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. 

The books I picked & why

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

By Peter Linebaugh, Marcus Rediker,

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

Why 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.


Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation

By Silvia Federici,

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

Why 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. 


Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History

By Michel-Rolph Trouillot,

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

Why 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! 


Durruti in the Spanish Revolution

By Abel Paz, Chuck Morse (translator),

Book cover of Durruti in the Spanish Revolution

Why 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?


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

By Adam Hochschild,

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

Why 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.

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