This is the May edition of Ask Harry, our monthly compilation of life affirming and mind-expanding books, podcasts and articles. Subscribe here.
Throughout history’s darkest periods, we have always been able to find grounds for optimism. No matter the tragedy – world war, famine, regressive political upheaval -- we keep on keeping on. And so it goes personally, too: difficult childhood experiences; disappointments in love, work and friendship; and soul-breaking grief might push us to the ground. But still, as the great Maya Angelou so unforgettably declared, like air, we rise.
The thing that gives us this ability to rise -- the inner strength to believe in the possibility of a tomorrow without overwhelming despair -- is hope. Without the optimism that hope brings, we risk surrendering to the slings and arrows of cynicism, to the defeatist attitude that sucks life of all its joy.
There are moments in history, and indeed in life, when we might need to be reminded of the universal truth -- so beautifully put by Albert Camus in the midst of the dark days of World War II -- that there is no “love of life without despair of life.” We hope and we despair, we hope and we despair -- wash, rinse, repeat -- all throughout our existence.
Books, and the characters that animate their stories, serve as excellent stewards through a time when we might be lacking in this essential vitamin – call it Vitamin H – that is hope. And so here, within the pages of the following books, you will meet a few of these wise guides; friends who will lift you high enough so that you can see clearly across a great expanse of optimism.
To begin, embrace the warm hug of a novel that is “The Lido,” by Libby Page. Kate is a twenty-six-year-old anxiety-ridden London journalist. Rosemary is an eighty-six-year-old widow who has lived in the south London neighbourhood of Brixton since the day she was born, and is dismayed by the deep changes facing the community she has so known and loved. When the local pool (the “lido”) – the heartbeat of the community – is threatened with closure by the looming possibility of a posh residential development, the two women come together to defend its value; to stand for what ties people to one another in a culture hell-bent on tearing us apart. This novel will lift your spirit and illuminate the often-obscured reality that the extraordinary and the understated can coexist.
Next, we introduce you to Harold Fry, the loveable protagonist of Rachel Joyce’s stunning and heart-warming novel, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” Comfortably retired, Harold Fry lives in a small suburb on the south coast of England. His days are mostly the same – he ambles on from one quotidian act to another, until a letter from a woman he has not heard from in over twenty years arrives in the mail. Queenie Hennessy, the letter’s writer, is facing her final days in hospice and wants to say goodbye. As Harold decides to deliver his response on foot, you will embark on a six-hundred mile journey on which you will meet an eccentric group of characters. Each, in their own way, will urge you to reminisce about the past, and you will realise that your story -- and the experiences that have made up your life -- carries infinite and unique meaning.
From the quaint English setting of Rachel Joyce’s imagination we set sail towards the Cuban seas of “The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella about an old fisherman and his determination to nab the greatest catch of his life. For 84 days, Santiago has returned to shore empty handed. On the 85th day, he is determined to write another fate: he heads out far beyond the realms of his usual fishing spots and proclaims: “My big fish must be somewhere.” Santiago does catch his coveted fish – a gigantic marlin – though the beast is unable to be pulled in; it is the fish that now shepherds the boat and a hungry, delirious and bone-tired Santiago, to wherever it pleases. A four-day long battle that will test Santiago to the limit ensues. Through small wins and large losses, he will retain his hope: “A man can be destroyed,” he says, “but not defeated.”
Now let’s step off Santiago’s boat and go back in time, to Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel, “Alone in Berlin.” The Second World War is raging and the city is ablaze with fear. In an apartment block on 55 Jablonski Strasse there lives, among others, the reticent couple Otto and Anna Quangel. When the Quangels are delivered a letter relaying that their beloved son has died while fighting the war in France, they are shaken out of their complacency and begin a quiet and subversive post-card campaign designed to foster rebellion against Hitler’s Germany. What follows is a haunting and deadly game: the Nazis are desperate to find the perpetrator of the treacherous campaign and will stop at nothing to do so. During a time when we might be feeling helpless or small in the face of such gargantuan challenges, may we look to the Quangels’ resistance; how even in the midst of grief and horror, they stuck to what they believed in and, in doing so, were imbued with the sort of hope that eludes those who amble blindly and value-less throughout their lives. Stripped to its essence, this book searches the depth of the self and lifts the veil off a certitude we often struggle to see: that hope is infinite, and the more we draw on it, the more emboldened it becomes.
For readers seeking hope in our own worlds and not in those of others, look no further than to the following titles: “Hope in the Dark” by Rebecca Solnit; and “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and “Enlightenment Now,” both by Steven Pinker.
