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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Nick's summer reading for 2015

Nick's annual summer stack-up of the best beach-reads offers more than enough politics, history, poetry, architecture and fiction to keep you reading well into Autumn.

As usual for this time of year, I have a few suggestions for summer reading.

For those of you holidaying in Greece, or anywhere else in southern Europe for that matter, some reflections on why the eurozone has become a disaster zone might be in order. How is it that democracy has been sacrificed to membership of a currency union in the cradle of European civilisation? The famous debate between Wolfgang Streeck and Jurgen Habermas on the future of the European project gives a guide to its causes, even if the two authors diverge fundamentally on the cure. Streeck’s response to Habermas is particularly sharp and pertinent, given recent events. A new piece on the Greek crisis brings his critique bang up to date.

That other doyen of German political economy, Claus Offe, has also written a new book on the ‘entrapment’ of Europe. An interview with him in IPPR’s journal, Juncture, can be found here. The best book I've ever read on the evolution of the EU, Luuk Van Middelaar’s Passage to Europe, would merit a new edition in light of recent events, but it is worth reading anyway.

There are two books on the nature of work in contemporary capitalist societies that I would recommend. One is a finely observed analysis of work in contemporary Britain by Joanna Biggs. The other is by a US academic turned public servant, David Weil. Why is work so shit for so many people? These books help you understand more about the sociology of contemporary labour.

The Indian historian Ram Guha has edited a good collection of essays on Asia’s foremost 20th century political leaders, from Chiang Kai-shek to Lee Kuan Yew. The collection aims to redress the partiality of BRIC-style Western accounts of Asia rise that focus largely on the economic determinants of its rise, passing over the political forces that enabled Asian countries to liberate themselves from colonialism and steer paths towards growth and development. Its one main lacuna – acknowledged by the editor – is Japan, which achieved remarkable transformation without producing world-historical leaders of the mould of Deng Xiaoping. But a very good collection nonetheless.

This year is the 150th anniversary of W. B. Yeats’s birth. To my shame, I have not read Roy Foster’s two-volume biography of the great poet, but I did manage to read a recently published book of lectures that Foster gave some years ago on the 19th century antecedents of Yeats’s poetic vision. It is really thought-provoking. This passage from the blurb captures it well:

By returning to the rich seed-bed of nineteenth-century Irish writing, Words Alone charts some of the influences, including romantic 'national tales' in post-Union Ireland, the poetry and polemic of the Young Ireland movement, the occult and supernatural novels of Sheridan LeFanu, William Carleton's ‘peasant fictions’, and fairy-lore and folktale collectors that created the unique and powerful Yeatsian voice of the decade from 1885 to 1895.

Sticking with poetry, I recommend this anthology of 20th and 21st century Irish verse. It is comprehensive without being baggy, and introduced me to scores of Irish poets whom I had never encountered before. And if I can get round to reading two novels this summer, they will be Harper Lee’s much anticipated Go Set a Watchman, and Ali Smith’s multiple award-winning How to be Both.

2015 is also the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, but no excuse is needed to read the paperback edition of Robert Tombs’s epic, The English and their History. It is superb. (Tombs also wrote a very good essay recently for the New Statesman on the contemporary English question). For contemporary political history, I aim to read Michael’s Bloch’s biography of the late Jeremy Thorpe, one of the most complex, compelling and flawed of modern British party leaders.

Finally, I recommend Owen Hatherley’s latest book on the architecture of eastern European communist states. As ever with Hatherley, it is sharply observant and laced with historical and political insight. I am a fan of his writing, if not always his politics.