When I started this blog in January 2017, I mentioned two particular ‘housing’ books and I have since meant to write more, but events keep taking over and I have covered other housing things instead. It has always been clear to me that housing is not just about policy or conditions, but what housing means to those who live there. It is of course about, but goes far beyond condition, affordability and security to how that house feels. This is about housing as home.
In this respect we can learn much from books that are not necessarily explicitly about housing to back up more academic housing policy books. Other books, including biographies and novels, can offer a subjective perspective about what housing and home mean.
Home of course is about lots of things: place, identity, belonging (or not), autonomy, control (or not), empowerment, ability to change over our life-course. It means more than perhaps we will ever know and in a previous post I was surprised by the responses I received about memories of their earlier home.
Aligned to this, housing studies tend to be seen more as a science rather than an arts subject which can sit uncomfortably with some of us. This isn’t necessarily a holistic way to understand the importance of what housing fully means. In this respect it is useful to refer to some universities who require their students to study the humanities alongside their scientific subject (see Bristol and Online course examples) as part of wider learning. Some medical students, for example, now take classes in literature and there is evidence to show that including humanities in teaching can enhance the learning experience and make it feel more valid, encourage greater sensitivity and help deliver more understanding and empathetic practitioners. The humanities can help support social and cultural understanding and provide greater context along with opportunities for reflection and personal growth. The same can be said of using ‘movies in the classroom’ (more on top 10 housing films coming soon…). We have also previously already looked at music about housing, which again can have an impact on learning.
When we wrote The Stuff of Life: Public Heath in Edwardian Britain we wanted to include a range of sources. I wrote the chapters on The Home and Planning, and amongst other sources drew from Margaret’ Forster’s memoirs Hidden Lives, which documented her grandmother’s life as a domestic maid and also Robert Tressell’s novel: both authors are mentioned below.
So then, here are my Top 10 housing as home books, but there are many more, and some I have not included due to space. I’m starting with the two I mentioned back in 2017, but these are in no particular order. All tell some form of story, and I have always liked stories. All have influenced my thinking and at different stages of my own life, when different things were happening. Most are on my bookshelf and some I have re-read:
- Margaret Forster: My Life as Houses is very interestingly titled and takes us through one of my favourite authors and the influence on her homes in shaping her life. This has received very mixed reviews, but I like it because it’s very original and shows how our houses shape us, or represent us, or both.
- Bill Bryson: At Home: A short history of private life in which each page is full of a huge range of fascinating facts and it is clear that an immense amount to work that must have gone into creating this volume. Lots of pages touch on things you didn’t realise you already knew about very ordinary household things.
- Alexander Masters: Stuart: a Life backwards (and the film). Without giving away the story, this is essentially about struggles with adverse childhood experiences and class: different housing comes into play during different aspects of this biography and for different reasons.
- Robert Tressell: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This possibly part semi-autobiographical novel (we’re note entirely sure) traces what it means to live in poverty with some beautiful, troubling descriptions of poor housing and hopelessness.
- Alan Johnson: This Boy. A Great autobiography including his family struggling to live in condemned housing in London, area clearance and what went next.
- Frank McCourt: Angela’s Ashes (and of course the film). This could well be my also time favourite autobiography, about growing up in poverty mainly in Catholic Ireland, what happened with their various housing, and an aspiration to move on and find something else
- William Morris: News from Nowhere, important I guess as the utopic novel of people and their natural world, with reference to housing and included here also because Morris himself was so influential in arts and craft inspired design.
- George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London and of course The Road to Wigan Pier, both of which document struggles with somewhere to call home alongside inadequate living conditions during the 1930s, with critique of housing policy in failing to meet so many needs
- Dervla Murphy: Wheels within Wheels (and many of her excellent more international books) this incredible author goes back to her early years in Ireland and describes many things, including her housing and local community and how important it was in her development.
- Mamphela Ramphele: A Place Called Home – life in the migrant labour hostels of Cape Town, this doesn’t quite fit with the creative novel/biography idea, but this publication strongly influenced my thinking about the meaning of home at a time I was doing some work about South Africa’s post-Apartheid housing policy (way back in 1994). It contains stories or ordinary hostel dwellers backed up by photographs of living conditions. The late Joe Slovo’s powerful speech around this time was that housing was not just about facts and figures, but that housing went to the root of a more decent and dignified life for all South Africans. I’m still trying to find this quote, and will add it when I can. (I have now found it again; read it here).
- I know I said 10, but I have to of course add 11) Practically anything by Charles Dickens (see the Wellcome Living with Buildings Health and Architecture exhibition post, using some Oliver Twist to quote which novels tell us that “nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor until dwelling places are made decent and wholesome”. It’s hard to disagree with this).
- Oh, and another – Janet Frame, to the Is-Land, again an excellent author, writing about her life growing up in a household in poverty in New Zealand, inspired by her mother’s aspiration to herself be a poet.
- Ok, perhaps I shouldn’t have put a number on this. This is definitely the last. Fergal Keane: Letters to Daniel. Beautiful and sensitively written snippets of childhood and home in Cork, Ireland, and then who it led him to become.
This is of course only a start. If you have favourites, I’d be interested to hear. And why they affected you.
Addendum August 2019
I have a novel to add by Isabel Allende – The House of the Spirits -featuring pivotal homes with different meanings for all. I first read this back in 2000, the re-read and watched the excellent film just recently (prompted by a memory from writing the above post).
For a later post featuring film (September 2019), click here: Top 12 films about housing and home.