The best readable books on human rights

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann Author Of In Defense of Universal Human Rights
By Rhoda Howard-Hassmann

Who am I?

I am a scholar of international human rights and comparative genocide studies. My father was a refugee from the Holocaust. So I was always interested in genocide, but I did not want to be another Holocaust scholar. Instead, I introduced one of the first university courses in Canada on comparative genocide studies. From a very young age, I was also very interested in social justice: I was seven when Emmett Till was murdered in the US. So when I became a professor, I decided to specialize in international human rights. I read a lot of “world literature” fiction that helps me to empathize with people in places I’ve never been.

I wrote...

In Defense of Universal Human Rights

By Rhoda Howard-Hassmann,

Book cover of In Defense of Universal Human Rights

What is my book about?

In this book, I defend the universality of human rights. I argue that the entire range of rights is necessary for all individuals everywhere, regardless of sex, color, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or social class. I ground my defense of universality in my conception of human dignity, which I maintain must include personal autonomy, equality, respect, recognition, and material security. I take issue with scholars who argue that human rights are a “Western” quasi-imperialist imposition on states in the global South, which risk undermining community and social obligation. Rather, I argue, human rights support communities, but in turn they must be protected by both states and individuals. I contend that only social democracies can be considered fully rights-protective states.

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The books I picked & why

Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler,

Book cover of Darkness at Noon

Why did I love this book?

I studied under the distinguished sociologist, Immanuel Wallerstein. One day in class he said, if you read only one book, it should be this one. So I read it. 

Koestler was a Hungarian Jew who joined the German Communist Party. He became disillusioned with communism, in part because of the Stalin trials of the 1930s, in which many of Stalin’s own former allies were tortured and executed. 

The protagonist of the novel is Rubashov, a dedicated Communist who is accused of treason, tortured, and eventually executed despite confessing to his supposed crimes. The novel is a great way to learn not only about the Stalinist Soviet Union, but about any society that brain-washes its victims. 

By Arthur Koestler,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Darkness at Noon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The newly discovered lost text of Arthur Koestler’s modern masterpiece, Darkness at Noon—the haunting portrait of a revolutionary, imprisoned and tortured under totalitarian rule—is now restored and in a completely new translation.

Editor Michael Scammell and translator Philip Boehm bring us a brilliant novel, a remarkable discovery, and a new translation of an international classic.

In print continually since 1940, Darkness at Noon has been translated into over 30 languages and is both a stirring novel and a classic anti-fascist text. What makes its popularity and tenacity even more remarkable is that all existing versions of Darkness at Noon are…

Dreams Of Trespass: Tales Of A Harem Girlhood

By Fatima Mernissi, Ruth V. Ward (photographer),

Book cover of Dreams Of Trespass: Tales Of A Harem Girlhood

Why did I love this book?

Fatima Mernissi was a Moroccan feminist. This book is her memoir of growing up in a harem (an enclosed all-female space) in Morocco in the 1940s and 50s.

It dispels many of the stereotypes and prejudices that many Westerners hold about how Islamic society treats women. The harem Mernissi grew up in was a warm and loving space. One of the elderly women living in it had been a slave, but was now cared for by the family. It was also a space where women could talk about their condition and consider ways of rebelling against it.

I assigned this book to a class on women’s human rights in the 1990s. It was very popular among the students, including the one man, whose background on his father’s side was Palestinian.

By Fatima Mernissi, Ruth V. Ward (photographer),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dreams Of Trespass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I was born in a harem in 1940 in Fez, Morocco..." So begins Fatima Mernissi in this exotic and rich narrative of a childhood behind the iron gates of a domestic harem. In Dreams of Trespass , Mernissi weaves her own memories with the dreams and memories of the women who surrounded her in the courtyard of her youth,women who, deprived of access to the world outside, recreated it from sheer imagination. Dreams of Trespass is the provocative story of a girl confronting the mysteries of time and place, gender and sex in the recent Muslim world.

Book cover of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Why did I love this book?

This was the first book I read on North Korea.

North Korea is a combination of the Soviet Gulag and Auschwitz. Under the reign of the three Kims (grandfather, father, and son), North Koreans have endured malnourishment and starvation since the 1990s. Most of this would been avoidable if the government hadn’t had ridiculous economic policies forbidding private enterprise, and also imprisoned anyone who criticized the Kims’ rule. 

Remick is a journalist who introduces North Korea to a general audience by interviewing six refugees.  I “assigned” this book to one of my ladies’ book clubs and they found it very interesting and easy to read.

By Barbara Demick,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Nothing to Envy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eye-opening account of life inside North Korea—a closed world of increasing global importance—hailed as a “tour de force of meticulous reporting” (The New York Review of Books)

In this landmark addition to the literature of totalitarianism, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un), and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population.
Demick brings to life…

Book cover of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape

Why did I love this book?

This 1975 feminist discussion really opened my eyes when I was a young scholar to how pervasive rape is all over the world. 

Brownmiller discusses rape during war, during pogroms, and during persecutions of various kinds. She focuses on sexual violence against Blacks during slavery, and against American “Indians,” as they were then called.

She also discusses prison rape and sexual violence against children. She investigates the literature on the psychology both of rapists, and of victims of rape. Although much has changed since 1975, this is a classic that anyone interested in the history of feminism, or the history of rape, should read.  

By Susan Brownmiller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Against Our Will as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling feminist classic that revolutionized the way we think about rape, as a historical phenomenon and as an urgent crisis—essential reading in the era of #MeToo.
“A major work of history.”—The Village Voice • One of the New York Public Library’s 100 Books of the Century

As powerful and timely now as when it was first published, Against Our Will stands as a unique document of the history, politics, and sociology of rape and the inherent and ingrained inequality of men and women under the law. Fact by fact, Susan Brownmiller pulls back the centuries of damaging lies and…

Book cover of The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

Why did I love this book?

This is one of the first books in English on what we now call the Holodomor, the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s.

It’s now estimated that about 3.3 million people died in this famine, which Stalin imposed via a policy of “collectivization.” Under this policy, Ukrainian peasants had to turn over their entire harvests to the state, leaving nothing for themselves to eat: some even turned to cannibalism. Things were so bad that the government put up posters saying, “eating people is wrong.” 

When Conquest published this book in 1986, many people denounced him as a right-wing anti-communist, but since then many other scholars have proved him right. This was one of the first books I read when I started teaching courses on comparative genocide studies in the 1980s. 

By Robert Conquest,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Harvest of Sorrow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Harvest of Sorrow is the first full history of one of the most horrendous human tragedies of the 20th century. Between 1929 and 1932 the Soviet Communist Party struck a double blow at the Russian peasantry: dekulakization, the dispossession and deportation of millions of peasant families, and collectivization, the abolition of private ownership of land and the concentration of the remaining peasants in party-controlled "collective" farms. This was
followed in 1932-33 by a "terror-famine," inflicted by the State on the collectivized peasants of the Ukraine and certain other areas by setting impossibly high grain quotas, removing every other source…

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Interested in the Soviet Union, Morocco, and the economy?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Soviet Union, Morocco, and the economy.

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