The best radical history books that rocked my world

Jared Davidson Author Of Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920
By Jared Davidson

Who am I?

As a reader, I want to be thrown into the heady world of revolution, to learn how everyday people made history, to see what they saw and feel what they felt. And I want a book that challenges mainstream narratives of the past. Radical history does this through gripping storytelling and revealing hidden histories of power. As a writer that tries to shine a light on lesser-known aspects of New Zealand’s past, these five books are both my ‘how-to’ and inspiration. I love to share the stories of people who are often left out of history but nonetheless made it. And being an archivist means questions of power and memory are always lurking.

I wrote...

Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920

By Jared Davidson,

Book cover of Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920

What is my book about?

In his excellent book, Dead Letters, archivist, and historian Jared Davidson introduces us to a range of extraordinary characters whose stories and struggles challenge the nationalist narratives of the war. These historical characters, as introduced in the blurb of the book, include ‘a feisty German-born socialist, a Norwegian watersider, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, a cross-dressing doctor, a nameless rural labourer, an avid letter writer with a hatred of war, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent.’ What connects this cast of characters is that their activities, their letters, and in some cases their activism against the war, was of interest to the New Zealand state. The letters they wrote, to loved ones, friends, and comrades, were never delivered, but were intercepted by the state. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic

Why did I love this book?

Charting the revolutionary Atlantic through the stories of mutinous seamen, radical soldiers, unruly women, slaves, pirates, and common workers, this is a rip-roaring example of ‘history from below.’ By revealing the hidden history of resistance and how it weaves back and forth through time and across oceans, The Many-Headed Hydra showed me the power of history told through the lives of everyday people. It’s engaging. Sweeping. Political. A deserving sibling of EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. And a great example of how pulling at threads can reveal surprising connections. A must-read and one I pull off the shelf whenever I’m in need of inspiration.

By Peter Linebaugh, Marcus Rediker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Many-Headed Hydra as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Long before the American Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a motley crew of sailors, slaves, pirates, labourers, market women and indentured servants had ideas about freedom and equality that would forever change history. The Many-Headed Hydra recounts their stories in a sweeping history of the role of the dispossessed in the making of the modern world.

Book cover of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation

Why did I love this book?

If The Many-Headed Hydra revealed a hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic, Caliban and the Witch totally upended my understanding of witches, gender, and the rise of capitalism. A landmark text that sent shockwaves across the history field, Silvia Federici’s writing on the role of unwaged and reproductive labour in the making of the modern world is unrivaled. In a testament to its power and reach, Penguin released a new edition in 2021. A book to give to every socialist dude-bro or those who doubt the importance of gender to profit and power. 

By Silvia Federici,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Caliban and the Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A groundbreaking work . . . Federici has become a crucial figure for . . . a new generation of feminists' Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room

A cult classic since its publication in the early years of this century, Caliban and the Witch is Silvia Federici's history of the body in the transition to capitalism. Moving from the peasant revolts of the late Middle Ages through the European witch-hunts, the rise of scientific rationalism and the colonisation of the Americas, it gives a panoramic account of the often horrific violence with which the unruly human material of pre-capitalist…

Book cover of Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History

Why did I love this book?

Why are some stories remembered or silenced? How does power influence the production of history? Is the past really past, and what is history anyway? First published in 1995, this weaving of personal narrative with stories of slave rebellion, black Jacobins in the Haitian Revolution, and the ‘discovery’ of the Americas was an instant classic. There’s a reason so many teachers use this book in their courses – no other text tackles the questions of silence and sources in such an accessible and succinct way. It totally shaped my understanding of how history works and I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I’m an archivist. Thanks Michel-Rolph Trouillot! 

By Michel-Rolph Trouillot,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Silencing the Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now part of the HBO docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes, written and directed by Raoul Peck

The 20th anniversary edition of a pioneering classic that explores the contexts in which history is produced—now with a new foreword by renowned scholar Hazel Carby
Placing the West’s failure to acknowledge the Haitian Revolution—the most successful slave revolt in history—alongside denials of the Holocaust and the debate over the Alamo, Michel-Rolph Trouillot offers a stunning meditation on how power operates in the making and recording of history.

This modern classic resides at the intersection of history, anthropology, Caribbean, African-American, and post-colonial studies, and…

Durruti in the Spanish Revolution

By Abel Paz, Chuck Morse (translator),

Book cover of Durruti in the Spanish Revolution

Why did I love this book?

Durruti is a massive 800-page biography of a Spanish anarchist that carried “the future in is heart and a gun in each pocket” and, at the same time, portrays the twists and turns of the Spanish Revolution and the millions of people who made it. A model of how to place a radical, working-class life within a broader context, Durruti is also a blow-by-blow account of a revolution and its battles, trials, and upheavals. I shamelessly tried to re-create such a gripping biography when writing my own book. Who would have thought an 800-page brick could be such a page-turner?

Book cover of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

Why did I love this book?

To be honest I could have picked any Adam Hochschild book. To End All Wars undoubtedly shaped the storytelling of my book. But King Leopold’s Ghost was my first and the most memorable encounter with his work. Not only is Hochschild a master of narrative nonfiction; he weaves the most amazing stories through real-life characters in ways that many novelists would envy. Yes, the topic of this book is heavy. Yes, this is an important history that strikes at the heart of colonialism and rapacious empire. Yet just as important is Hochschild’s approach to telling that history, his awareness of audience, of plot and prose. If you want to learn how to write an engaging narrative-driven account of the past, read this book.

By Adam Hochschild,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked King Leopold's Ghost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize, King Leopold's Ghost is the true and haunting account of Leopold's brutal regime and its lasting effect on a ruined nation. With an introduction by award-winning novelist Barbara Kingsolver.

In the late nineteenth century, when the great powers in Europe were tearing Africa apart and seizing ownership of land for themselves, King Leopold of Belgium took hold of the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. In his devastatingly barbarous colonization of this area, Leopold stole its rubber and ivory, pummelled its people and set up a ruthless regime that would reduce…

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