The best books on nonviolence

2 authors have picked their favorite books about nonviolence and why they recommend each book.

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Nonviolence

By Mark Kurlansky,

Book cover of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea

The author is perhaps best known as an instigator of the “microhistory” field of study (of which I’m an avid fan and sometime practitioner). But he’s also a chronicler of protest, including one book on the worldwide demonstrations of 1968 and another, Ready for a Brand New Beat, that notes the civil rights impact of Martha and the Vandellas’ "Dancing in the Street". I’ve often felt that I was born late, just missing so many of the cultural convulsions that have informed my writing. With Non-Violence (2006) Kurlansky gives us a historical foundation for the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.


Who am I?

I’m the author of five books on subjects ranging from comedy and music to sports and pants (specifically, blue jeans). I’m a longtime Boston Globe contributor, a former San Francisco Chronicle staff critic, and a onetime editor for Rolling Stone. I help develop podcasts and other programming for Sirius and Pandora. I teach in the Journalism department at Emerson College, and I am the Program Director for the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival and the co-founder of Lit Crawl Boston.


I wrote...

Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

By James Sullivan,

Book cover of Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

What is my book about?

“Protest” music is largely perceived as an unsubtle art form, a topical brand of songwriting that preaches to the converted. But popular music of all types has long given listeners food for thought. Fifty years before Vietnam, before the United States entered World War I, some of the most popular sheet music in the country featured anti-war tunes. The labor movement of the early decades of the century was fueled by its communal “songbook.” The Civil Rights movement was soundtracked not just by the gorgeous melodies of “Strange Fruit” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but hundreds of other gospel-tinged ballads and blues.

My book is an anecdotal history of the progressive movements that have shaped the growth of the United States and the songs of all genres that have accompanied and defined them.

Until We Reckon

By Danielle Sered,

Book cover of Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair

This first book is nonfiction, but it’s a key book for carving out the imaginative space that makes nonviolence make sense. If you’re like me, you grew up taking for granted that locking up people who do crimes (a form of state violence) is the gold standard for keeping everyone else safe. Nonviolence, the reasoning goes, may be more morally pure, but at the cost of being effective. Sered’s book takes a hammer to this assumption, methodically dismantling the myth that the carceral system does much at all to support victims’ healing and safety. Until We Reckon provides a critical reality check for what benchmark nonviolent solutions should be compared to.


Who am I?

I’m a lifelong sci-fi/fantasy reader who loves the way speculative fiction helps us explore who we are, what we could become, and how to troubleshoot the future before we get there. As a parent and active community member, I’m looking for fresh perspectives on how to tackle the increasingly complex challenges of our time, perspectives that go beyond simplistic solutions like finding bad guys and killing them in climactic battles. I hope books that showcase nonviolent social change in all its complexity can help us imagine better ways to make a difference in our own lives.


I wrote...

Pledging Season

By Erika Erickson Malinoski,

Book cover of Pledging Season

What is my book about?

A deep dive into the power and complexity of restorative justice, Pledging Season follows two characters on a colony world of Earth as they wrestle with the matriarchal society they live in. One, a brilliant geneticist whose gender bars him from the career he dreams of, must find a way to challenge the forces that keep him in his place. The other, a newcomer mourning the loss of her people’s way of life, must choose between fitting in and staying true to the nonviolent values she holds dear. Together, can they reimagine the way the world “has” to be?

The Devil Comes Courting

By Courtney Milan,

Book cover of The Devil Comes Courting

Along with authors like Alyssa Cole and Talia Hibbert, Courtney Milan is a luminary of romance’s liberatory wing. If love can conquer all, let’s aim it at something worthwhile! This book takes one of humanity’s deepest nonviolent instincts, the desire for one another, and shows how it gives people the strength to support each other through the hard work of building a better world. I want to recommend all of Milan’s books, but from a nonviolence perspective, The Devil Comes Courting stands out because of the way it also wrestles with what reconciliation (the last step in Kingian nonviolence) really means.


Who am I?

I’m a lifelong sci-fi/fantasy reader who loves the way speculative fiction helps us explore who we are, what we could become, and how to troubleshoot the future before we get there. As a parent and active community member, I’m looking for fresh perspectives on how to tackle the increasingly complex challenges of our time, perspectives that go beyond simplistic solutions like finding bad guys and killing them in climactic battles. I hope books that showcase nonviolent social change in all its complexity can help us imagine better ways to make a difference in our own lives.


I wrote...

Pledging Season

By Erika Erickson Malinoski,

Book cover of Pledging Season

What is my book about?

