I'll give you all the money in my wallet (£2.40, a single dollar, and a half-full Waterstones stamp card) if you can find a single person who eagerly anticipates their commute to and from work. The commute contains all the ingredients for a truly bad time: overcrowded public transport, a universal atmosphere of stress, and acute exhaustion, whether from an insufficient night of sleep or a draining day of work. Allow me to add a single, shining positive element to your twice-daily journey, however: a whole bunch of really great
non-fiction books to read on your commute. Thank me later or thank me now, because my ego is fragile and yearns for compliments.
What makes, to my mind, an excellent commuting book? There's one primary criterion: frankly, it just needs to be
really good. It needs to be diverting enough to distract from the vibes of sweat and despair in the train carriage; it should also provide some topics of conversation to stave off awkward silences in the staff room or around the water cooler. It helps if it's pocket sized, but it's not essential — at least not to me (a girl who used to carry an over-stuffed overnight bag to school every day). Fiction will do the trick, but I'm on a non-fiction kick at the minute, and given the quality of the books released over the past few years, I really think you should be too. Pick one of my choices below, and watch your commute transform from terrible to actually sort of OK.
'Women & Power: A Manifesto' by Mary Beard
You can tuck historian and
Fellow of the British Academy Mary Beard's manifesto neatly into your trench coat pocket, should you be concerned about knocking out a stranger with your overstuffed backpack on the tube (and you can read it while defiantly refusing to capitulate leg space to the manspreader next to you). The book traces the history of misogyny back to classical antiquity, looking to examples like Philomena, Athena, and the sabine women to understand the silencing and disempowerment of women that persists almost 3000 years later. To achieve true gender equality, the systems of power themselves need to be radically reformed, Beard argues. You'll find it very hard to disagree. Buy Women & Power from Amazon.
'BRIT(ish)' by Afua Hirsch
Journalist and broadcaster Afua Hirsch's phenomenal book is part history, part memoir, blending Britain's political history and colonial legacy with personal stories of racism and othering. She explores identity as a biracial British woman, born in a country that continues to revere its colonial past; she incorporates both her own experiences and illuminating conversations with others. "Hirsch’s book is more than a countrywide conversation-starter, though: it’s a deeply personal look at who she always knew she was, but didn’t feel ready to say yet," journalist Nikesh Shukla wrote in a review for the Guardian. It's already one of the most significant books of 2018, and you'd be remiss to skip it. Buy Brit(ish) from Amazon.
'Because We Are Bad' by Lily Bailey
Hearing the infuriating phrase "I'm so OCD!" will unfortunately be familiar to anyone whose job involves any remotely organisational task — which is why I've included this book; an unflinching, often brutal memoir of a life lived with OCD.
The Atlantic editor Scott Stossel, himself an anxiety sufferer, described the book "one of the best I have read on the phenomenology of OCD" in a review he penned for the Washington Post, but it's not just a didactic text — it's compelling, humane, and also unexpectedly funny. Read it, and don't stand for a single coworker telling you they're OCD about the filing cabinets. Buy Because We Are Bad from Amazon.
'Tell Me How It Ends' by Valeria Luiselli
Another slim text, readable even if you're clinging precariously to a subway pole. Writer Valeria Luiselli volunteered as a translator for undocumented Latinx children attempting to seek residency in the US, while waiting for her own green card to arrive, and compiled their devastating stories into this striking, emotive book. She exposes the cruelty and senselessness of the immigration process, relating the trauma experienced by migrant children before, during, and after their journey to the States. It's an acutely topical book given
the horror of the Trump administration's immigration policies — and it deserves a wide readership in the UK too, where recent events including the Windrush scandal intensified focus on Britain's own failures regarding immigration. Buy Tell Me How It Ends from Amazon.
'Long Road from Jarrow' by Stuart Maconie
I'm going to admit my bias upfront: I'm from a town right next to Jarrow, in Tyneside, and have long been frustrated that the
Jarrow March of 1936, the subject of Stuart Maconie's book, is so underrepresented in discussions of British history. But it's not just my obvious subjectivity influencing me to recommend this book for your morning commute. Firstly, it's about a journey of sorts, and I do love to be literal. And secondly, it features a now little-known feminist hero by the name of Ellen "Red Ellen" Wilkinson, whose activism will inspire you on your morning tube journey. In 1936, 200 men marched almost 300 miles from Jarrow to London — led by Jarrow MP Wilkinson — to protest the devastating levels of unemployment in the working-class town, and to present Parliament with a petition urging them to help. Maconie traces the path of the marchers and the continued relevance of their plight to the class-divided UK today in this warm, impassioned book. Peruse it on the bus, and disembark newly galvanised. Buy Long Road from Jarrow from Amazon.
'The Good Immigrant' edited by Nikesh Shukla
Editor Nikesh Shukla calls
The Good Immigrant "a document of what it means to be a person of colour" in the UK, according to the Guardian. Topics covered in the essay collection include the concept of the model minority, cultural appropriation, the trauma of the British colonial legacy, othering, and racial profiling, by 21 BAME writers — including Buzzfeed's Bim Adewunmi, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race author Reni Eddo-Lodge, and actor Riz Ahmed, who writes memorably on the racist scrutiny he receives in airports. It's a vital, poignant collection, and an absolutely indispensable read. Buy The Good Immigrant from Amazon.
'I Am, I Am, I Am' by Maggie O'Farrell
I'm going to be upfront here: this is a book about death, which might not be high on your list of preferred topics. But once you get into it, all reservations will dissolve. Author Maggie O'Farrell catalogues 17 brushes with death over the course of her life in this collection, a preoccupation inspired by her daughter's immune disorder which regularly triggers life-threatening allergic reactions. It's a poetic, intensely personal book, behind which, all realities will fade into a blur.
Buy I Am, I Am, I Am from Amazon.
There you go, commuters. Seven books so astonishing, you'll wish you could stay on the metro a little while longer. A request, though: don't blame me if you miss your stop.