14 Writers Choose One Book That Gives Them Hope in a Dark Time
A Selection of This Year's Hay Festival Writers Reflect on
the Power of Reading
The Hay Festival brings writers and readers together to share stories and ideas in sustainable events all over the world. These writers are all appearing at Hay Festival events over the coming month in Querétaro, Mexico (5-8), Dallas, USA (7-8) and Segovia, Spain (19-22). We asked them to reflect on a book that gives them a little hope in these dark times.
Catalan poet and writer, appears at Hay Festival Querétaro to talk about her novel Permafrost.
Light Years by James Salter, saves me from bewilderment and disappointment because it makes me believe in literature. Its way of saying is supported by both sense and beauty, and there is a very powerful illuminating component there. It can kill you with pleasure as you read, and it can remain within you, it can settle in a deep place within you, permanently touching you, like a distant star in the attic of heaven, a residual flame that whispers long after the reading is finished, and that with its brightness it gives precisely this: hope.
Former deputy national security advisor to Barack Obama, appears at Hay Festival Querétaro to talk about The World As It Is; A Memoir of the Obama White House.
Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons is a beautiful book that doesn’t shy away from holding up a mirror to our confusing, troubling, and violent times. Sentilles allows the reader to make countless discoveries in her portraits of images, characters, and history. Her subject matter is war and peace; memory and photography. Her perspective is filled with empathy. And through her compassionate portraits and distinct prose, her main accomplishment is helping us see one another’s humanity in a distinct and—at times—thrilling way. I found myself thinking in different ways every time I put the book down, and reading it slowly so that the experience would last. Sentilles did not shy away from some of the tougher subjects in our world, and yet she left me filled with hope.
American writer, appears at Hay Forum Dallas to talk about her latest novel Red Clocks.
A book I’ve been recommending to everyone I know is Women Talking, by Canadian writer Miriam Toews. It’s an enthralling, surprising, emotionally complex novel about surviving patriarchal violence. Though based on a real-life horror story—the drugging and raping of women in a Bolivian Mennonite colony, between 2005 and 2009, by colony men—it is a deeply hopeful book. Toews focuses not on the attacks themselves but on her characters’ responses to them. We witness difficult, inspiring, uncertain, hilarious, transformative conversations among eight Mennonite women and one man in a hayloft. Immense pain does not preclude laughter and joy.
Mexican political scientist, editor, and writer, appears at Hay Festival Querétaro to talk about his latest book El incendio de la mina El Bordo.
Books are not supposed to just “give hope” as if they were cheerleaders in print. Books should disturb, complicate, and make things uncomfortable in order to push the reader to create their own understanding of reality and their own sense of hope. Sometimes the best books for that are books that describe how things should be burned down by the most unexpected of people. Such is La ruidosa marcha de los mudos, an extraordinary novel by Juan Álvarez. Through the avant-garde exploration of language and its depiction of the Colombian independence wars through the eyes of a mute character, this book challenges how we imagine heroes and convinces us that “regular” people, you and your neighbors, are the real protagonists of History.
Welsh novelist and the Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2019-20, appears at Hay Festival Querétaro and Hay Festival Segovia to talk about her latest novel, Dignity.
Rather than cite a happy ending, the exuberance of a writer’s style, their humor, or the rosiness and likeability of their characters, I’ll be honest and say that great literature, to me, is work that makes us grow, sometimes painfully, instead of work that glorifies hope or perfection and happiness. After reading a great book I can better absorb life, however I find it. So, Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, through all its sadness and its refusal of simplistic redemption, and because of its incredible wisdom, insight and compassion, is my choice here. It broadened my perspective, deepened my compassion and extended my imaginative scope. In short, it changed me and moved me forward.
German philosopher, journalist and writer, appears at Hay Festival Segovia to talk about his book, Zeit der Zauberer: Das große Jahrzehnt der Philosophie 1919–1929.
Varlam Shalamow, Kolyma Stories, New York Review Books Classics, 2018/2020. Walter Benjamin once wrote that “it is only for the sake of those without hope, that hope is given to man.” In this sense, the Kolyma Stories of 20th century Russian writer Varlam Shalamov surely belongs among the most hopeful and inspiring documents the human mind ever produced. Shalamov’s short stories and miniatures about everyday life in the gulags of Kolyma in the 1940s in Stalinist Russia give lasting testimony to the breadth and depth of human cruelty and indifference—as well as to the divine power of art and literature to transcend even the darkest of times and circumstances. Shalamov is nothing less than one of the forgotten saints of the 20th century. And reading his stories a transformative experience up to the present day.
British writer, appears at Hay Festival Querétaro to talk about his novel The Killing of Butterfly Joe.
The Crossway by Guy Stagg. In a world beset by anxiety and mental anguish fueled by crazed technological rush and fast travel, this memoir of a young man’s walk from Canterbury to Istanbul offers an unexpected antidote. Its author Guy Stagg makes a pilgrimage across Europe, via the old route known as the Crossways, into history and, most powerfully, the (troubled) interior of his soul. He takes us on a journey full of wonder and woe, poetry and pain; writing in prose that’s as sure-footed as it is unsettling in its honesty. A brave and beautiful account of a man’s search for meaning.
