Welcome to “What Matters Now”

A New Feature Edited by James Cairns, Senior Editor


In the New York Times Book Review column “By the Book,” featured authors answer questions about their reading tastes and habits. Which books are currently on your nightstand? What was the last truly great book you read? Near the end of the survey, the featured author is asked: If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? 

In the time of President Trump, answers often play on the Chief Executive’s presumed aversion to literature. Celeste Ng recommends Trump look at “Have You Filled a Bucket Today,” a picture book morality tale for preschoolers.

We may regret that the president won’t finish the Booker shortlist this year, but why assume that leaders ought to read at all, or that it makes sense to recommend books to those in high office? There aren’t book review features asking what Drake, Emma Stone, or the Toronto Maple Leafs should read. There’s something special about the relationship between politics and books.

The roots of the connection might seem obvious. Politics and books are about ideas. But what profession or form of activity doesn’t involve stories, theories, histories? Moreover, while politics certainly can be cerebral, it is no less about the material world. Politics is made of struggles over how to organize human bodies, physical resources, urban infrastructure, fences and doors – material things, flesh, food, land. Identifying the special connection between books and politics requires a little more thinking.

The literary critic Terry Eagleton defines the political as “no more [and no less] than the way we organize our social life together, and the power-relations which this involves.” If we consider the role of books in representing, defending, and challenging those power-relations, we see more clearly the co-constitutive nature of modern literature and politics. In the feedback loop of literary-politics, action motivates writing, books diagnose social problems and prescribe fixes (ranging from reactionary to revolutionary), which in turn inspire new political action.

The history of citizenship, workers’ struggles, law, the nation-state, and feminism are inseparable from clashing visions of those institutions and movements: visions that are often given life in books. The history of book culture is political, and modern politics, while not exclusively bookish, has always been shaped by books. Literature is uniquely capable of exploring how people live together and the power-relations this involves.  

Some people gather political wisdom best by reading fiction. You can learn about the gendered nature of rural settler culture in Canada by reading scholarly research, but you might see it more vividly in Alice Munro’s short stories. Struggles over power, from the interpersonal to geopolitical, are brought to life through the images, characters, and emotions that create fictional worlds (think Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and anything by Ursula LeGuin). 

Hamilton Review of Books already provides superb literary criticism with an eye on social power. This fall, however, we’re launching a new section – “What Matters Now” – which extends our focus to regularly cover nonfiction grappling with explicitly political issues. 

There is a politics to every book, and the book critic’s work is always political. What’s distinct about “What Matters Now” is its focus on nonfiction books raising fundamental political questions, such as: Who rules, and how are social hierarchies maintained? Why do masses of people sometimes go along with the ruling order, and sometimes rise up to overturn it? What would alternative futures driven by alternative institutions look like?

In “What Matters Now,” critics will reflect on how a book engages such fundamental questions, in addition to its more specialized focus. For example, David McNally’s Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Fernwood, 2010), is an accounting of the dynamics leading up to the 2008 financial crash. But it is also a call to action against a destructive, unjust political-economic system, in the name of achieving genuine democracy and social justice.   

In the decade since McNally’s Global Slump appeared, there’s been a surge of new books examining the crises of our age. Democracy in crisis, the environmental crisis, crises of migration, the Brexit crisis, the debt crisis, a crisis of journalism, the West in crisis. What we mean by crisis, and whether we’re in as many of them as it seems, are questions I’ll explore in a future “What Matters Now” essay. Here, I want to highlight the growing sense that the stakes of contemporary politics are extremely high. Regardless of your feelings about international women’s strikes, the threat of climate change, Canada’s ongoing colonial project, the re-emergence of socialism in mainstream politics, deeper cuts to the already-gutted welfare state, or the latest round of culture wars on campus, this is a time of intense debates over big political questions. Think of “What Matters Now” as HRB’s contribution to making those debates as productive as possible.     

My background as a teacher and writer is in the field of social and political theory. I’ll write a short introductory essay to each edition of “What Matters Now,” reflecting on how the books our critics review speak to each other and to local issues. In a world in which inequality is increasing, and attacks on marginalized people, racism, sexism, and other heinous social crimes aren’t going away, it’s important to ensure a far-ranging discussion informed by diverse perspectives and histories.

The first “What Matters Now” section will appear in HRB’s upcoming fall issue. We’ll encourage broad reflection on the state of democracy through books focusing on the climate crisis, gender and the city, and the growing chorus of voices arguing that democracy is the problem in the first place. Over the coming year, “What Matters Now” will also include essays, interviews, and the odd foray into journalism from a variety of writers. If there’s an issue, a book, or an event you think would fit well here, please do send me a note: james.i.cairns@gmail.com

As a dedicated HRB reader, I’ve always appreciated the organic politics of the publication. HRB showcases a wide variety of author and critic voices from independent book publishers. Questions of power and identity are central to the journal. I’m excited to join the excellent team here, and contribute an even more concentrated political approach to books and ideas of the moment.

Finally, in gratitude for all the inspiring literary-politics out there, here are links to three of my favourite recent pieces doing the kind of thinking and writing we hope to contribute to with “What Matters Now”: