Top 10 books about unlikely revolutionaries | Books


Revolutions are often associated with great upheavals and bloodshed – accompanied by metaphors of eruptions and earthquakes. Revolutionaries are often portrayed as heroic figures – strong and invincible – but the reality is often very different. For example, revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson wielded pens instead of swords. I have always been fascinated by the men and women who used ideas and words to fight their battles. Or those who quietly rebelled against their oppressors and undermined and outwitted them with their wits, philosophy, covert operations, humor and non-violent resistance.

My book Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self tells the story of a group of brilliant poets, thinkers and philosophers who came together in the last decade of the 18th century in the small German university town of Jena and changed the way we think about ourselves, the world and nature. At a time when most of Europe was held in the iron fist of absolutism, they placed the self at the center and imbued it with the most exciting of all powers: free will and self-determination. They did this by giving dazzling lectures and writing books, pamphlets, articles and poems – and with pens as sharp as the French guillotine. “A writ set armies in motion,” wrote the poet Novalis, it was “the word liberty.”

For this piece, I’ve chosen a combination of fiction and non-fiction books because their “heroes” are all unlikely revolutionaries.

1. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
This is a fascinating account of a period (roughly from Cook’s Endeavor and Charles Darwin’s Beagle Journey) that brought together science and poetry, rationalism and emotion, painstaking observation and imagination – all united by the notion of ‘miracle’. The revolutionaries here are astronomers, botanists, chemists, explorers and poets – and together they launched what Holmes calls “a revolution in romantic science”. It’s also an evocative reminder of how much this sense of wonder has been erased from science today.

2. The Story by Richard Powers
I’ve read a lot of “cli-fi” over the past three years and Powers’ novel is by far my favorite. There are several protagonists here that could deserve a spot on this list. For example, there are Nick and Olivia who fight to protect a giant sequoia by living high in the tree for months. Or the botanist Patricia Westerford, who is based on the real-life scientist Suzanne Simard – a forest ecologist who discovered that trees communicate with each other through an underground network of roots and fungi. Westerford – like the real Simard – turns everything we know about trees upside down. It’s mind-boggling and visionary. The multi-core novel is a masterpiece in which science and poetry are deeply intertwined.

3. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
The unstoppable Becky Sharp – orphaned, lower class and determined to get her way – is an anti-heroine and definitely an unlikely revolutionary. She defies her humble origins and takes her destiny into her own hands. Extremely independent, cheerful and funny, she tries to seduce gullible men into marriage. You don’t have to like her because she takes what she can, cheats and cheats, but unlike other Victorian women (in novels and in real life), she refuses to be tied down to the role society had intended for her to be. women like her.

4. This is the hour of Lion Feuchtwanger
In my early twenties I devoured Feuchtwanger’s books – and this is one of his best. It is a historical novel from 1951 about the Spanish artist Goya who used his brush as a weapon. We see Goya become a court painter to the Spanish crown and follow his heady affair with the Duchess of Alba. But instead of conforming to social expectations and playing his part in court, Goya rebels when he uses his famous Los Caprichos (printed engraved caricatures) to criticize the aristocracy, the Catholic Church and address social injustice.

5. Hymns to the Night by Novalis
Novalis is one of the main characters in my book Magnificent Rebels (as well as Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel The Blue Flower). He was a poet but also a mine inspector and died at the age of 28 – frozen in time and youth, he became the epitome of the young romantic. Hymns to the Night (1801) is a set of six long poems – magical strange verses playing with night and death – hailed as the most important poem of the young German Romantics. Although Novalis did not fight absolute rulers or injustice, he revolutionized literature. Novalis’ mesmerizing Hymns to the Night turns against the strict rules of neoclassical poetry and the polished sophistication of French drama, dissolving order and division, expectations and metrical patterns. It is a promise of what was to follow.

Ordinary people risked their lives to make the world a better place… Harriet Tubman, founder of the real underground railroad, c1860-75. Photo: Harvey B. Lindsley/AP

6. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
At the heart of Whitehead’s novel is Cora, a slave girl who flees a Georgia plantation where she was born. She is hunted, raped by mobs and captured again and again and confronted with the horrors of slavery. The revolutionaries here are the black and white activists who formed a secret network of safe houses and routes in the early 1800s that helped enslaved workers escape from plantations in the South to the northern states. In Whitehead’s imaginative and fictional retelling, this metaphorical “underground railway” becomes a literal system of underground tracks and stations. Beyond Cora’s story, this gripping and devastating novel evokes how ordinary people risked their lives to make the world a better place.

7. View of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt
Born in 1769, Humboldt was a Prussian aristocrat who became the most famous scientist of his time. He revolutionized scientific writing when he combined empirical observations and data with poetic landscape descriptions. To me, Views of Nature is the blueprint for nature writing today. Although Humboldt is almost forgotten today, his ideas about nature have shaped our thinking. He saw the world as a living organism and an interconnected whole – and predicted harmful human-induced climate change more than 200 years ago. Views of Nature was his favorite book – and it’s still worth reading.

8. Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali
Set in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Ghali’s bitingly funny novel follows the narrator Ram as he tries to find his place in a chaotic, post-colonial world. He lives on the edge of extreme privilege and appears disaffected, yet he is drawn into a world of politics and anger at the legacies of imperialism. Making his way through the clubs of Cairo and the streets of London, Ram is a highly unlikely revolutionary – and probably a failed one – in his attempts to form an authentic self in a traumatized society. Love and politics wake him up, but how will he survive, or the revolution?

9. A Vindication of Women’s Rights by Mary Wollstonecraft
“I shall regard women first in the great light of human beings, who, like men, are placed on this earth to display their faculties,” Wollstonecraft wrote in this seminal work in 1792. For a woman to write a political book to write, advocating for women’s rights at a time when fathers and husbands controlled every aspect of their daughters’ and wives’ lives was extraordinary enough – but to write it under her own name (rather than remain anonymous) was even more revolutionary.

10. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Carson trained as a marine biologist and was a gifted writer. In Silent Spring she evokes in beautiful prose the devastating effect of synthetic pesticides on nature. The book’s impact was seismic, eventually leading to the banning of DDT and inspiring a whole generation of environmentalists.

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf is published by John Murray. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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