The best books for powerful self-examination of man's treatment of man

Anton Gill Author Of The Journey Back from Hell
By Anton Gill

Who am I?

I think Zoroastrianism got it right: there's a constant knife-edge balance between good and evil, with neither quite winning; but we shouldn't be overconfident that one day that balance will tip to the bad side because that is always more dominant. Art in all forms has served dictators and tyrants as well as criticised them; few works have ever actually changed anything. If they have, it's been through literature most of all. Zola's 'j'accuse' and Sinclair's 'the jungle' are two obvious examples, but all the books I have chosen are powerful tools for self–examination, and as someone who is particularly interested in man's inhumanity to man I have found them useful. 

I wrote...

The Journey Back from Hell

By Anton Gill,

Book cover of The Journey Back from Hell

What is my book about?

The Journey Back from Hell is the result of interviews with Jewish and gentile survivors, from all walks of life, of the Nazi concentration camps. It's the result of talking to people throughout Europe, Israel, the USA, and Canada, a journey I made between 1985 and 1988. The book is now a standard work in the area of Holocaust history. 

The books I picked & why

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Les Miserables

By Lee Fahnestock, Victor Hugo, Norman Macafee

Book cover of Les Miserables

Why this book?

Victor Hugo is a consummate novelist with his finger on the pulse of the social and political history of his time, coupled with an ability to create strong and vibrant characters. You just have to look at the chapter "Petit Gervais" or the one in which Valjean gives himself up rather than see an innocent man suffer to understand this. Les Miserables is his undoubted masterpiece and if you read it, it will stay with you forever. It's hard to put a choice of favourite books in order because, like friends, you value books equally for different qualities, but this is probably the one I'd like to be buried with!


By Emile Zola, Peter Collier (translator),

Book cover of Germinal

Why this book?

Zola is another novelist whose work is firmly rooted in the real world and in the concept, increasingly relevant today, of the gross unfairness of social inequality. I can't think of a single one of his novels that I haven't been gripped by, but again, I think this is his masterpiece: the depictions of the miners and their lives juxtaposed with those of the mine–owners are excoriating. Like another favourite of mine, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Zola explores the torture of the lives of the oppressed and exploited in a way that has never yet been equalled. In this sense alone, Germinal has tremendous relevance today, as the polarisation of wealth, and our scorn for the protection of the environment leads us closer and closer to world revolution.

The Radetzky March

By Joseph Roth,

Book cover of The Radetzky March

Why this book?

Joseph Roth, an alcoholic, itinerant journalist who never had a proper home, was a friend of Stefan Zweig but enjoyed nothing like his success; yet I think this is one of the greatest neglected novels ever written. The last, collapsing days of the Austro–Hungarian empire are depicted through a family saga whose characters burn themselves onto one's mind. Claustrophobic, unremitting, reminiscent in some ways of Kafka at his best, for my money this knocks Zweig's Beware of Pity into a cocked hat! A depiction of a degenerate society at its last gasp surely also has strong parallels with the modern world.

Sentimental Education

By Gustave Flaubert,

Book cover of Sentimental Education

Why this book?

I think this is a better book than MME Bovary. It's quite in the tradition of Marivaudage but Flaubert has such a light though ruthless touch that at times you just don't know where your sympathies lie. If Flaubert has been a surgeon he's have been an expert with the smallest, finest scalpels! His technique stands in great contrast to the work of Hugo and Zola, and he certainly outmanoeuvres Balzac! I often wish he'd written more, but what he's left us is pure gold. You might like to compare this book with Fontane's Effi Briest – another stunning novel–of–manners. I was hard put to it to make a choice between these two novels for my 4th choice.

Don Quixote

By Miguel De Cervantes, Edith Grossman (translator),

Book cover of Don Quixote

Why this book?

There had to be a choice between this and my other favourite grand classic, Moby Dick, but for me, Cervantes just pips Melville to the post for his sheer, unutterably heartwarming and forgiving consideration of human nature. It's extraordinary how this 400+ year–old novel, one of the very first 'modern' novels has stood the test of time so resiliently, and the answer to that lies, I think in its absolute universality. We can all recognise parts of ourselves in the knight of the sorrowful countenance and his equally heroic squire, Sancho Panza because they are aspects of the same psyche.

For me, the translation by J. M. Cohen is still the best, though if your Spanish is good it's not that daunting in the original. I am always moved when I read this book, and I suppose if there were room, I'd have this in my coffin too!

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