The best books about violence

21 authors have picked their favorite books about violence and why they recommend each book.

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Lynching and Spectacle

By Amy Louise Wood,

Book cover of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

Most people’s idea of lynching is the sanitized version that they have picked up from movies and TV. However, the practice of lynching, as it was carried out in the United States from the late 19th to well into the 20th century, was far more hideous than a few people hanging a man from a tree. This classic contribution concentrates on spectacle lynchings. These were public lynchings attended by hundreds or even thousands of spectators. They involved hours of torture and bodily mutilation, often culminating in the victim being burned alive. Lynching and Spectacle is a vital read for anyone wishing to understand the full horror of American Racism.

Who am I?

I’ve been studying dehumanization, and its relationship to racism, genocide, slavery, and other atrocities, for more than a decade. I am the author of three books on dehumanization, one of which was awarded the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction, an award that is reserved for books that make an outstanding contribution to understanding racism and human diversity. My work on dehumanization is widely covered in the national and international media, and I often give presentations at academic and non-academic venues, including one at the 2012 G20 economic summit where I spoke on dehumanization and mass violence.

I wrote...

On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

By David Livingstone Smith,

Book cover of On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

What is my book about?

The Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the lynching of African Americans, the colonial slave trade: these are horrific episodes of mass violence spawned from racism and hatred. We like to think that we could never see such evils again--that we would stand up and fight. But something deep in the human psyche--deeper than prejudice itself--leads people to persecute the other: dehumanization, or the human propensity to think of others as less than human.

An award-winning author and philosopher, Smith takes an unflinching look at the mechanisms of the mind that encourage us to see someone as less than human. There is something peculiar and horrifying in human psychology that makes us vulnerable to thinking of whole groups of people as subhuman creatures. When governments or other groups stand to gain by exploiting this innate propensity, and know just how to manipulate words and images to trigger it, there is no limit to the violence and hatred that can result.

On Killing

By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman,

Book cover of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

Grossman is a former Army Ranger who digs deep into the psychological impact of taking human life through countless interviews with fellow soldiers of all kinds. Combining these accounts with thorough psychological research, Grossman comments on society's collective aversion to killing while helping us understand its complicated acceptance—and even encouragement—of wartime killing. What was most surprising to me was that historically, only about 4% of soldiers even fire their weapon during war, and how obviously that skews from the “norm” of combat portrayed in popular media. It’s an honest, eye-opening, and important piece of work that should be required reading for every service member, police officer, or anyone tasked with carrying society’s heaviest burden.

Who am I?

As an equipment operator for the Army Corps of Engineers, I didn’t serve in a “combat” role, per se, but the engineers go wherever the military needs things built, so we were often repairing IED damage, hauling supplies outside the wire, or fortifying bases so the infantry, cavalry, etc. could do their job effectively. Coming home, I owe a lot of my successful reintegration to my writing and the many people who encouraged me to share it with the world. Now with my Master of Arts in English, I’ve taught college courses on military culture, and I present for veteran art groups, writing workshops, and high schools and colleges around the country.

I wrote...

Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI

By Ryan Smithson,

Book cover of Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI

What is my book about?

Like most teenagers, Ryan Smithson was unsure of where life would lead after high school. Inspired by the patriotism following 9/11, he joined the Army Reserve and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. Returning home to a new bride and a college campus, he began writing about his combat experiences. What began as an essay for an English class turned into much more when Smithson compiled his writings into an unflinchingly honest memoir: Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI. Since its publication by HarperCollins in 2009, he has traveled the country to talk about his experiences and continues to benefit from the therapeutic aspects of writing, storytelling, and the arts.

Violence in War and Peace

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes (editor), Philippe I. Bourgois (editor),

Book cover of Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology

The editors of this volume are two of the most important and influential medical anthropologists in the world and major scholars of violence. In addition to collecting a set of useful texts on violence, the introduction to the volume is a piece of writing that I have returned to many times.

Who am I?

I am a biblical scholar who has become a historian of violence because I could no longer ignore the realities of the present or my own past. I write of violence for my childhood self, who was bullied for a decade and used to run away from school.  I write of it for my grandfather, who was born of exploitation.  I write of it for my African-American wife and daughter, in the hopes that I might contribute to the elimination of hierarchies that threaten their dignity and sometimes their lives.  Doing this work is not just intellectual for me—it is a memorialization and a ritual of healing. 

I wrote...

Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts

By T.M. Lemos,

Book cover of Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts

What is my book about?

