I've been meaning to do this for some time, and what Francis Wheen is quoted in the post below as saying about Paul Foot - that he 'had an absolute belief in the power of the written word' - prompts me to do it today. Here is a list of 10 great books of my life (sort of). Though I've been thinking about the list for some time, I protect myself against assault by saying that these are not necessarily what I judge to be the 10 most important of the works that I've read in my life (on whatever criterion, or set of criteria, or scale). But they're all ones which have had a marked and lasting influence on the way I think about the world. They are works of non-fiction. Novels I'll do another time.
1. I start by cheating, with a three-in-one, Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast. As magnificent a treatment of a political life as I've ever read (though I would strongly recommend this and this, just by the way - both of them exceptionally fine).
2. Leon Trotsky, My Life. Also a cheat, since it's representative. I have to have the Old Boy there, but I could equally have put his History of the Russian Revolution, which I think most with such inclinations would rate more highly. I read the autobiography first, though, and it was my first serious engagement with Trotsky's life and ideas.
3. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. Still the beginning and the middle, if not quite the end, of all wisdom on its subject.
4. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization. I am not, and have never been, a Freudian. Yet Marcuse's attempted synthesis of Marx and Freud has left its mark on my image of a world of liberated human beings nonetheless, if such a world should ever come to be achieved.
5. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I. A monument - the monument - of socialist thought. I long ago ceased to accept the theory of value which it expounds, but it contains a powerful account of exploitation, among many other good things, and it is a great literary work.
6. C.L.R. James, Beyond A Boundary. Not only the best book on cricket ever written, but (in personal terms, for me) one that 'validated' my passionate interest in, and love of, the game, at a time when educated, left-wing culture was more prone than it is now to see an enthusiasm for sport as being frivolous.
7. Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism. Consolidating a philosophical direction I was already moving in, concerning the reality and the weight of nature and human nature; still, in this errant world one needs all the help one can get.
8. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars. I read it initially as an aid to trying to think about questions of revolutionary ethics (see chapter 2 of this). It is an indispensable work. Compulsory reading for anyone wanting to be taken seriously on... er, certain contemporary issues.
9. Another cheat here. I'm having an either/or because I have to have both: Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, and Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved. Ditto what I said for number 8. A person should read them. This is why.
10. Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor. Even in hell, a human moral impulse survives. All but overwhelmed, it is not overwhelmed. We need to know both parts of that last proposition.