The best books to inspire the activist in you

Ron Goldberg Author Of Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York
By Ron Goldberg

Who am I?

I’m a nice gay Jewish former wannabe actor turned AIDS activist. I joined ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, in 1987, and for the next eight years, I chaired committees, planned protests, led teach-ins, and facilitated our weekly meetings. I visited friends in hospitals, attended far too many AIDS memorials, participated in over a hundred zaps and demonstrations, and earned the title of ACT UP’s unofficial “Chant Queen.” It was the hardest, most intense, most rewarding, most joyous, and most devastating time of my life. Aware that I had witnessed history, it became my mission to record what happened and to make sure our story was not forgotten. 

I wrote...

Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York

By Ron Goldberg,

Book cover of Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York

What is my book about?

Boy with the Bullhorn is an immersive, chronological history of the New York chapter of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and a memoir of my coming of age and activist education during the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic. Told with great heart and surprising humor, it offers an intimate look into ACT UP's tactics and strategies as we successfully battled politicians, researchers, drug companies, religious leaders, the media, and an often-uncaring public to change the course of the AIDS epidemic. Combining personal accounts with diligent documentation, it captures the spirit of ACT UP and the adrenaline rush of activism―the anger and grief, but also the love, joy, and camaraderie.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

By Taylor Branch,

Book cover of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

Why this book?

Though I was only nine years old, I still remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Years later, I found inspiration for my own activism in the great Eyes on the Prize documentary. So, as I became more involved with ACT UP, it was only natural that I looked to the stories of the civil rights movement to help ground and navigate my activism. Parting the Waters blew my mind. It went beyond the well-known stories of Dr. King to give me a fuller understanding of the breadth of the civil rights movement—the failures and compromises, as well as the famous successes. And while I found new heroes like Bayard Rustin, I gained an even greater appreciation for the bravery of the movement’s many foot soldiers. 

The Gay Militants

By Donn Teal,

Book cover of The Gay Militants

Why this book?

In 1989, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Stonewall, a group of ACT UP members decided to form a study group to learn about the history of queer activism. Surprisingly, I could find almost nothing about the gay liberation movement until I stumbled upon The Gay Militants in a used bookstore. I was amazed at my good fortune. Here was a detailed, first-hand, and contemporaneous history of the first year of gay liberation after Stonewall, filled with original documents, outrageous quotes, and the campy exhilarating joy of activism. I couldn’t believe how many of our actions (and internal conflicts) echoed those of these early groups and how many of our enemies remained the same.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

By Rebecca Solnit,

Book cover of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

Why this book?

Rebecca Solnit is one of my favorite thinkers. In this book, she discusses how utopian communities often come about in response to disaster and explains as well as anything I’ve read how activist communities are forged. She does this by showing how natural or manmade disasters can bring out the best in people when social and economic boundaries become less important than helping one another survive. Using examples ranging from the San Francisco and Mexico City earthquakes to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she demonstrates that when disparate individuals discover a shared and larger purpose, even the most terrible circumstances can create joy. 

A Map of the World

By David Hare,

Book cover of A Map of the World

Why this book?

Before I was an activist, my favorite audition monologue was from David Hare’s play, A Map of the World. Set at an international UNESCO conference (and, in a meta-framing, the set of a movie retelling the same story), the centerpiece is a Shavian debate between a young leftwing reporter and a celebrated rightwing author. “You will never ever understand any struggle unless you take part in it,” says the idealistic reporter in a speech that still speaks to me today, as it pits the messy, hard work and, yes, failures, of activism against the comfortable cynicism of those who criticize from the sidelines. I would later discover this same play inspired Larry Kramer to start writing The Normal Heart.

Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist

By Larry Kramer,

Book cover of Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist

Why this book?

In Reports from the Holocaust, Larry Kramer charts his own journey into AIDS activism, through a collection of his articles, speeches, jeremiads, and public pronouncements dating from the earliest days of the AIDS crisis. A combination gadfly, angry prophet, activist conscience, and provocateur, Larry was also a huge pain-in-the-ass and an unyielding and loving advocate for the gay community—all of which is on full display here. The book includes his incendiary “1,112 and counting,” written in 1983, which first awakened me (and the rest of the gay community) to the political dimensions of the AIDS crisis, as well as his speech four years later, that led to the formation of ACT UP. I defy you to read this book and not want to take to the streets in protest.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in HIV/AIDS, altruism, and civil rights?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about HIV/AIDS, altruism, and civil rights.

HIV/AIDS Explore 28 books about HIV/AIDS
Altruism Explore 12 books about altruism
Civil Rights Explore 99 books about civil rights

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Myth of Sisyphus, Japan at War, and Meditations if you like this list.