At times it has been a slog, but in between the countless celebrity deaths, horrifying election results and humanitarian crises, we published some books that might be an antidote to the year Gary Lineker became a principal figure on the Left.
Ranging from undercover investigations in call centres, to the Communist Avant-Garde; from ethnography and biography to photography, raise a cup of kindness for our staff picks of 2016!
Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres by Jamie Woodcock
My favourite Pluto book of the year was Jamie Woodcock’s Working the Phones. Jamie is a funny and engaging speaker (check out this video of his talk at Waterstones last month) and conveys this in his written work as well.
Having spent several months working ‘undercover’ in the nightmarish world of the high pressure call centre, he is able to skillfully blend theory and ethnography into a book that is both illuminating and enjoyable. For the many people out there (nearly 4% of the UK’s working population) who have direct experience of working in a call centre, reading Working the Phones may be something of a busman’s holiday; for the rest of us, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people whose incessant phone calls we constantly try to evade.
Check out the Working the Phones website here for more info on the book.
Chaplin Machine Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde by Owen Hatherley
This is a really unique account of how Constructivism — from Weimar Germany to the USSR — was hugely influenced American slapstick cinema. It’s a really surprising book, as obviously this love of comedy is not something you’d expect. So it’s packed with film footage of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, constructivist posters, art and architecture. The cover was so tricky to work on as we had to combine all these themes in one design, but David Pearson did a brilliant job, so I hope as well as being a fascinating account, it’s also something for people to treasure for years to come. It’s the first hardback we’ve done with coloured endpapers, which give a lovely flash of red as you open the book.
Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing by Lesley J. Wood
Selected by Kieran O’Connor, Publicist
2016 was notable, amongst other terrible things, for the sheer volume of brutal killings committed by police forces in the US, primarily on unarmed black people. There has always been a high volume of such killings, but the subsequent protests coalescing under the ‘Black Lives Matters’ movement and the solidarity expressed by Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe brought the targeting of black communities by the police into sharp focus. Published in 2014, Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing by Lesley Wood is a short academic and empirical study of police forces and practices in North America since 1995 aims to answer the question of the militarisation of police from the top down where, even at a local level, the massive police presence at BLM protests, also seen at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, with weapons and armoured vehicles, looked and felt like major military deployments.
Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel Edited by Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum
I’ve chosen Activestills as my favourite Pluto 2016 title as it represents a unique and visually powerful form of reportage on Israel/Palestine, marking a refreshing return to photojournalism as a vital activity in contemporary society. Tracing the work of the Activestills collective, the book exhibits their archive of photography and ongoing political and social activity in Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. More than demonstrating the role that photographers play in protest, Activestills articulates the role played by the subjects of the photographs; activists and civilians who are rarely placed at the centre of their own stories here in the West are portrayed authentically as active agents at the heart of the struggle. This is achieved through a combination of striking photographs and compelling commentary from activists, members of the collective, journalists and academics. This book is a highly novel and subsequently invaluable contribution to the current literature on Israel/Palestine, paving the way for both visual activism and a new photojournalism more broadly to be recognised as important historical records, and authoritative documentations of social justice struggles.
Footwork: Urban Outreach and Hidden Lives by Tom Hall
I’ve waited patiently for author Tom Hall to finish a book I first contracted more years ago than I care to remember. Footwork, the result, more than justifies the wait. Tom paints a powerful pen portrait – dark, often painful but sometimes caustically funny – of the lives and challenging circumstances of Britain’s street people, and of those whose job it is to offer them support, help and sometimes rescue. It’s an unflinching look at an issue that shouldn’t even exist in modern-day Britain, but in the month that Shelter announced that 120,000 children would be homeless at Christmas, Footwork is a potent reminder that far too much remains to be done. In bringing complicated lives vividly to life, Tom has produced a masterful and moving study of a problem we should be ashamed to have.
Using Gramsci: A New Approach by Michele Filippini
To quote Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci gives us, not the tools with which to solve the puzzle, but the means with which to ask the right kinds of questions’. This book is something of a ‘how-to’ for Gramsci’s thought, to read Gramsci is not always easy, he plunges into debates now obscure and engages in a range of topics that at first seem unrelated, here, his thinking is artfully crystallised by Filippini, making this book perfect for scholars, as well as those new to his work.
Owing to Gramsci, and the work of the many people he inspired, I have learnt the urgency of being attuned to the specifics of a period when analysing culture, history and politics and that culture is never produced in isolation. I advise you to approach with caution, for never again will you read a novel without first asking; what collective fantasies are being indulged here?
W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line by Bill V. Mullen and Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary by Gerald Horne
Selected by Robert Webb, Managing Editor
These two titles, both in the Revolutionary Lives series, are fascinating, concise biographies of two massively influential twentieth-century figures. Bill Mullen brilliantly summarises the life of Du Bois, a father of Pan-Africanism and an ardent supporter of every anti-colonial struggle in his lifetime. In Paul Robeson, best known as a singer, was also a militant activist and forerunner of the likes of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Gerald Horne brilliantly tells the story of his rise and fall.
Overheating by Thomas Hylland Eriksen
What really struck me about Overheating by Thomas Hylland Eriksen is the discovery that “our knowledge is growing faster than our ability to give it sharpness and shape”, in other words, we have so much information, that we don’t even have the language to express it or even to try and make some coherent sense of it all.
Thomas said that “even in Norway” people speak twice as fast as they used to, as if in this age of mass information, we have to run just to try and make some tiny grain of sense of everything that this world is throwing at us. Phew! I need a lie down!
A People’s History of Modern Europe by William A. Pelz
Chosen by David Castle, Senior Commissioning Editor
William A. Pelz’s A People’s History of Modern Europe is a compelling tour of the most significant popular uprisings and working class movements that have emerged in Europe since the end of the Middle Ages. This is ‘history from below’ at its best – Pelz draws on a wide range of sources, in a multitude of languages, but still manages to spin a compelling narrative without getting lost in the minutiae, while at the same time throwing out fascinating tidbits from the primary sources of the experiences of ordinary women and men of the time.
All books are available from our website here.