At the end of last year, I wrote a post about the 170 books I managed to read over the course of the year, largely due to taking a sabbatical. Part of the problem with that post, was that I was not really able to do justice to the range of amazing books that I had the pleasure of reading. Knowing that my frequency of reading would not be as much as last year, I’m squarely back to where I usually am, which is about 10 books per month (give or take depending on length)
I started the year with two of the books that have made me think more than many others, ones that I have returned to again and again throughout my thinking about race: ‘The New Jim Crow’ by Michelle Alexander and ‘Locking Up Our Own’ by James Forman Jr. I would seriously suggest that you all read these two books, and also in that order. They help to establish the many layers of racism that exist within our institutions, with Forman Jr’s book in particular really hitting home the complexity of struggles we all face. Other books around racism and resistance included:
‘The Autobiography of Martin Luther King’
‘Whites, Jews and Us’ Houria Boutledja
‘The Origin of Others’ Toni Morrison
‘Discourse on Colonialism’ Aime Cesaire
‘A Tempest’ Aime Cesaire
‘Killing rage: ending racism’ bell hooks
‘When they call you a terrorist’ Patrisse Khan-Cullors
‘BRIT(ish)’ Afua Hirsch
‘Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil’ Lezley McSpadden
‘A More Beautiful and Terrible History’ Jeanne Theoharis
‘Natives: race and class in the ruins of empire’ Akala
These books all helped to keep me grounded in ideas around race and class throughout these six months, particularly the books by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Lezley McSpadden – who spoke their truths in a tragic and beautiful way. Jeanne Theorharis’ book is one that I still want to review, due to its particular importance, she helps to revise public conceptions of the black civil rights movement, and contribution that cannot be promoted enough. As someone who has called London home my whole life, it was incredible to read Afua Hirsh and Akala’s books, as they seek to expand our ideas about the ways in which racism, and the history of racism are lived every single day.
In the early part of 2018, I was reading these works on racism alongside fiction, and after having read Gregory McGuire’s wonderful novel ‘Wicked’ years ago, I decided to pick it up again and go through the rest of his four-book series. McGuire’s ‘wickedly’ funny books nearly always have a serious core to them, whether they are highlighting tyranny or racism, they have an incredible way of drawing out the issues of the world through the characters of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ – highly recommended to lovers of fiction. These books reminded me of my love for gothic fiction, and so finishing McGuire’s series, I picked up the following again:
‘Frankenstein’ Mary Shelley
‘The Phantom of the Opera’ Gaston Leroux
‘Dracula’ Brom Stoker
‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ Robert Louis Stevenson
These four books didn’t just remain reading for fun, alongside the other literature I was reading, they reminded me so much of the racism literature I had been engaging with, prompting me to write ‘The Souls of Gothic Monsters’.
Other notable and excellent fiction books at this time included:
‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche,
‘The One Who Wrote Destiny’ Nikesh Shukla,
‘The Brothers Karamazov’ Fyodor Dostoyevsky,
‘Moby Dick’ Herman Melville,
‘Fight Club’ Chuck Palahniuk
‘Eyes of the Dragon’ Stephen King (a book I have read many times over since a child’
During April and early May, I was forced to slow down in my reading somewhat due to the launch of my own book ‘A Virtue of Disobedience’ – a book that reflects on the history of civil rights movements and the contemporary world we live in but thinks of resistance through faith. I was really happy with the reception so far, and had lots of support already with the book being picked up by an agent who will now be taking it internationally.
All of this led me through to Ramadan, during which time I wanted to stop my fiction reading and really concentrate on thinking about the real world. I read more religious books for sure, and the Kube Publishing books, ‘A Treasury of Ibn Taymiyya’ and ‘A Treasury of Ghazali’ were the perfect starts for me, as they really helped to provide many short reminders on how to live an ethical and spiritual life. In that regard, I was very happy to go through another Kube Publishing book with my children, Imam al-Bukhari’s ‘Adab al-Mufrad’ or the manners of the person. It was great to help myself and the kids to think more about all those around us and the relationships we have with them, and whether or not we are kind enough. Reading the book led us to increase our yearly activities of giving to our neighbours not just in the month, but outside of it too. I decided to also re-read ibn Qayyim’s ‘The Invocation of God’ which is still one of my favourite works of spirituality, it helps to reset your soul in ways very few books can.
As I mentioned above, Ramadan wasn’t just about being ascetic without any reflection on the real world, and so I chose some books that I thought would help me to question my own privileges. In that regard I started with ‘Chavs’ by Owen Jones – a book that very much made me feel so grateful for what I have, but also how I might have internalised certain ideas of class which are wholly un-Islamic – something that I think I will always need to work on. I also picked Jones’ book ‘The Establishment’ which was very enlightening and useful for all my work. Perhaps the most surprising book for me was Grayson Perry’s ‘The Descent of Man’ which I only picked up because someone I know referenced it. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I learnt a great deal from him about how our notions of things can often be the subject of marketing and capitalism – something I need to think much more about.
I also read ‘We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled’ by Wendy Pearlman and ‘Kingdom of Olives and Ash’ by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman – collections of narratives from Syria and Palestine respectively. These two books grounded me again in the lived experience of survival of those less fortunate in other parts of world. Pearlman really captures the history and complexity of the Syrian conflict in such a human way, and the removal of her own voice from the majority of the text, is a testament to her desire to let Syrians speak. Chabon and Waldman chose a different approach with their book, by recruiting incredible writers to reflect on experiences in Palestine, and remind the world through their beautiful prose, the devastating consequences of Israeli aggression and occupation in both macro and micro ways.
Of course – no Ramadan could ever be complete without finishing the Qur’an, and it is the perfect month to remind myself of how much I can take from it, if I allow into my life. Although my Arabic is good enough to follow the text to a large degree, I still prefer to read short sections from Abdel Haleem’s Oxford translation, before reading the Arabic, thus giving me a relationship with each page of the text. Although this has always made me slower, it allows for a much more reflective relationship with the text.
Within the couple of weeks post Ramadan, I was able to read a few books before the end of June – two fiction and two non-fiction. The fiction books were the incredible ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’ by Saladin Ahmed and ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir. Ahmed’s book is only the beginning of a series, but left me desparate for more. Tahir’s book is just brilliant, and I’ve already started the next book in series with already the anxiety that she hasn’t yet written the fourth and final book – I’ll clock the first three soon though inshallah!
Finally, I read ‘Just Liberal Violence: Sweatshops, Torture, War’ by Michael Neu and ‘Algorithms of Oppression’ by Safiya U Noble. Neu’s book has helped me thinking much more clearly about the way that liberals use justifications for a number of human rights violations, whether they are sweatshops, torture or war, but really it all comes down to the same thing of protecting power and the status quo – Neu’s analysis is always spot on and his final chapter reflecting on the idea of complicity in Kazuo Ishirguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ is a marvel. Noble does what all brilliant scholarship does, which is to make us think about the world in ways that we might never otherwise understand. From the very beginning I was left aghast by the ways in which algorithms not only reinforce ideas of racism, but perpetuate them. I really couldn’t recommend these books enough.
I might have missed a couple of books here and there, but please do feel free to follow me on Goodreads, where you can view my reading experience as I go through each book. I hope this blog gave you some ideas for reading going forward!3