In the first book-length work ever written on personhood in ancient Israel, I reveal widespread intersections between violence and personhood in this society and the wider region. Relations of domination and subordination were incredibly important to the culture of ancient Israel, with these relations often determining the boundaries of personhood itself. Personhood was malleable—it could be and was violently erased in many social contexts. This study exposes a violence-personhood-masculinity nexus in which domination allowed those in control to animalize and brutalize the bodies of subordinates.

Mighty Be Our Powers

By Leymah Gbowee, Carol Mithers,

Book cover of Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

With two other women, Leymah Gbowee received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her peace activism that helped end the 1999-2003 civil war in Liberia. Using tactics that included daily protests, a sex strike, and rehabilitation of child soldiers, Gbowee and her coworkers effectively combined religious values, social service, and direct action to advocate for peace. Although not directly about theology, Gbowee’s church and personal faith provided important motivation, resilience, and organizational support. This memoir is both honest about her struggles and provides an inspiring witness to social change.

Who am I?

When I was going to church as a kid, I noticed there were a lot of things about faith that were really important to people but that they rarely talked about. In my work as a pastor, professor, and church historian, I’ve tried to identify and name those core values, so that we can learn from one another, share our beliefs in meaningful and respectful ways, and grow together as we explore life’s big questions and practice living out our beliefs in the here and now.

I wrote...

Stories from Global Lutheranism: A Historical Timeline

By Martin Lohrmann,

Book cover of Stories from Global Lutheranism: A Historical Timeline

What is my book about?

There are about 80 million Lutheran in the world today. While Lutheran communities started in central and northern Europe, there are now more Lutherans in Ethiopia than in Sweden, more in Tanzania than the United States, and more in Indonesia than in Norway. Selecting ten vignettes from each of the five centuries since Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517, I wrote this book to show how Lutherans have lived out their faith in a variety of times and places to become a truly global branch of Christianity.

Sanctioned Violence in Early China

By Mark Edward Lewis,

Book cover of Sanctioned Violence in Early China

This is the classic study of the changes in violence and war in Chinese society from the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period. Lewis demonstrates that war, hunting, and the sacrifices of the Spring and Autumn chariot-riding aristocracy were key to demonstrating membership in that class. Political power moved from the feudal rulers to their ministers, who were lower-ranking members of the aristocratic class, and the struggle for power among those men transformed warfare and society. Violence was transformed from a class-defining activity into a state-building tool that had to be controlled by the feudal ruler.

Who am I?

My interest in Chinese military history stems from an early interest in books on strategy like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and in East Asian martial arts. I have pursued both since high school, translating Sun Tzu as a senior thesis in college (and now returning to it professionally), and practicing a number of martial arts over the last forty years (and writing a book on the history of Chinese martial arts). Although there are plentiful historical records for all aspects of Chinese military history, the field remains relatively neglected, leaving it wide open for new studies. I continue to pursue my teenage interests, writing the books I wanted to read in high school.

I wrote...

The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty

By Peter A. Lorge,

Book cover of The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty

What is my book about?

The Song dynasty (960–1279) has been characterized by its pre-eminent civil culture and military weakness. This groundbreaking work demonstrates that the civil dominance of the eleventh century was the product of a half-century of continuous warfare and ruthless political infighting. The spectacular culture of the eleventh century, one of the high points in Chinese history, was built on the bloody foundation of the conquests of the tenth century. Peter Lorge examines how, rather than a planned and inevitable reunification of the Chinese empire, the foundation of the Song was an uncertain undertaking, dependent upon highly contingent battles, both military and political, whose outcome was always in doubt. The Song dynasty's successful waging of war led ultimately to peace.

Killer on the Road

By Ginger Strand,

Book cover of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate

This unlikely thriller of a book explores a seemingly bland subject: the network of interstate highways built by the Federal Government after World War II. In fact, these highways transformed American culture, not only spelling the demise of many country roads and small towns but replacing the friendly hitchhiker with the terrifying “killer on the road.” Further, the highways led to the creation of rest stops and shadowy neighborhoods that came to harbor predators, while the interstates aided the criminals’ flight. Killer on the Road keeps you on the edge of your seat, unfolding into horror, mystery, and victimization.

Who am I?

Claudia Keenan is a historian of education whose interest in American culture was awakened during her doctoral studies, when she researched the lives of mid-twentieth-century educators. Growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., she developed a strong affinity with place and time among the beautiful old homes and avenues lined with elms, set against a backdrop of racial strife and ethnic politics. She continues to reconstruct and interpret American lives on her blog, and has recently finished a book about Henry Collins Brown, founder of the Museum of the City of New York. Claudia received a BA from the University of Chicago and a PhD from New York University.

