Staff Choose: Summer Community Power Reads

August 7, 2020  |  By NLGN Team

This might not be your traditional summer for kicking back and relaxing with the latest page-turner, so why not try out something a bit more… powerful? Our NLGN team present their top fiction and non-fiction books on the subject of communities coming together, current and historic social politics and giant jam sandwiches.

Simon Kaye, Senior Policy Researcher

Dune – Frank Herbert

With Denis Villeneuve’s new film adaptation coming this December, it’s a perfect time to revisit Herbert’s novel of desert warfare, family grudges, and mystical breeding programmes. In the future, humanity has become a galaxy-spanning society and fractured into very different local cultures. The only thing these warring houses have in common is their total dependence on a single resource – which can only be produced in one place, populated by a fiercely independent people. But what if the self-determination of a whole culture comes at the cost of destroying the most rare and precious substance in the universe?

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past – Sarah Parcak

This incredibly accessible book shows how our understanding of the ancient world is changing as we get better at imaging it from orbiting satellites – which, counter-intuitively, gives better ‘access’ to an enormous number of archaeological sites, the majority of which are totally unexplored. Some of the findings are striking. The ‘first intermediate period’ of Ancient Egypt, 4,200 years ago, was catalysed by climate change and is usually thought of as a kind of ‘dark age’. But this new research suggests that the collapse of Egypt’s centre led to decentralisation and a cultural renaissance in local regions. And it probably helps not to be driving all the effort, talent, and treasure into vast central vanity projects like pyramids…! Paperback edition coming this August.

Pawda Tjoa, Senior Policy Researcher

Evicted – Matthew Desmond

This is a non-fiction although it portrays lives in such extreme circumstances you might think it is all fictional. In fact, it is a masterpiece in ethnographic research. The author investigated life among the poorest in American society by spending years living among tenants in trailer parks and derelict houses in Milwaukee. He then pieced their stories together to tell a narrative about the people he had come to know so well, struggling to make ends meet and pay rent and inevitably found themselves on the path to eviction. It reveals the desperation but also ingenuity of the affected community in responding to their daily challenges, as well as the network of support they rely on. This book exposes the often-underemphasised role of housing and profit in deepening poverty and inequality in America.

Depravity, fear, exploitation and violence. But also hope – in the form of a female, community-based leadership. Parallels to today (or your wished-for tomorrow) at your own discretion.

Charlotte Morgan, Senior Policy Researcher

The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The 14 brick-sized novels and one prequel in this series should be enough reading material to last until the end of summer 2021. Two of the things that make The Wheel of Time the best epic fantasy series of all time (in my humble opinion) are the extraordinarily detailed worldbuilding and the sensitive portrayal of very different communities coming together to fight a common enemy.

Viking Age Iceland – Jesse Byock

Iceland had a highly unusual social order for a European country at the end of the first millennium: ruling chieftains rather than kings or lords; free farmers; rights for women (including the right to demand a divorce from her husband); and an assembly where legal judgements were passed by panels of farmers and laws enforced by the people. As well as portraying life in Early Medieval Iceland, the book starts to examine how and why the country’s legal system and society fell apart in the 13th century.

Katy Oglethorpe, Head of Communications

Blindness – Jose Saramago

The premise of this novel by Nobel-prize Saramago is haunting and simple. A country is struck by a sudden epidemic of blindness. A man loses his sight as he sits at traffic lights. The man who tries to steal his car then goes blind too. As does the doctor who tries to treat them. What follows is the exploration of what happens to a blinded society, led by the blind. Depravity, fear, exploitation and violence. But also hope – in the form of a female, community-based leadership. Parallels to today (or your wished-for tomorrow) at your own discretion. Whatever the case, it’s a wry, moving and brain-shifting book.

What if the self-determination of a whole culture comes at the cost of destroying the most rare and precious substance in the universe?

Luca Tiratelli, Policy Researcher

A Better Politics: How government can make us happier – Danny Dorling

This book does something bizarrely unusual in British politics – it looks at the evidence of what actually makes human beings happier, and works policies out from that point. Taking this approach opens your mind up to tantalising new possibilities, while makes you question much of the way we normally talk about politics in this country.

Snow – Orhan Pamuk

This is a startlingly ambitious novel, which to some extent, is an effort to tell the entire political story of 20th century Turkey. Its method of doing this is to create characters who represent the ideological and religious forces that have shaped the country, be they nationalists, communists, secularists or Islamists. Through the ways they interact, we see in microcosm how societies are created through the interactions of ideas and communities – and how the ‘whole’ that is a nation is actually something that is in continuous flux, subjected to a never ending process of reimagining as it is buffeted by forces from below.

Rich Nelmes, Head of Network

The Giant Jam Sandwich – John Vernon Lord

“One hot summer in Itching Down, four million wasps flew into town…”. Thus begins this wonderful children’s tale in which quirky townsfolk eradicate said wasps by squishing them in them all in the titular giant sandwich. Intentionally or not (…and I suspect not), this story has Community Paradigm, asset-based approaches and new deliberative mechanisms at its core. Everyone in the village contributes their expertise, resources and energy in a process that’s kicked-off by the local council. Yes, it’s not the most intellectual book on this list but it’s the only one me and my two-year-old know by heart (plus John Vernon Lord’s illustrations are inspired!).