“Hope in the Dark” is a luminous celebration of social and political progress over the last five decades. With eloquent urgency, Rebecca Solnit documents recent breakthroughs -- the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, the anti-trade protests in Seattle – to say to us that hope is not “like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky”; hope requires work: first the work of believing that another world is entirely possible; and second, the work of productive defiance.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature,” (in Bill Gates’ words, “One of the most important books I’ve ever read”) by the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, is an exploration of violence through time. Pinker, through his presentation of evidence that humans have gradually become less violent and more humane, offers us further reason to believe that not all is bad: all things considered – and while it may not always feel like it -- we are living in the most peaceful time in human history
“Enlightenment Now,” Pinker’s new book – and Bill Gates’ new favourite book of all time -- uses the same approach as “Better Angels” and applies it to 15 different measures of a healthy global society (health, equality, happiness, environment) and gives us a clarion call to return to the ideals of the Enlightenment: science, humanism, reason and progress. Pinker, our time’s most fervent agent of optimism, once again succeeds in shifting our gaze towards the slow, non-newsworthy, yet forward creep of human progress.
C.S. Lewis once said of children’s books: “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” Hear, hear, we say. Buckets-full of hope can be found within the pages of children’s picture books because, well, isn’t childhood hope untouched by the cynicism that adulthood inevitably brings?
“The Fox and the Star,” by Coralie Bickford-Smith, is the soul-stirring story of a friendship between a fox and a star. The star is a balm for the fox’s loneliness; her rays illuminate the way as the fox searches for food, plays chase with rabbits and frolics in the rain. But suddenly, as it does in life, change arrives without warning: the star goes out and the fox is left in the dark, attempting to find his own way. To recover his star, the fox undertakes an astonishing journey beyond his usual environs, and with sustained hope, finds something more luminescent than anything he has ever known.
For teenage readers struggling to summon the optimism required to do the hard work of growing up, we suggest you pick up Jandy Nelson’s stunningly artistic and poetic novel, “I’ll Give You The Sun.” Here, you will meet twins Jude and Noah. Noah, an artist, is isolated, bullied and in love with the boy who lives next door; extroverted Jude is undaunted by all and has forever sworn off members of the male sex. Despite their differences, they are inseparable until a tragic event tears them apart. What follows is an elegant story of alternating narratives: one is The Invisible Museum, narrated by Noah at age thirteen, which describes the Before of the event; the other is The History of Luck, voiced by sixteen-year-old Jude, which imparts the happenings of the After – three years later. With vivid descriptions and insight into the artistic workings of both Jude and Noah’s minds, we are able to gain a depth of understanding of our two protagonists that brings them both off the page and will have you hoping for resolution; both in individual pursuits of love and in their reconnection. This book sings a much needed tune: it reminds us all that nothing – no matter how bad it seems -- is irrevocably broken. There is hope in a world remade.
In March 1973, the prolific author E.B. White (of "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little" fame) responded to a letter from a man who had expressed a feeling of hopelessness when considering the future of the human race. White, in an effort to restore hope within this man's heart and mind, reminds him that human society, like the weather, has both cloudy and clear days. "Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock," White writes, "for tomorrow is another day."
This episode of the wildly popular podcast "This American Life" will have you hooked: Abdi is a Somali refugee living in Kenya who dreams of moving to the United States and becoming an American. When he wins a lottery that places him on a shortlist for a U.S. visa, he is ecstatic. But, as it turns out, overcoming long odds is a winding and unpredictable road.
In this extraordinary essay in the New York Review of Books, the great mind that is Zadie Smith reminds us that, while things do sometimes change, the progress of the past is not eradicated by it: "Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited."
Tim Urban's four-part series about Elon Musk and his various projects will blow your mind: from the future of electric cars to the possibility of a human colony on Mars, this read will expand your sense of what is possible.
While it may at times feel like it, hope is never fully extinguished. It is elusive, but it never exits without leaving even just a glimmer of promise of its return. Throughout our lives – and throughout history – hope does a little dance: it comes and it goes in a tremendously frustrating yet darkly beautiful performance. Sustaining this performance requires the act of seeing, of wholeheartedly taking the world in and crafting a story in which hope has a starring role.
The stories we weave throughout the fabric of our lives– about ourselves, about the world – are almost like our own protective blankets; they are what we carry around with us to help in our endeavour to live meaningfully. The thing we often forget though is that we get to choose what the tapestry looks like – its shape, colour and how the threads come together and break apart. The story is up to us. The reading of books – the almost religious act of immersing ourselves within worlds wildly different to our own -- allows us not only to better notice our realities, but to realise that we get to write how we experience them.
Within these tales you will find your staunchest allies. They will help you craft a story wherein hope – like a mockingbird – sits on your soul and sings a song that, while sometimes as low as a whisper, is always there. You just need to listen.
That’s it from us for this month.
Thank you for reading!
Until next month,