The best books to help us think of others and want to help others

Don LePan Author Of Animals
By Don LePan

The Books I Picked & Why

Black Beauty

By Anna Sewell, Kristen Guest

Black Beauty

Why this book?

I always assumed that this book was for children only; in fact, as I discovered when Kristen Guest’s excellent edition was published a few years ago, it was written in simple English so that working-class readers with little education would be able to enjoy it. Sewell wrote her novel to try to improve the lives of horses, who were often horribly abused in the nineteenth century. Her book is fascinating for its narrative strategies, and it’s a tremendously powerful story emotionally. It made a real difference to the ways in which horses were treated—and it continues to powerfully influence humans to think more often and more sympathetically of non-human animals.

I particularly recommend Guest’s edition of the novel, which includes several appendices of fascinating historical background materials.


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Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life

By Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Jennifer Foster

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life

Why this book?

Gaskell wrote this novel at a time when workers and their families in Britain’s industrial cities labored under intolerable conditions, and it was all too common for their suffering “to pass unregarded by all but the sufferers,” as Gaskell puts it in her preface. Her aim in writing the novel was to bring their plight to the attention of those better off—and to engender sympathy for their plight in the hearts and minds of readers. In the first half of the novel, she succeeds completely; it would be impossible for any reader to remain unmoved while reading of the lives of the Wilson family and the Barton family. The second half of the novel succeeds less fully, but the first half remains as powerful a piece of writing as I have ever read.


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Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement

By Peter Singer

Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement

Why this book?

Few books have had as great an impact on how humans think of our fellow creatures as has Singer’s Animal Liberation. In exploring the ways in which humans treat other animals—including, with utter honesty, the ways in which we have treated the animals that we intend to consume—Singer’s aim was to stir “emotions of outrage and anger, coupled with a determination to do something about the practices described,” as he writes in the preface to the book. To my great shame, I confess that, for some years after I read the book in the early 1990s, I resisted the impulse to “do something about the practices described.” But the message stuck with me and kept nagging away; finally, some four or five years later, I began to speak out against factory farming—and to change my diet.  


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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

Why this book?

Ehrenreich set out to discover what it would be like to live as the poor in America do, scraping by on minimum wage jobs in fast food restaurants and cleaning the houses of the rich. In writing in gripping detail about those experiences, she opened the eyes of many better-off Americans to the struggles that the poor are forced to deal with. George Orwell did something similar in the early 1930s, and his account (Down and Out in Paris and London) is just as good as Ehrenreich’s, but hers is more recent and thus more relevant to life today; sadly, little has changed for low-wage workers in the twenty years since it appeared.


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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

By Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Why this book?

This is a simply but eloquently written book. It’s the story of what happens to a boy who suffers from—and is forced to participate in—the horrors of an extended civil war in Sierra Leone, and of his survival and eventual rehabilitation. It is a wrenching book to read—and yet in the end it’s a heartwarming and inspiring book too, not least of all because Beah so clearly has a warm heart himself. If you read the book, it’s hard not to feel that we should all be doing more to help those to whom Life deals the worst hands. Beah himself continues to be an inspiration: “I’ve dedicated my life,” he says, to try to “make sure that what happened to me doesn’t continue to happen to other children around the world.”


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