The Week asked for my six favourite books. These are my picks. Though, to be honest, even if I had a choice of 60 books, it would have been difficult to know which ones would make the cut.

The Black Jacobins by CLR James (1938)

A seamless synthesis of novelistic narrative, factual reconstruction and polemical argument, The Black Jacobins helped transform both the writing of history and history itself. It was a “history from below” long before the phrase was coined. And in telling the story of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, James created a work that was to become indispensable to a new generation of Toussaint Louvertures, a new cadre of anti-colonial leaders.

The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson (1963)

The classic, and still indispensable, account of the emergence of working-class consciousness in England, a book that sought to “rescue the poor stockinger, the luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver… from the enormous condescension of posterity.”

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

A haunting tale of the horror of slavery and of the tragic choices faced by slaves. A masterpiece about the ghosts of American history.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880)

Dostoevsky’s final novel, an exploration of faith, reason and doubt in a world undergoing deep, unsettling changes. A profoundly religious book that speaks to the atheist in me.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge (1949)

Serge was a revolutionary and dissenter, an anarchist who joined the Bolshevik Revolution and inevitably became one of Stalin’s victims. A novel about Soviet terror in the 1930s, this is both an evisceration of tyranny and a testament to hope. 

As Serious as Your Life by Val Wilmer (1977)

An account of the “new music” – the extraordinary innovations of free jazz pioneers such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sun Ra – almost fifty years on, it remains unsurpassed. Wilmer both gave voice to a generation of black musicians and placed their music and struggles against the background of the social ferment of postwar America.


  1. Excellent choices all round. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read The Black Jacobins. Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev is one of those necessary books, as is The Brothers Karamazov, which is often recommended for its philosophical sophistication but is actually full of vivid character studies and worth reading for that alone.

    Since you’ve been working hard of late to place special emphasis on the injuries of class, Kenan, may I recommend Silone’s Fontamara. That really is a forgotten classic.

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