Books to Change the World

Hello, and welcome back to The Wonderlost Reader. Today I’m talking about the books that I’ve read over the last five years that have had a really strong impact on me: they’ve changed the way I think about, and see, the world.

I’ve split it up into 6 different categories: race, mental health, poverty/inequality, politics in general, the environment, and gender.

If you’d like to watch me talk about this list, check out the video linked below. Otherwise, read on.

Race

Natives by Akala

About the book: Race and class have shaped Akala’s life and outlook. In this unique book he takes his own experiences and widens them out to look at the social, historical and political factors that have left us where we are today. Covering everything from the police, education and identity to politics, sexual objectification and the far right, Natives speaks directly to British denial and squeamishness when it comes to confronting issues of race and class that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain’s racialised empire.

What I learned from the book: Natives was one of the early books I read on the topic of race, and it provided me with good starting point for understanding an experience outside of my own. I grew up in a predominantly white community, and so race wasn’t really discussed or confronted. I think is a good book for starting to enter into that discussion, as well as learning about how race and class (socio-economic status) intersect.

White Rage by Carol Anderson

About this book: Carefully linking historical flashpoints when social progress was countered by deliberate and cleverly crafted opposition, Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage. Compelling and dramatic in the unimpeachable history it relates, White Rage will add an important new dimension to the national conversation about race in America.

What I learned from this book: I read this during the global discussion that was happening in the summer of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in America. Though I knew a lot more about racism and black history at this point, some of the information in this book still really shocked me. For example, I didn’t know about voter suppression in the US, and how the requirement of identity documents in some states at the ballot box means that it’s practically impossible for black people in those states to vote. Chillingly, this is a tactic now being used by the British government.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

About this book: In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerising storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her – from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it – in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations – and whose story inspires us to do the same.

What I learned from this book: As the description states, Becoming is an incredibly inspiring book written by an incredibly inspiring woman. To read the story of someone who grew up in a not-too dissimilar way to myself, to read about her defying the low expectations placed on her by a world that only saw the colour of her skin and (the American equivalent of) her postcode, shows that though it’s incredibly hard, it is possible to be more than the limits the world places on you.

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup cover

About this book: A memoir by Solomon Northrup as told to and edited by David Wilson. A slave narrative of a black man who was born free in New York State but kidnapped in Washington D.C., sold into slavery, and kept in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana. He provided details of slave markets in Washington D.C. and New Orleans, as well as describing at some length cotton and sugar cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana.

What I learned from this book: This is the first book about slavery that I read, and it really opened my eyes to what slavery truly was beyond the facts and figures I was taught in school. This is a very real humane experience of a deep injustice, and I think books like this should be required reading in schools. Yes, learn the facts, but also learn about the human beings behind them.

Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo

About this book: What if the history of the transatlantic slave trade had been reversed and Africans had enslaved Europeans? How would that have changed the ways that people justified their inhuman behaviour? How would it inform our cultural attitudes and the insidious racism that still lingers today? We see this tragicomic world turned upside down through the eyes of Doris, an Englishwoman enslaved and taken to the New World, movingly recounting experiences of tremendous hardship and the dreams of the people she has left behind, all while journeying toward an escape into freedom.

What I learned from this book: While this wasn’t one of my favourite books from a ‘pleasure’ reading perspective, I did find that it really made me think about the legacies, in particular, of slavery. Seeing this world in reverse highlighted things I didn’t know about the way slavery still affects out world today, and this is another book that I think should be required reading in schools and universities, because it really does bring the topic ‘home’, as it were. It shows that slavery isn’t just in the past, it still affects the way culture treats and sees black people today.

Things Fall Apart by China Achebe

About this book: Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler and warrior alive, and his fame spreads throughout West Africa like a bush-fire in the harmattan. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Then Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With the world thrown radically off-balance he can only hurtle towards tragedy.

What I learned from this book: I’ve read Things Fall Apart several times now, and each time I’m struck by how much this short story humanises the colonisation of Africa, and the changes white people brought to the people living on the continent. It’s one thing to know something was wrong on an intellectual level, to rationalise the reasons for the injustice, but it’s another to feel that injustice yourself. This book accomplishes that. I felt an echo of the pain Okonkwo feels as his life and world are irrevocably altered, and that’s the power of good fiction.

American India Stories, Legends, and Other Writings by Zitkala-Sa

About this book: Zitkala-Sa wrestled with the conflicting influences of a American Indian and white culture throughout her life. Based on a Sioux reservation, she was educated at boarding schools that enforced assimilation and was witness to major events in white-Indian relations in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Tapping her troubled personal history, Zitkala-Sa created stories that illuminate the tragedy and complexity of the American Indian experience.

What I learned from this book: Before reading this book I knew very little about Native Americans and what really happened to them when the British arrived on their shores. I knew nothing about residential schools and the horrors they inflicted upon children. I knew nothing about the ways Native American culture was almost erased from history. This book was just the beginning of learning, and I’m still learning, but it was a powerful beginning. If nothing else, read the short stories Zitkala-Sa wrote about her time at a residential school, as those are the most illuminating, and the most powerful pieces in this collection. This topic isn’t talked about nearly enough.

