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

Who am I?

I’m now a historian, and I focus on gender, race, and technology. But before that, I worked in education and the tech industry. I have firsthand experience with how people and technologies shape each other, often in ways that reinforce existing systems of racism and misogyny. Now, in my research, writing, and teaching as a historian, I think a lot about how to make manifest the structures of power, supremacy, and inequity that shape our lives. I’ve found that fiction is a powerful way to understand and analyze them, and to see them in our own lives. That’s why four of these five books are novels.


I wrote...

Book cover of A People's History of Computing in the United States

What is my book about?

My work in the tech and education industries inspired A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Our popular American origins stories around contemporary digital culture center on what I call the “Silicon Valley mythology” – the idea that tech had “Founding Fathers” like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. Instead, my book argues that 1960s and 1970s American students and educators created personal computing and social networking on academic networks.

At their most idealistic, these networks aimed to be communities that fostered creativity, collaboration, and connection; however, because tech can never be separated from the societies in which it operates, these networks fostered macho computing culture.

The books I picked & why

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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.

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

By Kate Manne,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Down Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Misogyny is a hot topic, yet it's often misunderstood. What is misogyny, exactly? Who deserves to be called a misogynist? How does misogyny contrast with sexism, and why is it prone to persist - or increase - even when sexist gender roles are waning? This book is an exploration of misogyny in public life and politics, by the moral philosopher and writer Kate Manne. It argues that misogyny should not be understood primarily in terms of the hatred or hostility some
men feel toward all or most women. Rather, it's primarily about controlling, policing, punishing, and exiling the "bad" women…


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.

The Once and Future Witches

By Alix E. Harrow,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Once and Future Witches as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

'Glorious . . . a tale that will sweep you away' Yangsze Choo, New York Times bestselling author of The Night Tiger

'A gorgeous and thrilling paean to the ferocious power of women' Laini Taylor, New York Times bestselling author of Strange the Dreamer

In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when…


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.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

By Nghi Vo,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2020 Crawford Award!
Winner of the 2021 Hugo Award!
A Hugo Award-Winning Series!

A 2021 Locus Award Finalist
A 2021 Ignyte Award Finalist
A Goodreads Choice Award Finalist

"Dangerous, subtle, unexpected and familiar, angry and ferocious and hopeful... The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a remarkable accomplishment of storytelling."―NPR

A 2020 ALA Booklist Top Ten SF/F Debut | A Book Riot Must-Read Fantasy of 2020 | A Paste Most Anticipated Novel of 2020 | A Library Journal Debut of the Month | A Buzzfeed Must-Read Fantasy Novel of Spring 2020 | A Washington Post Best SFF…


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).

The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1

By N.K. Jemisin,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked The Fifth Season as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the end of the world, a woman must hide her secret power and find her kidnapped daughter in this "intricate and extraordinary" Hugo Award winning novel of power, oppression, and revolution. (The New York Times)

This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land…


Pachinko

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.’”

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Pachinko as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* The million-copy bestseller*
* National Book Award finalist *
* One of the New York Times's 10 Best Books of 2017 *
* Selected for Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club *

'This is a captivating book... Min Jin Lee's novel takes us through four generations and each character's search for identity and success. It's a powerful story about resilience and compassion' BARACK OBAMA.

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in empresses, exile, and witches?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about empresses, exile, and witches.

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