On Books...

Opinion

15th May 2023
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My name is Nik and I’m the convenor of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB), and also a long time staff member at Housmans, a radical bookshop in London. In this little piece I’m sharing some thoughts about the role that books can play in anarchist/socialist organising.

At the simplest level books are ideas in physical form, and as politics is fundamentally a struggle of ideas (and of course the power to put those ideas into practice) it’s perhaps not surprising that books have long played such a central part in left culture. Historically the pamphlet and the newspaper were particularly crucial in rabble rousing and raising consciousness; much of that ground has now moved to writing online, but printed books seem to have maintained their central position, despite the existential challenge that eBooks have posed.

I’d go as far as to say that this is a particularly great time for radical publishing. Books sales are reported to be generally up, with mainstream publishers like Penguin increasingly getting in on the radical publishing act, suggesting that political ideas once considered fringe are becoming more commonplace. Even the once free-falling numbers of independent bookshop closures seems to have stopped, with more bookshops opening than closing in recent times. The ARB has had around 15 new shops join in the last couple of years.

I don’t think it’s contentious to suggest that explicitly-anarchist activity is at a bit of a low point these days in the UK, and anarchist publishing seems to broadly mirror that.On a positive note though, it seems to me that some anarchist ideas have become much more influential in the wider world, including the previously more hierarchical parts of the UK socialist left. Horizontalism, accountability, and the desire to correct bias and power imbalances, seem much more commonplace and common-sense than they were even ten years ago, and anarchists should take at least some credit for that.

Books could be considered a very isolated way of communicating between author and reader, each in their own private world, but it’s the way that books bring people physically together that excites me the most. Meeting up around books has long been a core part of left organising. Whether it is a talk around a new title, a regular book club, or an annual bookfair, books have long been the perfect excuse for people to get together and ideally to make connections. Nothing makes me happier than hearing anecdotes of people who got talking at a book event at Housmans and then went on to continue the relationship afterward, be it a new friendship or starting up a new activist project.

I’m convinced that it’s only through the bonds of real world social interaction that we can build strong movements. Due to profound changes in the way many of us work and reside, lots of the ways these social bonds got made in the twentieth century are either gone or greatly weakened. Book events definitely have a role to play in bringing us together.

In the past I would’ve made more of the fact that book culture can be intimidating to some, and the idea of meeting up at a ‘book event’ would put some people off.. But the social media age is also the age of democratising ideas and debate. Online spaces are filled with video essays, blog posts, hot takes, and sharing of links. Having an opinion and making it public has never felt more normal.

I feel like there is a new window of opportunity opening right now for more in-person exchange of ideas. Covid took the momentum out of in-person meetings, and hopefully that threat is increasingly in retreat. There seems to be a revived appetite for people to meet up and we’re certainly not short of political crises to discuss and agitate around.

From my conversation with customers at Housmans over the years, bookshops can certainly be a more welcoming and less intimidating way for people to come into contact with radical politics, and I think doing whatever we can to increase the sense of accessibility and normality towards revolutionary ideas, the better.

Getting people into the same room is one thing, making them feel comfortable and having a positive experience another, but for me the hardest part – and this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot but don’t have a perfect solution for – is how to get people talking to one another and allow for relationships to develop and grow beyond any single meeting.

People (myself included) cringe at exercises where they are asked to introduce themselves to the person sitting next to them, but it’s exactly that kind of thing that needs to happen more. I would love to hear people’s ideas about ways to achieve better interactions at events, and if anyone feels knowledgeable on the topic I would be thrilled if they got in touch with me (nik (@ ) housmans.com). It is certainly something we are going to try and introduce into our events programme at Housmans, once it gets rolling again this year.

The book world may seem to rest at the more sedate, theorising end of the political spectrum, as opposed to the energetic and practical world of activism, but it needn’t necessarily be so. In a way writing something and publishing it is the easy bit. The hard bit is to get people to engage with the writing and come together around it. On one level the explosion of internet writing and other modern competing attention-demands makes that somewhat harder than in the past, but while there might be a flood of shallow internet connections people can make, there’s a real appetite and need for meaningful in-person experiences. It may seem counterintuitive considering the private nature of reading, but books can be a great way of making those connections. As ever though, it is up to us to make that happen. ■

Nik

Housmans Bookshop, is a not-for-profit bookshop, specialising in books, zines, and periodicals of radical interest and progressive politics, including Organise.

You’ll find them at :
5 Caledonian Road, London, N1 9DX

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