British historian, appears at Hay Festival Segovia to talk about her latest work, The Map of Knowledge.
Wilding by Isabella Tree is one of the most fascinating and eye-opening books I have read in a long time. In relating the story of how a Sussex farm was gradually returned to nature over the past two decades, Tree eloquently demonstrates the environment’s power of renewal and regeneration. As she and her husband stepped back and allowed nature to re-take the land, species of plants, birds, insects and animals returned, several of which had all but disappeared from Britain. The resulting environment is also capable of absorbing huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, if this model is rolled out elsewhere, it could significantly reduce our national carbon deficit. The fact that this is all possible, even after centuries of human interference and damage, is extremely uplifting—the planet is capable of giving us a second chance, if we are prepared to let it.
Argentinian-Brazilian-Canadian journalist and researcher, appears at Hay Festival Querétaro to chair a special session on indigenous languages and literature.
We’re in a futuristic dystopia about a Canada devastated by the effects of global warming and war disputes over resources, in which scientists and religious leaders have come together to persecute the descendants of First Nations. The reason? Only indigenous peoples retain in their marrow the capacity to dream, and so the white man will chase them again to extract it: they want to expropriate their dreams. But while Cherie Dimaline’s heart-rending and not-so-subtle allegory of Canada’s systematic demonization, exploitation, and destruction of its original inhabitants, The Marrow Thieves is also about dreams, about the vital necessity to dream. In the author’s own words, “dreams represent our hope, and hope is the backbone of our survival and the core of our strength.”
Jon Lee Anderson
American journalist, appears at Hay Forum Dallas to talk about journalism and politics.
I cannot think of many books that “give hope.” Most of my favorite books, in fact, are usually somber, even harrowing narratives about the human condition. A Journal of the Plague Year comes more immediately to mind than The Alchemist. Children’s books are a different matter, however—several of which had a profoundly positive influence on me—none more so than The Pai-Pai Pig, a book that was written by my mother, Joy Anderson and was published in 1967, when I was still a boy. It’s a story about a boy Su-Ling and his pet pig in Taiwan, where we lived at the time, and is both a celebration of Taiwanese culture and a redemptory tale in which Su-Ling overcomes adversity through a combination of ingenuity and humanity. It is a book that gives hope, and which also gave me hope—as I watched my mother go through the writing process—that I could one day become a writer myself.
American historian, appears at Hay Festival Querétaro to talk about her latest work, America First.
How to Survive a Plague by David France, sounds like it should be depressing: it’s an insider’s account of the grassroots campaign to end the AIDs epidemic, as people fighting the disease also had to battle the indifference, misunderstanding, and outright bigotry of political and medical leaders. France, a journalist and activist in the center of the campaign, recounts how their efforts to take control of the scientific research invented patient activism, as they had to overcome confusion, misunderstanding, national rivalries and human terror to discover a treatment and stop the spread of the disease. The book manages the impossible: it is accessible, harrowing, funny, enraging, suspenseful and enlightening, clearly communicating the medical and scientific issues while telling the stories of men facing their own and their loved ones’ sudden, terrible, suffering and mortality. As a result, it is also profoundly inspiring, a true reminder of the exceptional possibilities of the human spirit.
American journalist, will appear at Hay Forum Dallas to talk about his work reporting from Mexico.
When asked about books that give hope, this quote from Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light always comes to mind: “To survive you had to give up hope. (…) Hope was a complete denial of reality. How could these men abandoned by everyone be made to believe that this hole was only a parenthesis in their lives, that this ordeal would have an end, and that they would emerge from it stronger, better men? Hope was a lie with sedative properties. To overcome it we had to prepare for the worse every day. Those who did not understand this sank into a violent and fatal despair.” Whether you are thinking about hope, survival, or both, however, reading everything that Octavia E. Butler published, starting perhaps with The Parable of the Sower will help.
Czech novelist, appears at Hay Festival Segovia to talk about her latest novel, Un revólver para salir de noche.
There is one book which in recent years struck me as being an absolute discovery: Another Life, by Theodor Kallifatides, a Greek who became a prestigious Swedish writer. His short memoir speaks about how everything is in a state of constant metamorphosis: for example, the way in which aging changes people and writers; the changes which cities undergo because of gentrification; and the changes in countries like Greece when they are plunged into a deep economic crisis. In spite of all the changes for the worse, there is always something positive in life—when one knows where to look for it. In Kallifatides’s case it’s a Euripides play performed by students in his native village in the Peloponnese. The experience of watching the play gives him the necessary impulse to start a new life both as a person and as a writer. The book makes it clear that there is always hope, and there is always another life to live.
Norwegian explorer, appears at Hay Festival Querétaro to talk about his latest work, Walking; One Step At a Time.
The first book I ever read: The Story of Albert Schweitzer made me more hopeful for a better world. Fortunately. The book had big letters, I was ten years old, I had just learned how to read after years of struggle and I slowly started to see that wonder is the very engine in life. Schweitzer’s idea in Reverence for Life: that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil slowly opened a new horizon. I started to see that everybody can change the world. One small step at a time. Even a mouse can eat an elephant if it takes small enough bites. The challenge lies in the desire.