating the combative but frequently synergistic interplay between student radicals in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Martin Luther King Jr and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, staidly traditional black leaders like Roy Wilkins and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and everyone in between; and much more.
The trilogy also tells the incredibly damning story of the FBI’s role in brazenly surveilling, slandering, undermining, and all but openly opposing the civil rights movement from its earliest days — reflecting the serious threat the movement posed to the status quo in the country, not just in its racial hierarchies but in every facet of American life. Anyone interested in making social change happen in the United States should drink deeply from these books.
— Micah Uetricht
Sean has stopped paying rent on the semi-abandoned flat he shares with his friend in West Belfast, which is about to be repossessed. He and his buddies work in a shitty nightclub, the only jobs they can reliably get in their recession-struck city. He thought he’d have more opportunities after going to university in Liverpool to study literature — that he might be able to do something with books, work somewhere surrounded by artists — but he gets rejected from the internship he interviews for at an arts nonprofit, where they seem to be looking for a cultural fluency he doesn’t possess.
After punching a stranger at a party one night and being charged with assault, Sean starts to wonder if there’s any way out of this life for people like him — trying to stretch your paycheck until next week, doing drugs every night with the same people you grew up with, watching your parents struggle to make rent or get clean or get by. The memory and trauma of the Troubles, supposedly long past, continue to cast a long shadow over the events of Michael Magee’s Close to Home and its portrayal of working-class Ireland. It’s a beautiful and devastating debut novel about political memory, violence, masculinity, and the impossibility of escaping your origins. Magee draws on his own childhood experiences in creating a class-conscious portrait of a life shaped by structural constraints and economic disparity.
— Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino
Jerry Garcia’s favorite movie was based on a nineteenth-century novel whose author shot himself with a silver bullet because he thought he was a werewolf. That sentence may sound like the product of a malfunctioning AI bot, but it’s a straightforward account of how The Manuscript Found in Saragossa made its way to an English-language audience. The Polish nobleman Jan Potocki accomplished a lot in his fifty-four years before succumbing to a severe dose of lycanthropy in 1815, but his main achievement was to have written one of the strangest and most compelling novels of all time.
The Manuscript presents itself as an actual manuscript discovered by one of Napoleon’s officers during the French siege of Saragossa, written several decades earlier by another officer (a Belgian) and describing events in the first half of the eighteenth century. This is just the beginning of the seemingly endless digressions that make up the narrative, as one character starts off telling a story in which there is another story being told, and another, and another. You’ll find yourself looking back every few pages to keep track of who’s who in this surreal compendium, but Potocki’s deadpan narrative voice is an ever-present delight and should have you roaring with laughter more times than you can count.
The film adaptation came out in 1965 and attracted a dedicated following from members of the US counterculture, who thought of it as an honorary “head” movie. Martin Scorsese paid to have it restored after Garcia got the ball rolling, and it’s a very enjoyable watch, but it’s also the perfect gateway drug for Potocki’s masterwork.
— Daniel Finn
We often conceive of political identity as something with fixed coordinates and neatly visible parameters. But the complexities of belief are in practice more fluid and difficult to pin down. The account found in Red Diaper Baby: A Boyhood in the Age of McCarthyism, the wonderful childhood memoir penned by the late Canadian socialist intellectual James Laxer, is a fascinating case in point.
Laxer’s parents were communists who took very different paths to the same destination. While a teenager, his father — once destined for a career as a Hasidic rabbi — traded a belief in God for a militant form of Enlightenment reason that eventually hardened into a scientific conception of socialism. His mother, in contrast, hailed from a WASP and Protestant milieu, coming to the party by way of a Christian youth movement that sought to demystify Jesus’s teachings and thus, ironically, “produced as many atheistic communists as it did Christians.”
For Laxer himself, childhood was defined by the usual push and pull of appropriation and rebellion vis-à-vis one’s parents, albeit against the distinctive backdrop of Cold War Toronto and his father’s secretive work on behalf of the Communist Party of Canada’s central committee. In this sense, Red Diaper Baby is both an intimate account of life in the party before the mass exodus of the mid-1950s and a penetrating study of the constituent parts — spiritual, emotional, psychological, and otherwise — that ultimately make up political belief and identity.
Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner depicts one of those rare moments when history, no longer distant and abstract, abruptly appears in this world and, with great indifference, happens to you. It’s never totally clear what’s unfolding politically — a reshuffling of power in an authoritarian nation? a Pol Pot–type revolution of the underclass of “dirt-eaters”? both? — but a group of cultural elites centered around the protagonist’s father-in-law, a dissident poet, are among its victims. In the end, only Jack, deeply alienated from his blowhard father-in-law and his kind, is left to mourn their passing: “It suddenly hit me that everyone on earth who could read John Donne was now dead.”
Though lacking the elegant simplicity of The Fever, The Designated Mourner plays with familiar themes: the human suffering that privilege and comfort necessitate under capitalism and the existential quandary of its beneficiaries who realize as much. But where the protagonist of The Fever embraces profound, food-poisoning-induced enlightenment, Jack delights in the superficial, declaring himself “lowbrow” and delighting in television and porn and cake. It’s sometimes hard not to read the depressive Jack’s tirades as a ruthless self-criticism of the author of The Fever.
The play would be almost intolerably pessimistic if it didn’t ultimately rejoice in shallowness to reaffirm simple beauty — not John Donne but “your hand, the plate, the cake, the table,” or, for that matter, the sand and ocean. “Everyone I saw looked calmer than before,” Jack observes toward the end. “We all were simply doing much better in every way without the presence on the earth of our never-jangling friends, the dear departed mournees, if that’s the right word.”
— Alex Caring-Lobel
We “must take flight,” Karl Marx wrote in Capital, “into the misty realm of religion” to understand value in the capitalist world, a world in which physical products — commodities — “appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own.” The religious concept he settled on to describe this phenomenon was “fetishism.” It is not self-evident why Marx chose this as a heuristic to describe the workings of modern economics: the word at the time usually referred to supposedly primitive societies’ ritual practice around objects endowed with magical force. Colloquially, one might sooner associate the idea with bondage play in the bedroom than with commodities. How did we get here?
Enter The Problem of the Fetish, by the elusive scholar William Pietz. The book ties together archival research, anthropological study, and historical narrative with a common thread of theory to locate the material circumstances in which the fetish emerged and has since been used. The first four chapters historicize the term, beginning with its distinction from idolatry in medieval Christian thought. Pietz then moves to the West African coast from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, where first Portuguese and then other European traders interacting with natives developed a notion of fetish objects in an attempt to “translate and transvalue objects between radically different social systems” — in particular objects that, to the nascently capitalist European mind, were “naturally” meant to be economic, monetarily valued objects, even if endowed with value otherwise by West African societies.
The fetish — this historical object mysteriously both human-made and self-moving — therefore “originated only with the emerging articulation of the ideology of the commodity form.” The philosophical reception of this context (as Pietz shows in a brilliant subsequent chapter, followed by further essays on the fetish in industrial modernity) thus proved ripe for Marx’s critical subversion.
— Alec Israeli
The mid-twentieth-century Communist Party USA is often associated in the popular imagination with Stalinist authoritarianism and (real or imagined) plots to infiltrate US government and cultural institutions. But Communists’ vital role in building the American labor movement is less well known and understood. That’s the subject of Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions by sociologists Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin. Combining historical narrative with systematic quantitative analysis, Left Out tells the story of how American Communists helped organize the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the federation of industrial unions that emerged to challenge the older, more conservative craft-based American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions in the 1930s.
Because of Communists’ encompassing political vision and deep ideological commitment, Red-led CIO unions tended to be the most militant and democratic, and they tended to win the best contracts for their workers; they were also the most likely to include women and black workers and to fight for gender and racial equality. And when conservative union leaders used the Second Red Scare to purge Communist unionists in the late 1940s and 1950s, the labor movement, the Left, and the cause of social justice were crippled in ways that continue to haunt us today. With socialist-backed labor insurgency in the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, and other unions having a moment this summer, Left Out is a good reminder of the indispensable role that organized leftists can play in the labor movement.
— Nick French