Five Short Reads for 2024

A list of reads for our times selected and described by Jane McArthur

Part of our wider reading series inspired by our programme.

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, The Bodley Head, 2017

Snyder’s short polemical texts call upon us to pay heed to histories which have seen democracies subsumed by fascist and communist totalitarianism. He writes that by attending to those periods in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s when democracy in Europe failed we can bring active awareness to the present. In so doing, we might contribute towards creating the circumstances that can counteract current assaults on democratic governance. Written from his perspective as an historian of twentieth century Eastern Europe and his position as an American observing the outcome of the 2016 US elections, this slim volume opens with Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s words: ‘In politics being deceived is no excuse.’

Hebe Uhart, The Scent of Buenos Aires (1979), trans. Maureen Shaughnessy, Archipelago Books, 2019

Memories and observations of everyday life are the substance of Uhart’s prose in which personal experiences merge with fiction. She describes a seemingly mundane visit to the hairdressers, idiosyncratic teaching methods, the idealised result versus the reality of cake baking, or the pitfalls of being a tourist. Timothy Snyder reminds us about the importance of attending to ‘the small truths of daily existence’, which Uhart does with dry humour, and a quirky eye for detail as her seamlessly crafted vignettes move from life’s mostly small difficulties to fleeting moments of elation in her garden.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Not A Novel. Collected Writings and Reflections (2018), trans. Kurt Beals, Granta Books, 2021

‘We write to make ourselves understood’ Erpenbeck tells us, as she reflects upon her years of writing and the life-changing events she has experienced. Growing up in the GDR, living through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent transformation of her locality following the unification of Germany, Erpenbeck shows how history is personal, as momentous events such as these claim an equal place in her writing alongside what she terms ‘the baggage of life’. Moving from childhood memories to literary criticism, this collection examines notions of freedom and hope, loss and memory, education, injustice, and the choices we make between speaking out or remaining silent.

Gabriela Wiener, Undiscovered (2021), trans. Julia Sanchez, Pushkin Press, 2023

Identifying as a proud ‘chola’ woman, Wiener reappropriates the derogatory Peruvian term used to describe her country’s indigenous people as she seeks to understand her own origin story. Living in Spain in a polyamorous relationship, Wiener examines her ancestry, which family history tells her can be traced back to a union between the colonial adventurer Charles Wiener and an indigenous woman. By tracing the story of this possible ancestor, whose plundered artefacts are still displayed in Europe’s museums and whose actions are representative of colonial histories of exploitation and violence, Gabriela Wiener blends the personal with the historical and fact with fiction. Fundamental to her accounting are questions concerning whiteness as an ideal, intimacy, memory and the role cultural heritage continues to play in perpetuating colonialist exploitation.

Andrew Herscher, Displacements: Architecture and Refugee, Sternberg Press, 2017

This small modestly produced book, measuring a mere 10.5 x 15cm, is portable enough to be slipped into a pocket and carried when on the move, but when contextual knowledge offers empowerment. Herscher traces relations between refugee, state, architecture, and employment, from the Boer War concentration camps and the first major displacement of people during the First World War to the mass movement of people beginning in 2014. He shows through the architectural housing models designed by Le Corbusier, Shigeru Ban and IKEA how attitudes towards refugees have shifted between inclusion, humanitarianism or control, as his analysis proceeds from the British workhouse to the current technological endeavours and repercussions of ‘Digital Shelter’ systems.