2 Books for Rebels

Dear readers,

Nowadays, nothing is more conventional than defying convention. Everyone from tech billionaires to hack politicians claims to be a rebel, a contrarian, a disruptor, which might mean that nobody is. Ostentatious badassery is a played-out pose. True resistance is rare and doesn’t always announce itself as such. The most radical slogan in literature might belong to Melville’s Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.”

In that spirit, I lately find myself rejecting florid dramas of opposition in favor of modest gestures of refusal — acts of subversion motivated by impatience, or a plain indifference to the way things are supposed to be: the blithe insouciance of a servant upending the assumptions of her masters; the cunning of peasants bamboozling the royal tax collector. I recommend these books to stiffen your spine in the face of what and whoever wants to stifle your spirit, usually while telling you that it’s for your own good.


Cluny Brown is not cunning or crafty; she doesn’t even think of herself as a rebel. The orphaned 20-year-old niece of a London plumber, Cluny is guileless, openhearted and supremely self-confident. She doesn’t do what is proper or expected, but what makes sense at the time, whether that is unclogging a sink, walking a dog or falling in love, first with a pharmacist and then … but I won’t spoil it.

Her good nature has a way of getting her into trouble. After a close call in the city, Cluny’s uncle Arn dispatches her to the rustic estate of Friars Carmel where she will be “in service” to Lord and Lady Carmel as a parlor maid. The formality and hierarchy of the place are anathema to Cluny’s temperament, which is naturally democratic. Her disregard for protocol, her insistence on behaving like a free person even within the constraints of her job, alarms some of her new acquaintances, confounds others, and is likely to charm even the starchiest reader.

“Cluny Brown” is a country-house farce, a coming-of-age-story and a sly political allegory. Published during World War II, it takes place in the late ’30s, and the growing threat of Naziism intrudes on the pastoral comedy in interesting ways. Lord and Lady Carmel’s idealistic son, Andrew, befriends an émigré Polish intellectual named Adam Belinski, installing him in a guest room in the manor. He and Cluny are anti-authoritarian outsiders in a highly stratified setting, disorderly characters pushing against an old order that shows signs of wobbling.

Margery Sharp (1905-1991) was a prolific and protean English writer whose surname was well earned. In “Cluny Brown” she skewers every kind of ridiculousness, with wry tolerance and abundant amusement. Her prose is efficient and hilarious, and the plot zips and swerves like a sports car on a winding road. Cluny, the picture of cheerful innocence, is also the smiling face of pure anarchy.

Read if you like: P.G. Wodehouse; Pippi Longstocking; “Mrs. Miniver”; “The Story of O.”

Available from: Open Road Media in print or e-book format; a suitably chaotic small-town book barn.

Nonfiction, 1998

This is a big book with an imposing title. Don’t let that intimidate you. Scott (no relation) is a Yale political scientist and anthropologist whose early research focused on the resistance to centralized political authority in rural Southeast Asia. Here, he ranges across geography and history, from the France of the Old Regime to mid-20th-century Brazil and the Soviet Union, telling a series of stories about how administrative power has been stymied by the longstanding habits and commonsense practices of ordinary people.

The “schemes” he explores include everything from the standardization of weights and measures to the construction of futuristic planned cities. They fail because regular citizens have other ideas.

Scott’s learning is formidable, but his prose is witty and down-to-earth. His approach is less that of an academic expert offering explanations from on high than of an explorer nimbly navigating a rugged patch of conceptual and historical ground. This method is in keeping with his argument, which is that sweeping, one-size-fits-all theoretical accounts of reality often crash against the shoals of local tradition and human intransigence.

The opposite of rationalistic, top-down thinking, in his account, is “metis,” a Greek word meaning “cunning” that he applies to the experiential, craft-based wisdom of farmers, foragers, bandits and artisans. Scott’s reading of modern history as a series of battles between metis and bureaucracy scrambles the usual left-right distinctions. “Seeing Like a State” isn’t a morality play: It can yield insights into the thinking of vaccine skeptics and anti-environmentalists, and also into the work of visionary architects and well-meaning engineers. But the book, while rigorous, isn’t neutral. The titles of some of Scott’s other works—“The Art of Not Being Governed”; “Against the Grain”; “Two Cheers for Anarchism”—indicate that his sympathies do not lie with the state.

Read if you like: “The Origin of Everything”; “Brazil,” the movie; Brazil, the country; gathering mushrooms; paying cash.

Read if you hate: The metric system.

Available from: Any well-stocked campus bookstore or Yale University Press.

  • Stream Ernst Lubitsch’s adaptation of “Cluny Brown,” starring Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer? It’s not as naughty or as fizzy as the book, but it does benefit from that inimitably suave comic style known as the Lubitsch touch.

  • Hearken to the spirit of rural rebellion in “The World Turned Upside Down,” as sung by the Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan? This anthem (also covered by Billy Bragg) commemorates the Diggers, whose experiment in communal agriculture in 1649 provoked the wrath of the landlords and the state.

  • Bring some anarchy — and some metis — into the kitchen with a no-recipe recipe?

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