Mental Health

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

About this book: It all begins with a fugitive billionaire and the promise of a cash reward. Turtles All the Way Down is about lifelong friendship, the intimacy of an unexpected reunion, Star Wars fan fiction, and tuatara. But at its heart is Ava Holmes, a young woman navigating daily existence within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

What I learned from this book: Turtles All the Way Down is about OCD. it’s the most realistic portrayal of the mental illness that I’ve ever read. Which does mean it comes with a massive trigger warning, and this book is not for everyone. But if you want to understand obsessive thoughts, this is the book to read.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

About this book: A novel about one man’s descent into mental illness, following the death of his brother in childhood. Filer is a mental health nurse with a unique and startling insight into mental illness, and this book highlights a much-neglected subject.

What I learned from this book: The Shock of the Fall is about schizophrenia, and prior to reading it, I had very little knowledge of this psychiatric illness. The blurb says it all really. This isn’t a topic that’s talked about enough, even now that mental illness is more out in the open. I think this book is a good starting point for understanding and learning more about this particular experience.

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 by Naomi Higashida

About this book: Naomi Higashida shares his thoughts and experiences as a twenty-four-year-old man living each day with severe autism. In short, powerful chapters, he explores school memories, family relationships, the exhilaration of travel, and the difficulties of speech. He also allows readers to experience profound moments we take for granted, like the thought-steps necessary for him to register that it’s raining outside. Acutely aware of how strange his behaviour can appear to others, he aims throughout to foster a better understanding of autism and to encourage society to see people with disabilities as people, not as problems.

What I learned from this book: Put simply, I learned about autism. Obviously, not all forms, but in its most severe form I walked a mile in the shoes of someone coping with it. I read this book quite a few years ago, and I think it’s about time for a re-read, but I do remember that listening to it felt like the world expanding to take in a very different perspective to my own. This book exemplifies why mental health is on this list: the more we read about others’ experiences, the more compassion we, hopefully, have. The more we understand each other, perhaps the better of a world we’ll have.

Poverty/Inequality

Chavs by Owen Jones

About this book: In modern Britain, the working class has become an object of fear and ridicule. Exposing the ignorance and prejudice at the heart of the chav caricature, Owen Jones argues that the chav stereotype is used by governments as a convenient fig leaf to avoid genuine engagement with social and economic problems and to justify widening inequality.

What I learned from this book: Going into Chavs, I already had a good understanding of the term and the problematic nature of it. I just didn’t realise how deep the use of it went, and quite how blatantly the media uses it to demonise a certain section of society. I don’t always agree with Owen Jones (he can be a bit sensationalist for my taste) but this book does a good job of unpicking the ways the British media treat the poor in order to create a us/them divide that justifies a lot of the policies the government have implemented over the last few years.

Poor by Caleb Femi

About this book: In Poor, Caleb Femi combines poetry and original photography to explore the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham. He contemplates the ways in which they are informed by the built environment of concrete walls and gentrifying neighbourhoods that form their stage, writes a coded, near-mythical history of the personalities and sagas of his South London youth, and pays tribute to the rappers and artists who spoke to their lives.

What I learned from this book: This is another book that gave me a different perspective on life. The poetry in it is some of the best I’ve ever read, and that’s partly because it feels like it’s speaking a cultural language I understand. Though I’m not a person of colour, I understand a lot of the feelings expressed in the poetry, and it introduced me to a new way of understanding what ‘poor’ can mean.

Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

About this book: In this memoir, award-winning Aberdeen-born novelist Kerry Hudson returns to the towns she grew up in around the UK. She lived in seven different places before the age of 15, in a succession of council estates and B&Bs for the homeless, and attended nine primary schools and five secondary schools. In returning to these places, she hopes to uncover long-buried truths about her own life and also illuminate what life is really like for Britain’s poorest today.

What I learned from this book: I didn’t so much learn from this book as felt seen and validated. It’s a perspective very close to my own, and so I want more people to read it and perhaps start to understand what poor means in Britain. She also talks about the reasons for the issues amongst the poor in the UK. So I think this book is the beginning of a really important conversation that we desperately need to have in this country.

V by Tony Harrison

About this book: An epic poem in which Harrison returns to the cemetery of his native Leeds, confronting the working class world he escaped from trough the grammar school system. Now a poet, he communes with the version of himself he could have been had he stayed in one of the northern cities most affected by Thatcher’s employment policies.

What I learned from this book: Thatcher’s era was before my time, and though I knew of her legacy, and the things she did, I didn’t, and still don’t, fully understand the affects she had on certain parts of the population of Britain. This poem, though highly personal in nature, does help to start to understand the divides her policies have left behind, as well as the deterioration in communities her policies had the most impact on. V is also useful in starting to understand that sense of having one foot in one world, and one in another, which many of us feel, though the worlds we belong to are different.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

About this book: I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons. I Am Malala will make you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world.