A deep dive into the power and complexity of restorative justice, Pledging Season follows two characters on a colony world of Earth as they wrestle with the matriarchal society they live in. One, a brilliant geneticist whose gender bars him from the career he dreams of, must find a way to challenge the forces that keep him in his place. The other, a newcomer mourning the loss of her people’s way of life, must choose between fitting in and staying true to the nonviolent values she holds dear. Together, can they reimagine the way the world “has” to be?

The Better Angels of Our Nature

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

We often complain that the world is getting worse, but in fact, there are also positive trends in our societies that we overlook over the many daily disasters in the news. Steven Pinker describes one of these in his book. In fact, the likelihood of any one of us falling victim to a violent crime has been decreasing throughout history. Steven Pinker not only describes this unexpected phenomenon but also discusses why it has occurred. Political stability, allowing the monopoly on violence to be transferred to the state, and also the fatherly side of men have led to a decline in violence, at least up to the time the book was published nearly 10 years ago.

We see, caused in part, by the pandemic and the opposing political camps reducing societal stability, perhaps contrary trends now, but this does not make this book less important. The lessons to be learned…


Who am I?

I am a scientist studying the evolution of insect communities for years. I am fascinated by their high degree of cooperation and how these animals make collective decisions. But I also observe social parasitic ants that raid other colonies and make their workers work for them. This tension between altruistic cooperation on the one hand and violence and war, on the other hand, is common to human and insect societies, even if they evolved in completely different ways. I hope that when you read the books I recommend here, you will be as fascinated as I am by these parallel universes and perhaps next time you will see an ant with different eyes. 


I wrote...

Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny Conquerors

By Susanne Foitzik, Olaf Fritsche,

Book cover of Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny Conquerors

What is my book about?

Ants number in the ten quadrillions, and they have been here since the Jurassic era. Inside an anthill, you’ll find high drama worthy of a royal court; and between colonies, high-stakes geopolitical intrigue is afoot. Just like us, ants grow crops, raise livestock, tend their young and infirm, and make vaccines. And, just like us, ants have a dark side: They wage war, despoil environments, and enslave rivals—but also rebel against their oppressors.

Acclaimed biologist Susanne Foitzik has traveled the globe to study these master architects of Earth. Joined by journalist Olaf Fritsche, Foitzik invites readers deep into her world—in the field and in the lab.

This Is an Uprising

By Mark Stengler, Paul Engler,

Book cover of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century

Building from the scope of world revolutionaries and revolutions, authors build a compelling idea that nonviolent revolution is something everybody may – and should try at home. Balancing the fine line between solid, historically founded cases and an “academic world” and something which is both accessible and inspiring for the common reader. See numerous cases of common people pushing for massive change, and getting inspired.


Who am I?

I'm super passionate about educating people on how to empower themselves and change the world. I do a lot of different things for a living. And my organization CANVAS works with the groups who are involved in the pro-democracy struggles and “art of the revolution.” Starting as a student activist in my homeland, ruled by ruthless dictator Slobodan Milosevic, I was blessed to meet and work with some of the most courageous people. Throughout the last 25 years, I've tried to capture, share, and transfer successful tools common people may use in order to address injustice, inequality, or small tangible problems through mobilizing their peers – and thus make their communities or the world a better place.


I wrote...

Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World

By Srdja Popovic, Matthew Miller,

Book cover of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World

What is my book about?

“With this wonderful book, Srdja Popovic is inspiring ordinary people facing injustice and oppression to use this tool kit to challenge their oppressors and create something much better. When I was growing up, we dreamed that young people could bring down those who misused their power and create a more just and democratic society. For Srdja Popovic, living in Belgrade in 1998, this same dream was potentially a much more dangerous idea. But with an extraordinarily courageous group of students that formed Otpor!, Srdja used imagination, invention, cunning, and lots of humor to create a movement that not only succeeded in toppling the brutal dictator Slobodan Milošević but has become a blueprint for nonviolent revolution around the world. Srdja rocks!”—Peter Gabriel

Healing Resistance

By Kazu Haga,

Book cover of Healing Resistance: A Radically Different Response to Harm

Another nonfiction book, Healing Resistance does a splendid job showing the philosophical connections between nonviolence on an interpersonal level and nonviolent social change movements. Drawing on the tradition of Kingian nonviolence, this book is a useful starting place for anyone who wants to understand what nonviolence is and isn’t as well as how it works. It’s also chock full of recommendations for other books and is a great jumping-off point for further reading. Sometimes nonviolence doesn’t look like what we expect.


Who am I?

