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Words 25/04/2017

The revolutionary books that inspired these writers

Five young writers on the literary works that changed how they see the world

On Sunday 30 April at Waterstones Piccadilly, a selection of writers from across the Writers of the World Unite! Festival will talk about the book that changed their lives and how other people's work inspired their own career. Tickets are free and are available here

Owen Jones


The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst

I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty in my early 20s, and it was terrifying and chastening. For someone who perhaps came to LGBT politics belatedly, it was a sobering reminder of what gay men suffered in the 1980s: the HIV epidemic that ravaged lives and communities, the social rejection, the sheer moral hypocrisy of their haters.

But it was also a book that vividly painted the traumas of Thatcherism. This wasn't a book whose subjects were the victims of deindustrialisation, or miners, or print workers. 

No: this was from the side of the victors. Recent Oxford graduate Nick Guest – a gay man – stays with the family of Gerald, a newly elected Tory MP. This is a time of Tory triumphalism, and that pulses through the book. It's a story of sex, of drugs, of being an outsider desperate for acceptance. When Gerald and his family's world starts falling apart, Nick realises just how precarious the acceptance of people like him actually is. The veneer of tolerance vanishes. A lesson for our time of backlash. And again, AIDS. He is forced to confront the death of his ex-boyfriend from this terrible illness – at a time of such terrible rejection and hatred. 

The Line Of Beauty means so much to me for two reasons: one, the grim triumphalism of those who won in the 1980s; and two, the need to keep fighting for the total liberation of LGBT people.


Saleem Haddad

Orientalism - Edward Said

I read Edward Said’s Orientalism as part of a course I was doing while studying in Canada. I had arrived from the Middle East just a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks, and the four years that followed were dominated by a dangerous public discourse about Arabs and Muslims: stories about how Muslim societies subjugate women, discussions about the absence of freedoms in the Arab world, and soliloquies railing against the alleged hatred ‘Arabs and Muslims’ had for ‘Western civilisation’.

Orientalism helped me understand the power stories have in constructing collective imaginations. Said explained how Western colonial powers constructed stories of ‘the East’, to rationalise European colonial interventions as noble civilising missions. Through this, he showed how storytelling is one of the most potent tools at the disposal of the powerful. While not as directly destructive or brutal as guns and bombs, the power of storytelling is insidious and long lasting.

Without reading Orientalism I don’t think I would have had the confidence to write. But armed with Said’s ideas, I’ve learned how – in my writing – I can engage with these stories, subvert them, manipulate them, and make them acknowledge the voices of those they try to speak for.


Xiaolu Guo

Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak

I read Doctor Zhivago when I was in my early 20s. It was one of the novels that inspired me to become a writer. I felt a strong resonance between the book’s political background and the China of the 1970s and 80s, when I was growing up. 

Just as writers in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period,  we writers in China have all faced severe censorship. 

Doctor Zhivago was first published outside of Russia, in Italian in 1950s. When Pasternak handed over his manuscript to his Italian friend, he said: “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad.” When the Soviet literature bureaucracy heard that the Italian translation was about to be published in 1957, they forced the publisher to return the manuscript to Russia. A few months later, Pasternak was informed that he had received the Nobel Prize. Under enormous pressure from the Soviet authorities, Pasternak had to decline the prize.

The novel has a poetic spirit. The struggle to live, love, be free and to be an artist are its perpetual strengths. The richness of Pasternak’s language and imagination establish Doctor Zhivago as a book for us all and for all times.


Ellie Mae O’Hagan

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

Everyone has a book we read at a particular time in our lives that seems to make the world unfold before us. For me, that book is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. 

Heller’s protagonist, Yossarian, flies planes for the USA in World War 2. Desperate to escape the carnage, he resorts to increasingly strange measures to get out of serving. But even when he sits naked in a tree and refuses to come down, Yossarian always seems the sanest character in the novel. Why do those around him accept the horror willingly? Why don’t they take their clothes off, run away, do anything to stay alive? “It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead,” Yossarian observes.

I read Catch-22 on the recommendation of my father. I was 20 years old, travelling India on azure trains. Trying to make sense of a country that was so different to my own, Catch-22 helped me look back at Britain and contemplate that maybe we were the crazy ones. Why are we so comfortable in a world with such terrible injustices? Our insouciance is an illness, a madness. Nothing brought that home to me more than Catch 22.


Caleb Femi

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was a silent revolution for an unsuspecting mid-teen boy who only picked up the book because it was recommended by a girl he fancied. I was a student familiar only with books of western narratives, perspectives and culture. Achebe laid before me a rich tapestry of Igbo culture and a seldom-seen perspective of colonial history embodied by a proud and conflicted Okonkwo. It was the first novel that highlighted how long starved I was of reading stories that did not adhere to the western model of language. I appreciated the mixed dialects and syntax in the novel, which cemented the nature of the story both historically and culturally. After reading Things Fall Apart, the 16-year-old me finally understood, as if waking from a deep slumber, the importance of young people reading books from non-European narratives and perspectives in order to balance out their perception of the world and the human condition.

In the particle of me that cares for this, I betrayed those little atoms with a kiss