The best books that illuminate systems of power and oppression

Joy Lisi Rankin Author Of A People's History of Computing in the United States
By Joy Lisi Rankin

The Books I Picked & Why

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

By Kate Manne

Book cover of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

Why this book?

Of the books on this list, read this first. And if you only read one, make it this one. Down Girl changed how I see the world. I continue to consult it in my own writing and teaching. Manne convincingly argues that misogyny is the police force of sexism, meaning a system of structures, practices, and behaviors that enforce and reinforce binary gender norms. In other words, misogyny is not just an individual hatred of women, and this means that men and women alike are capable of misogynist actions. Manne also pays close attention to how race, socioeconomic class, and power structures intersect with misogyny. This will change how you read the other books I recommend.

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The Once and Future Witches

By Alix E. Harrow

Book cover of The Once and Future Witches

Why this book?

I here reluctantly admit that I only recently began reading speculative fiction (thanks to a collaboration with my friend and colleague Amy Johnson). The Once and Future Witches is at once historical and speculative. Harrow weaves the story of three sisters named Agnes Amaranth, Beatrice Belladonna, and James Juniper together with the American women's suffrage movement and witchcraft simultaneously familiar yet reimagined. It is a magnificent story, but it’s also a thoughtful meditation on gender, race, and what different kinds of power look like, especially when considered from new perspectives. I simultaneously couldn’t stop reading and didn’t want it to end. Also, just say the sisters’ names aloud to yourself, an alliterative delight.

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The Empress of Salt and Fortune

By Nghi Vo

Book cover of The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Why this book?

This novella packs in more memorable moments than many much longer books. Like The Once and Future Witches, it’s also a work of speculation that addresses history. But mainly, it’s a fantastic story that happens to dance with big questions like: Who gets to write history? Who do we remember and why? What artifacts matter? Nghi Vo subtly addresses these questions while spinning a tale of an Asian empire, its rulers, and its inhabitants. The cleric Chih, their remarkable bird Almost Brilliant, and the elderly woman Rabbit together create a compelling, grand tale of world-building. It’s beautiful to read, and it’s been nominated for several awards including the prestigious Hugo.

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The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1

By N.K. Jemisin

Book cover of The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1

Why this book?

I will be the first to admit that I was late to the N. K. Jemisin party. And if you’re not familiar with her work, run out and obtain the Broken Earth trilogy, of which The Fifth Season is the first book. Don’t just take my word; it won the 2016 Hugo Award. And then Jemisin went on to make history as the first author to win three consecutive Hugo Awards, one for each book in the Broken Earth trilogy. On my first reading of The Fifth Season, I was struck by how Jemisin brilliantly imagined a world simultaneously distant and different from 21st century Earth yet so devastatingly familiar in its structural racism, colonialism, and technological chauvinism (the idea that technology can solve any problem).

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By Min Jin Lee

Book cover of Pachinko

Why this book?

Women are the heart of Pachinko, which makes the opening line all the more compelling: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Min Jin Lee creates a memorable account across several generations of ethnic Koreans making their lives in Japan – against a tide of overwhelming Japanese anti-Korean discrimination. Pachinko makes manifest patterns and practices of racism as well as sexism and misogyny. As Lee told interviewer Lindsay Wang recently: “The people who are enforcing systems of power against other groups that have less power are often people who aren’t that powerful…That’s what’s interesting — it’s not like you have the king saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ Very often, it’s your father-in-law who says, ‘Don’t do this.’”

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