I’m a lifelong sci-fi/fantasy reader who loves the way speculative fiction helps us explore who we are, what we could become, and how to troubleshoot the future before we get there. As a parent and active community member, I’m looking for fresh perspectives on how to tackle the increasingly complex challenges of our time, perspectives that go beyond simplistic solutions like finding bad guys and killing them in climactic battles. I hope books that showcase nonviolent social change in all its complexity can help us imagine better ways to make a difference in our own lives.


I wrote...

Pledging Season

By Erika Erickson Malinoski,

Book cover of Pledging Season

What is my book about?

A deep dive into the power and complexity of restorative justice, Pledging Season follows two characters on a colony world of Earth as they wrestle with the matriarchal society they live in. One, a brilliant geneticist whose gender bars him from the career he dreams of, must find a way to challenge the forces that keep him in his place. The other, a newcomer mourning the loss of her people’s way of life, must choose between fitting in and staying true to the nonviolent values she holds dear. Together, can they reimagine the way the world “has” to be?

Nonviolent Communication

By Marshall B. Rosenberg,

Book cover of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships

Learning to communicate in a way that creates a win-win situation for everyone is a skill. Often we get what we want to the detriment of others or the other way round. Nobody wins and the ultimate consequence is nobody is happy. I really like how practical this book is and how it taught me to speak in a different way entirely! It’s all well and good to know the theory of how negative language can destroy relationships but knowing how to communicate differently is what really matters. I like books with exercises I can put into practice as well as the theory that underpins them. This is what gets me to pick this book up and go through it again twenty years after I first bought it.  


Who am I?

I spent most of my youth feeling lost and miserable but refused to accept this as my fate and dedicated my life to improving my experience and that of others. I'm not content with just surviving. I want to feel like I'm fully living. I want to be able to say that I regret nothing, and that I said yes to this mysterious and challenging gift that life is. In order to do this I believe in learning from those that have come before me. Books open the door to universes of wisdom and understanding. Being a writer, coach and musician are just roles I play. What really matters to me is to be a human I can be proud of. 


I wrote...

Dare to Be Seen - From Stage Fright to Stage Presence: Ten Easy Steps to Turn your Performance Anxiety into Authentic Power with Transformational Hypn

By Elisa Di Napoli,

Book cover of Dare to Be Seen - From Stage Fright to Stage Presence: Ten Easy Steps to Turn your Performance Anxiety into Authentic Power with Transformational Hypn

What is my book about?

Do you shrink under the spotlight? Discover a powerful method to banish nerves and help you stand out from the crowd. Does public speaking terrify you? Are presentations enough to make your knees knock? Is fear crippling your performance? As a clinical hypnotherapist and singer-songwriter for twenty years, Elisa Di Napoli has played in front of thousands and knows what it is like to suffer at the center of attention.

If you like expert advice on how to defeat anxiety, jargon-free solutions on how to improve your speaking skills, and practical tactics on how to be authentically confident, then you’ll love this groundbreaking resource. Using coaching exercises, hypnotic techniques, and inspiring examples, her life-changing strategies will transform you from camera-shy to someone who dares to be seen.

Jonathan Schell

By Jonathan Schell,

Book cover of Jonathan Schell: The Fate of the Earth, the Abolition, the Unconquerable World

In the 1940s, journalist John Hersey wrote an eye-opening expose on the effects of the atomic bombing of Japan with Hiroshima. In doing so, Hersey began to shape the already-contested memory of why America dropped “the bomb.” Following in Hersey’s footsteps, in the early 1980s Jonathan Schell penned a straightforward warning about the atomic age. After interviewing scientists, policymakers, and intellectuals, he began to pen an accessible essay exposing of what would happen to earth after a nuclear war. The result was Fate of the Earth, and it went on to become one of the most impactful pieces of non-fiction of the decade. It helped to validate scientist Carl Sagan’s controversial “nuclear winter” hypothesis, and inspired an untold number of the public to engage in antinuclear activism. To appreciate the early 1980s as a period of intense nuclear fear, this is a must-read.


Who am I?

My interest in the decade and in the Cold War came during graduate school. This was where I discovered Carl Sagan’s theory of a nuclear winter: that after a nuclear war, the debris and smoke from nuclear bombs would cover the earth and make it inhabitable for life on earth. Tracing debates between this celebrity scientist and U.S. policymakers revealed a hesitancy on either side to even consider each other’s point of view. This research made me reconsider the pop culture of my youth—films like The Day After and Wargames, music like “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and books from Don DeLillo’s White Noise to Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle Book—and ultimately see them as part of a political contest in which lives—our lives—were in the balance.  


I wrote...

Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race

By William Knoblauch,

Book cover of Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race

What is my book about?

The early 1980s were a tense time. The nuclear arms race was escalating, Reagan administration officials bragged about winning a nuclear war, and superpower diplomatic relations were at a new low. Nuclear war was a real possibility and antinuclear activism surged. By 1982 the Nuclear Freeze campaign had become the largest peace movement in American history. Alarmed, the Reagan administration worked to co-opt the rhetoric of the nuclear freeze and contain antinuclear activism. Recently declassified White House memoranda reveal a concerted campaign to defeat activists' efforts.

In this book, William M. Knoblauch examines these new sources, as well as the influence of notable personalities like Carl Sagan and popular culture such as the film The Day After, to demonstrate how cultural activism ultimately influenced the administration's shift in rhetoric and, in time, its stance on the arms race.

Witchmark

By C.L. Polk,

Book cover of Witchmark

The first book in the Kingston Cycle series, Witchmark is set in a magic-powered Edwardian era just after the end of a World War. I loved the balance of soaring magic and gritty realism as well as the unexpected revelations surrounding each of the characters.

Miles — a witch who is desperate to keep from being used as a power source by mages — has faked his death and lives in hiding as a military doctor. However, when Tristan Hunter brings a dying man to Miles’ hospital, Miles’ secrets are threatened. But Tristan isn’t interested in blackmailing or exposing him. Instead he needs Miles to help him to track down a murderer and uncover an epidemic threatening to destroy all the magic in their world.

Obviously, the setting and premise had me from the start but the real fun of the book was following Miles and Tristan as they tried…


Who am I?

As a queer fantasy author, my work strongly focuses on detailed plots and lush world-building, but as a reader, I have to admit that the things that hook me on a story are vibrant characters—particularly when they come in couples. After all, it’s the characters that explore their lush worlds and who bring detailed plots to life. One of my absolute favorite reading experiences is following a dynamic couple as they play off each other’s strengths and defend one another’s weaknesses to overcome all odds. It’s just the best feeling, in my opinion. So if you’re looking for a great fantasy book—or series—featuring gay couples, here are five of my favorites!


I wrote...

Master of Restless Shadows: Book Two

By Ginn Hale,

Book cover of Master of Restless Shadows: Book Two

What is my book about?

As a schoolboy, Fedeles Quemanor barely survived being possessed by sorcery. Now he'd gladly abandon all matters of magic to more ambitious people. His happiness lies in more simple things: riding horses, the joy of friends and family, and dancing with Ariz Plunado. But when he discovers that Hierro Fueres, the Duke of Gavado, is raising an army of enthralled assassins to seize the crown, Fedeles is shaken to the core. 

The murderous power lurking in Fedeles's shadow could be enough to secure the nation of Cadeleon. If only Fedeles can face the darkness that once possessed him. But even as Fedeles takes on the challenge, his agents, Atreau and Narsi, learn that the threat at the heart of the capital has grown beyond the bounds of their nation.

The Fifth Season

By N.K. Jemisin,

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

This book grabs the reader from the word “you” and never lets go. I am a complete sucker for non-standard narration and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin doesn’t disappoint. Many authors might use second person narration as a gimmick, but Jemisin flawlessly integrates this with a totally immersive fantasy world. And if you are a part of the story, then who is the narrator? I just can’t say enough about this book that had me turning every page saying, “tell me more!” [Trigger Warning: child death.]


Who am I?

My love of unusual narration probably stems from my rabid consumption of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books in my youth. Why read a book about someone else when the story could be yours? While I’m glad to say that my library has since expanded, I still appreciate the unusual and bizarre viewpoint when I read. Perhaps a self-portrait? In any case, I’ve also used some unique narrative tools in my own writing through the point of view of my fictional WHISPs and also through cryptic journal entries. If you’re looking for something different by way of narration, I’m confident you’ll enjoy these five best books.


I wrote...

Whispers of a Killer

By Jen Haeger,

Book cover of Whispers of a Killer

What is my book about?

“We the jury find the defendant, Rachel Iris Chester, guilty.” And just like that, Sylvia Harbinger’s life as an NYPD detective is over. Sylvia is done with serial killers, done with therapy, and done with a New York City now rife with WHISPs—the creepy, grey shadows of her nightmares. She and husband Ben have a deal, a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. Sylvia retires and they move to Montana to escape the WHISP phenomenon.

Then the phone rings. There’s been a copycat murder, and Sylvia can’t let the case go. If she missed something the first time, this new blood is on her hands. Ben gives her a month to work the case, but can their marriage and her sanity survive that long?

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