Reading for the Next Four Years

It is still unclear exactly what America under the presidency of Donald J. Trump will look like. But if we believe his campaign promises—deporting of millions of people, registering Muslims, gutting the Affordable Care Act—it’s apparent that sustained political resistance will be necessary. Already, protestors have taken to the streets of cities like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, and in many other places.

In bookstores, it is heartening to see that works by authors such as Angela Davis, Walter Benjamin, Arundhati Roy, bell hooks, George Orwell, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are finding an audience again. In threatening times, we need books like these: calls to action , war reporting, and clear-eyed accounts of oppressive regimes—the kind that comes at great personal peril. There are many ways to write about dark times—some of them analytical, some practical, some angry—but the very act of writing is always a way of expressing some small hope for the future.

“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her 2004 book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, which, in the week after the 2016 election, her publisher, Haymarket Books, was giving away for free. “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”

As of this moment, we still have time to act and the freedom to read writers who have struggled before, who bore witness to cataclysmic events in real time. In upcoming years, we’re going to need more voices still. Here are a few to begin with, though there are many others to seek out. We have to listen as well as speak out, to keep our senses sharp and our courage up. We are all war correspondents now.

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

Origins is Arendt’s analysis of the roots of anti-Semitism, the operations of colonial imperialism, and the rise of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. With intellectual rigor, Arendt traces the way anti-Semitism in nineteenth century Europe morphed from a fringe ideology to a force that was harnessed to alter world events. The book is, at its heart, an act of comprehension, of breaking down the individual elements of political movements to examine them and learn how they combined in such deadly ways. As Arendt notes, “comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.”

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

In the nearly fifty years since this slim book was published, it has lost none of its ferocity, elegance, or passion. The two essays in it—one, a letter from Baldwin to his nephew about the role of race in America, the other, a letter about the complicity of Christianity in racial injustice—are unflinching, but still shot through with a measure of hope for widespread social change. “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” Baldwin writes. “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” (Also worth adding to your reading list: The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, a compilation of essays and poems by writers like Claudia Rankine, Daniel José Older, and Kiese Laymon on the current state of race relations in America.)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit

Published at the height of the Bush administration and the Iraq war, Solnit’s book is a powerful argument against despair. Protest and activism matter a great deal, Solnit argues, even if they don’t achieve results that are immediate or quantifiable. The civilian protests that led to the fall of the Berlin wall, the rise of the Zapatistas—powerful movements often come from unexpected places, Solnit notes. “Together we are very powerful, and we have a seldom-told, seldom-remembered history of victories and transformation that can give us confidence that yes, we can change the world because we have many times before.”

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Lorde’s collected speeches and essays in this volume explore the power of intersectional activism, and many lines have become rallying cries—“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” for example. “Your silence will not protect you,” from her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” is another, but it’s the question two paragraphs later that’s most arresting: “Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am a lesbian, because I am myself—a Black woman warrior poet doing my work—come to ask you, are you doing yours?”

Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America by Tina Rosenberg

Rosenberg, who later won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her account of post-Communist Europe, The Haunted Land, used a McArthur Fellowship to move to South America, traveling through Argentina, El Salvador, Colombia, and Peru. The result is this haunting, indelible book of reportage and research on the recent bloody history of Latin America, one that looks beyond the spectacle of violence to consider its perpetrators and victims close-up. The book’s six profiles—a judge in Medellin confronting the world’s most powerful cocaine trafficker, and an account of a military informer in Argentina among them—are as riveting as they are disturbing.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen

One of the pieces shared widely in the days after Trump’s win was Masha Gessen’s New York Review of Books essay, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” And Gessen would know—as a queer Jewish woman journalist in Russia, she risked her personal safety to report on Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Man Without a Face, her book on the rise of Putinism, and the mindset of the man himself, is particularly relevant given our new commander-in-chief’s admiration of the Russian president. Though Trump’s cabinet picks have yet to be confirmed, his government is already shaping up to mirror Putin’s reign.

The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn

A war correspondent for more than fifty years, Gellhorn was on the ground reporting on the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War, among other conflicts. In these dispatches, collected in The Face of War, Gellhorn focused on civilians and the lower ranks of the military, describing the toll of battles with affecting vividness. She contends that it is the responsibility of the people on the ground, as much as the leaders in political power, to fight back against oppressive forces. “I hold to the relay race theory of history: progress in human affairs depends on accepting, generation after generation, the individual duty to oppose the evils of the time,” Gellhorn wrote.

Margaret Eby is the author of South Toward Home and the culture editor at Extra Crispy.