Big Read 2020
This year’s list is drawn from a mix of books which reflect our anniversary year and the year’s theme of 2020 vision. Some of the books were first published in the 1960’s and remind us of the societal atmosphere in which NWR was formed. Some are related to diamonds, as it is our diamon anniversary.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
First on the list is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Like NWR, this Pulitzer prize winning classic celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2020. It was once judged to be the book every adult should read before they die. Exploring issues of race and class in 1930s deep south America, through the dramatic court case of a black man charged with the rape of a white girl, this classic tale of prejudice and injustice is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.
2. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Staying with the theme of race and prejudice, our second book is a hugely significant figure in the civil rights movement in 1960s America. Malcolm X was born into poverty in Harlem and went from disenfranchised criminal to community leader, Muslim minister and human rights activist. He was variously held up as a hero for his indictment of white America in the harshest terms and as a racist proponent of violence. Whatever your view, the book provides a fascinating insight into this controversial figure.
3. The L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
Another book hitting 60 next year, and returning by popular demand to our list, is The L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. This tale of a young, single, pregnant woman’s struggle to survive in bedsit-land was published eight years before legal abortions became available in the UK. A heart-warming read, the book explores friendship and love amongst outsiders and misfits. While women’s reproductive rights have been transformed over the past 60 years, this classic tale remains relevant. An English bestseller published in 1960 which became a popular film.
4. Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey
To match our anniversary, we have selected a number of books with a diamond theme. The first is Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey. Set in the Fitzwilliam family’s Georgian estate in Wentworth, Yorkshire, it is an account of family feuds, forbidden love, and civil unrest. Wentworth was surrounded by 70 collieries employing tens of thousands of men toiling to produce the black diamonds which created the family fortune as well as divisions and resentment of the class divide. This is the extraordinary story of how the fabric of English society shifted beyond recognition in fifty turbulent years in the twentieth century.
5. Blood Diamonds by Greg Campbell
From black diamonds to real diamonds, Blood Diamonds by Greg Campbell explores the bloody journey of oppression, civil war and greed from the soil of Sierra Leone to the display stands of our high street. The diamonds of Sierra Leone have funded one of the most savage rebel campaigns in modern history. This is a brutally compelling tale of how diamond smuggling works, how the rebel war has effectively destroyed Sierra Leone and its people, and how the policies of the diamonds industry have been complicit in allowing it to happen.
6. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
I’m sure this one needs no introduction nor explanation for inclusion. Published in 1963 this critique of the beliefs and institutions which kept women tied to the home is a feminist classic which explains the era and atmosphere in which NWR began. It explores the plight of the American woman during the 1950s and 60s, tracing her return to domestic life after pre-war emancipation. Friedan argues that women were socially pressured into becoming homemakers by this mystique: an idealised image of domestic femininity that was reinforced through education, popular media and academia, and exploited by advertisers looking to sell products to unhappy housewives.
7. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This book again was published in the 1960’s and highlights the inequalities and hardships suffered by many in that time. Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings recounts the story of her life up to the birth of her child. Though she faces many hardships in her life, including being raped and living in a junkyard, she is able to find love and happiness as a mother.
We may question, thinking of 2020 vision, whether this has changed today or whether a life like this could still be lived? “Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.”
8. Palm Beach, Finland by Antti Tuomainen
This choice brings in our country theme of Finland. ‘Finnish criminal chucklemeister Tuomainen is channelling Carl Hiaasen in this hilarious novel set in a bizarre Florida-style beach resort on Finland’s chilly shore. There are comically inept dim-crims, inventive psychos, a hot babe and even a blow-up pink flamingo — which is a lot for ace detective Jan Nyman to deal with when he arrives, undercover, to investigate a mysterious death’ The Times Crime Club
9. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
Explores an alternate history in which the Nazis won the Second World War. The Nazis now occupy Europe, the Soviet Union, Africa and the East Coast of the USA while Japan occupies Asia and Oceania and the West Coast of the USA.
“It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.” Pulling together the themes of 2020 vision and the 1960’s this book sees author Philip K Dick rewriting the history of the 1960’s in America.
10. The Trouble with Lichen – John Wyndham
Another 1960s classic, The Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham, is a scintillating story of the power wielded by science in our lives and asks how much trust should we place in those we appoint to be its guardians. A rare lichen is discovered to have a remarkable anti-ageing effect. One of the scientists, realising the implications for the world of an ever-youthful, social elite, wants to bury it, but his female colleague envisages using the lichen to inspire a feminist revolution.
11. The Ballad of Peckham Rye Muriel Spark and William Boyd (Introducer)
Also coming up to its diamond anniversary is The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark, with William Boyd as author of the introduction, tells the story of a devilish Scottish migrant, Dougal Douglas, who moves to Peckham in London and wreaks havoc amongst the lives of the inhabitants. A fun read!
12. Finally a bit of fun in the form of verse. Selected Poems by Jenny Joseph includes the famous ode to nonconformity, Warning. Written in 1960, it starts with the immortal line “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” — a humorous reminder to never take ourselves too seriously or lose the twinkle in our eye. Jenny Joseph was born in Birmingham, our conference venue for 2020, and has received numerous awards throughout her career.
Please email / send us your reviews for the 2020 book list by 31 January 2021 which is the copy deadline for the Spring magazine.
Big Read synopses and reviews
2019 - Music and Society - book list and synopses
2018 - Dangerous Knowledge - book list and synopses
2017 - Women in Film - book list and synopses
2016 – It's all Relative – book list and synopses