I wrote...

Waking Dreamers, Unexpected American Lives: 1880-1980

By Claudia Keenan,

Book cover of Waking Dreamers, Unexpected American Lives: 1880-1980

What is my book about?

Opportunists, millionaires, student radicals, artists; industrialists, posers, bohemians, suffragists— Waking Dreamers is a set of short stories, largely about obscure nineteenth-century Americans, whom Claudia Keenan discovered in the course of 20 years of historical research. Messianic, tragic, brave, clever; they seemed to merit attention, so she sifted through thousands of clues, details, and images in digitized magazines and newspapers, digging up their pasts. Her interest in reconstructing lives, and interpreting cultural and social context, grew out of her doctoral studies in the history of American education.

Ranging from the modern dancer Violet Romer to the brilliant progressive educator Willard W. Beatty; from the freethinker and vegetarian J. Howard Moore to the forlorn First Lady Jane Pierce, Waking Dreamers pulls back the curtain on Americans who suffered and triumphed through the Gilded Age and into the twentieth century.

At the Dark End of the Street

By Danielle L. McGuire,

Book cover of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

Using sexual violence—specifically white men’s rape of Black women—as its lens, McGuire’s work profoundly reorients our understanding of what motivated civil rights activists at the grassroots, especially women. The early chapters consider both the radical activism of Rosa Parks prior to 1955 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that emerged in the wake of her arrest. McGuire also examines how the 1959 rape of a young co-ed at Florida A&M University spurred student activism on campus and beyond. The last chapter covers the 1975 trial and exoneration of Joan Little, a poor Black woman from North Carolina accused of killing her white jailer as he attempted to sexually assault her. This book is a must-read for anyone who seeks deeper insight into the civil rights era.   

Who am I?

Having studied the civil rights movement for over twenty years, I can attest that it is infinitely more complex, more nuanced, and more inspiring than how it has come to be remembered and celebrated. Students in my civil rights seminar always ask “Why did we never learn this in high school?!” They do so because they discover what becomes possible when ordinary people united around the goals of freedom and justice undertake extraordinary challenges. For those concerned about our contemporary historical moment, both the movement’s successes and shortcomings help explain how we got here. Yet they also suggest how we might best adapt the lessons from that era to our own as the struggle continues.

I wrote...

Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

By Katherine Mellen Charron,

Book cover of Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

What is my book about?

Lifelong educator and civic activist Septima Clark (1898-1987) created the Citizenship Schools, an adult education program that equipped southern African Americans with practical literacy so they could register to vote, and political and economic literacy so that they could effectively access resources to improve their communities. More than 28,000 people participated in this training. My biography of Clark explores the activist educational culture of Black women teachers in the Jim Crow South, and how she adapted it in the mid-1950s to train a new generation of grassroots women. Because women predominated as both teachers and students, I argue, the Citizenship Schools functioned as a crucial space for them to hone their leadership skills and then decisively shape the civil rights agenda in their local communities.

Hands Are Not for Hitting

By Martine Agassi, Marieka Heinlen (illustrator),

Book cover of Hands Are Not for Hitting

This book provides simple words and warm illustrations to reinforce the concepts that violence is never okay and that toddlers and preschoolers can learn to manage their anger without hitting. I appreciate the gentle, yet straightforward way it addressed the unacceptable behavior while offering positive things to do with your hands like hugging, helping, and shaking. The illustrations are colorful, playful, and age-appropriate. Young children adore this book and ask to listen to it again and again. As a bonus, at the end, the author included additional tips for parents and caregivers about how to handle unsafe hitting.

Who am I?

As an internationally respected discipline expert, I guide parents in how to get more compliance than defiance from their little ones. I coined the phrase “The Dance of Non-Compliance” between parent and child. In order to change the dance, the parent will usually have to change his/her dance step first. It is often impossible during the heat of the moment, to teach ‘the lesson’ to the child due to the agitated emotional state of both parent and child. A well-executed picture book, appropriately written and illustrated for young children's developmental thinking ability, can open the door for a meaningful discussion regarding their misbehavior and feelings.

I wrote...

The Pocket Parent

By Gail Reichlin, Caroline Winkler,

Book cover of The Pocket Parent

What is my book about?

The Pocket Parent is a classic, trusted A to Z  compendium, with over 200,000 copies in print and 17 translated editions worldwide. Just turn to the misbehavior that's driving you crazy to get some fast, bulleted sanity-saving suggestions to try along with a good dose of humor and compassion from the authors.