What I learned from this book: From reading this book I gained a deeper understanding of the area of the world where Malala is from, and where the Taliban operate. In this book I saw a community changing. Though they faced hardships, before the Taliban shot Malala and changed the course of her, and her family’s, life, that change was happening. Malala’s father’s school was beginning to educate girls. I think for me, this book shows that development in non-Western countries doesn’t always need intervention from those of us who might think we ‘know better’ – change can come from the communities themselves, and perhaps should.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

About this book: The intelligent and outspoken child of radical Marxists, and the great-granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor, Satrapi bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and one of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. This is a beautiful and intimate story fulll of tragedy and humour – raw, honest, and incredibly illuminating.

What I learned from this book: I learned that Iran is a more complex country than the one painted in the media. Persepolis really gave me the beginnings of an understanding of a culture I know very little of.

Politics

No Logo by Naomi Klein

About this book: No Logo is a cultural manifesto for the critics of unfettered capitalism worldwide. Equal parts cultural analysis, political manifesto, mall-rat memoir, and journalistic expose, No Logo is the first book to put the new resistance into pop-historical and clear economic perspective. Naomi Klein tells a story of rebellion and self-determination in the face of our new branded world.

What I learned from this book: Before reading No Logo I had no idea about the history of manufacturing moving from Western countries to non-Western countries. I had no idea of the reasons behind it, or how brands no longer really manufacture their own products. They buy products and put their brand, their logo on them. We, in turn, live branded lives, our identities tied up in the logo on our trainers, our backpacks, our water bottles. This book was my introduction into how global capitalism functions, and how advertising and branding really works.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

About this book: This is the story of the rise of disaster capitalism. Thrilling, revelatory, The Shock Doctrine cracks open the secret history of our era to expose how the powerful cash in on chaos to brutally remake the world in their image.

What I learned from this book: This book genuinely blew my mind. I was aware of the ulterior motives behind a lot of political events, but I didn’t know how deep a lot of it runs. Klein describes events in this book through the lens of what the powerful stood to gain from them. She talks about events such as Hurricane Katrina, and the way politicians used it to replace public housing with more profitable uses of the land. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. As always, do your own research, and think for yourself, but I have little reason to doubt most of this is true.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

About this book: Rutger Bregman shows that we can construct a society with visionary ideas that, in fact, wholly implementable. Every milestone of civilisation – from the end of slavery to the beginning of democracy – was once considered a utopian fantasy. New utopian ideas such as universal basic income and a fifteen-hour work week can become reality in our lifetime. Bregman takes us on a journey through history, beyond the tradition left-right divides, as he introduces ideas whose time has come.

What I learned from this book: There are potential answers. Ideas such as a universal basic income have been trialled in different countries, and the results haven’t been bad. For most forms of positive change, all we need is the political will. Change is possible. There is hope.

Environment

Heat by George Monbiot

About this book: Our civilisation has leveraged the awesome power of fossil energy to create a world that only a short time ago would have been nearly unimaginable. Our health, our wealth, our leisure, our freedom from tyranny and struggle, are all benefits bestowed upon us by harnessed energy of oil and coal. But our atmosphere is filling up with carbon dioxide, which traps the sun’s heat, causing the temperature of our planet to rise. We cannot go on enjoying the benefits of this dirty energy. We must either address the problem, which will be a tough challenge involving many sacrifices, or ignore it, with unthinkable consequences. Monbiot offers an ambitious and far-reaching program to cut our carbon dioxide emissions to the point where the environment scales start tipping away from catastrophe.

What I learned from this book: This is the first book I’ve read that, based on real scientific data, offers an actual example of what the world would look like if we were to take the climate crisis seriously and make real change towards averting the worst affects of it. It’s a sobering book.. The harsh truth is that the path Monbiot shows would require a lot of personal sacrifice from the Western world. The truly frightening realisation I had, was that that’s not likely to happen. The political will isn’t there, and neither is the person will, it seems.

Gender

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

About this book: Award-winning campaigner and writer Caroline Criado Perez shows in this book how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population. She exposes the gender data gap – a gap in our knowledge that is at the root of perpetual, systemic discrimination against woman, and that has created a pervasive but invisible bias with profound effect on women’s lives. In making the case for change, this powerful and provocative book will make you see the world anew.

What I learned from this book: This book explained so much about the world: from my discomfort with large smartphones, to my struggles reaching the top shelves in shops. The world was not designed for me. It was designed for men, based on statistics taken from the male population. Medications aren’t routinely tested on women, and so the listed side-effects are ones males have experienced – so next time I have a side-effect that isn’t listed, I’ll know why.

Well, that’s it. That’s my list of books to change the world for now. I plan on updating this list on an annual basis with new books that I’ve read that have profoundly affected the way I think and what I believe. Have you read any of them? Do you have any you’d add to the list?

Let me know, and until next time, keep reading and keep questioning.

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