Communication is the key to solving all problems. Yet, in the heat of the moment, on one of those really bad days when your child becomes 'parent deaf', you may find yourself losing your mind... yelling, threatening, bribing, and criticizing in a way you’d never speak to your worst enemy. Although a parent’s job is to stop the undesirable/unsafe behavior immediately, that moment is the least effective time for both a parent to teach, or a young child to learn a lesson. 
Calmly revisiting the situation later with appropriate discussion makes way for a successful plan for next time. The Pocket Parent guides you every step of the way ;-)

And Die in the West

By Paula Mitchel Marks,

Book cover of And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight

The true story of the misdemeanor arrest in Tombstone gone terribly wrong that has resounded for almost a century and a half. There are literally dozens of books on this subject, but this is by far the best. Ms. Marks accurately, and without hyperbole, researched the motivations of the men involved in the Earp-Cowboy feud and precisely documents the conflicts which arose between them. As one reads her book, one realizes that the Earp mythos which has been and continues to be touted by other authors and the film industry is erroneous. There were really no good guys or bad guys, just regular men whose political and social ambitions led to bloodshed.

Who am I?

There is nothing I detest more than what I have dubbed the “John Wayne Mythos” – the idea the West was populated with righteous gunslingers going about “taming” the West by killing anyone who was not abiding by or submitting to white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant standards and morality. The West, of which Arizona was an integral part, was much more complex than this, and the heroes of legend were oft-times the real-life villains. I consider myself to be a historian of the “New Western History” school, which recast the study of American frontier history by focusing on race, class, gender, and environment in the trans-Mississippi West.

I wrote...

The Bisbee Massacre: Robbery, Murder and Retribution in the Arizona Territory, 1883-1884

By David Grassé,

Book cover of The Bisbee Massacre: Robbery, Murder and Retribution in the Arizona Territory, 1883-1884

What is my book about?

In December 1883, five outlaws attempted to rob the A.A. Castaneda Mercantile establishment in the fledgling mining town of Bisbee in the Arizona Territory. The robbery was a disaster: four citizens shot dead, one a pregnant woman. The failed heist was national news, with the subsequent manhunt, trial, and execution of the alleged perpetrators followed by newspapers from New York to San Francisco. The Bisbee Massacre was as momentous as the infamous blood feud between the Earp brothers and the cowboys two years earlier and led to the only recorded lynching in the town of Tombstone--John Heath, a sporting man, who was thought to be the mastermind. New research indicates he may have been innocent.

This comprehensive history takes a fresh look at the event that marked the end of the Wild West period in the Arizona Territory.

The Gift of Fear

By Gavin de Becker,

Book cover of The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

Fear is not the problem! Fear arises to help you deal with the problem! Gavin de Becker is a security expert who declares that fear doesn’t get in our way at all. In fact, fear contains the instincts and intuition that help us stay safe in the world.

Using stories from real cases and his own life, de Becker shows us how fear works to keep us safe – and how avoiding or ignoring fear is always a very bad idea. The Gift of Fear will help you connect to the essential intelligence in your fear, and it will help you become safer, more intuitive, and more aware of the world around you. Essential reading.

Who am I?

Emotions, we’ve all been told, are less than: less than logic, or spirituality, or anything else, really. Yet no matter how smart, spiritual, or talented people are, they can be brought to their knees by an emotion they don’t understand. Emotions have been thrown into the shadow, yet in the shadow lives immense power, so I dedicated my life to finding the power in the emotional realm. It’s been a magnificent adventure because our emotions contain genius, and they’re a part of everything we think and everything we do. Emotions aren’t less than anything; emotions are everything, and I’m so glad that they’ve welcomed me into their world.

I wrote...

The Language of Emotions

By Karla McLaren,

Book cover of The Language of Emotions

What is my book about?

This is the book I needed as a child, as a young woman healing from severe trauma, and as deeply emotive person in an emotionally baffled culture. Our learned distrust and even hatred of emotions creates ignorance and suffering that is entirely unnecessary, and in this book, I dive into the gorgeous and brilliant waters of the emotions in order to retrieve what has been taken from us. 

Strangely, this is the first book ever to focus on all seventeen emotions in terms of how they work, why they arise, and how you can learn to work with, befriend, and embrace all of them. It’s an owner’s manual for human social life and interior life, and it’s a love letter to the emotions. And hell yeah, it’s badass.

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