Top 10 Books About Unlikely Revolutionaries | Books

Revolutions are often associated with great upheavals and bloodshed – accompanied by metaphors of eruptions and earthquakes. Revolutionaries are often portrayed as heroic characters – strong and invincible – but the reality is often very different. Revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson, for example, wielded pens rather than swords. I’ve always been fascinated by men and women who used ideas and words to fight their battles. Or those who silently rose up against their oppressors, undermining and outwitting them with their wit, their philosophy, their covert operations, their wit and their nonviolent resistance.

My book Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self tells the story of a group of brilliant poets, thinkers and philosophers who gathered in the small German university town of Jena during the last decade of the 18th century. century and changed the way we think about ourselves, the world and nature. At a time when most of Europe was held in the iron grip of absolutism, they put self center stage and imbued it with the most exciting of all powers: free will and self-determination. They did so by giving lively lectures and writing books, pamphlets, articles and poems – and with pens as sharp as the French guillotines. “A watchword set the armies in motion”, wrote the poet Novalis, it was “the word freedom”.

For this play, I chose a combination of fiction and non-fiction books because their “heroes” are all unlikely revolutionaries.

1. The Age of Marvels by Richard Holmes
It is a fascinating account of a period (roughly drawn from Cook’s Endeavor and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle) which united science and poetry, rationalism and emotion, meticulous observation and imagination, all united by concept of “wonder”. The revolutionaries here are astronomers, botanists, chemists, explorers and poets – and together they launched what Holmes calls “a revolution in romantic science”. It’s also an evocative reminder of how much that sense of wonder has been erased from science today.

2. Richard Powers’ Overstory
I’ve read a lot of cli–fi over the past three years and Powers’ novel is by far my favorite. There are several protagonists here who could earn a spot on this list. There is, for example, Nick and Olivia who fight for the protection of a giant sequoia by living for months at the top of the tree. Or botanist Patricia Westerford who draws inspiration from real scientist Suzanne Simard – a forest ecologist who discovered that trees communicate with each other through an underground network of roots and fungi. Westerford – just like the real Simard – upends everything we know about trees. It’s breathtaking and visionary. The multi-pronged novel is a masterpiece where science and poetry are deeply intertwined.

3. William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
The irresistible Becky Sharp — orphaned, underclass, and determined to make her way — is an anti-heroine and definitely an unlikely revolutionary. She defies her modest birth and takes her destiny into her own hands. Fiercely independent-minded, high-spirited, and fun-loving, she schemes to trick gullible men into marriage. You don’t have to like her because she takes what she can, cheats and cheats, but unlike other Victorian women (in novels and in real life) she refuses to be bound by the role that the society had planned for women like her.

4. It’s time for Lion Feuchtwanger
When I was in my twenties, I devoured Feuchtwanger’s books – and this is one of his best. Published in 1951, it is a historical novel about the Spanish artist Goya who used his paintbrush as a weapon. We see Goya become court painter to the Spanish crown and follow his tumultuous affair with the Duchess of Alba. But instead of responding to social expectations and playing his part in the court, Goya rebels when he deploys his famous Los Caprichos (printed engraved caricatures) to criticize the aristocracy, the Catholic Church and denounce injustice. social.

5. Hymns to the Night of Novalis
Novalis is one of the protagonists of my book Magnificent Rebels (as well as Penelope Fitzgerald’s beautiful novel, The Blue Flower). He was a poet but also a mines inspector and died at the age of 28 – frozen in time and in youth, he became the embodiment of the young romantic. Hymns to the Night (1801) is a set of six long poems – strange, magical verses that play with night and death – which has been hailed as the most important poem by the young German Romantics. Although Novalis did not fight absolute rulers or injustices, he revolutionized literature. Turning against the rigorous rules of neoclassical poetry and the refined refinement of French theatre, Novalis’ fascinating Hymns to the Night dissolve order and division, expectation and metrical schemes. It is a promise of what was to follow.

Ordinary people risked their lives to make the world a better place… Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railroad, c1860-75. Photograph: Harvey B Lindsley/AP

6. Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad
At the heart of Whitehead’s novel is Cora, a slave who runs away from a Georgia plantation where she was born. She is hunted, gang-raped, and again and again faces capture and the horrors of slavery. The revolutionaries here are the black and white militants who, in the early 19th century, formed a secret network of safe houses and routes that helped enslaved laborers escape from southern plantations to northern states. In Whitehead’s imaginative and fictional narrative, this metaphorical “underground railroad” becomes a literal system of underground tracks and stations. Along with Cora’s story, this poignant and devastating novel explores how ordinary people risked their lives to make the world a better place.

7. Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt
Born in 1769, Humboldt was a Prussian aristocrat who became the most famous scientist of his time. He revolutionized scientific writing by combining observations and empirical data with poetic descriptions of landscapes. For me, Views of Nature is the model for nature writing today. Although Humboldt is almost forgotten today, his ideas about nature have shaped our thinking. He saw the world as a living organism and an interconnected whole – and predicted harmful human-induced climate change over 200 years ago. Views of Nature was his favorite book – and it’s still worth reading today.

8. Beer at Waguih Ghali Snooker Club
Set in the wake of Egypt’s 1952 revolution, Ghali’s bitingly funny novel follows narrator Ram as he tries to find his place in a chaotic post-colonial world. Existing on the fringes of extreme privilege and seemingly disgruntled, it is nonetheless drawn into a world of politics and rage against the legacy of imperialism. Weaving his way through the clubs of Cairo and the streets of London, Ram is a most unlikely revolutionary – and arguably a failure – in his efforts to mold an authentic self in a traumatized society. Love and politics awaken him, but how does he, or the revolution, survive?

9. A Claim for Women’s Rights by Mary Wollstonecraft
“I shall first consider women in the great light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to display their faculties”, wrote Wollstonecraft in this seminal work in 1792. For a woman to write a political book, defending women’s rights at a time when fathers and husbands determined every aspect of the lives of their daughters and wives was quite extraordinary – but writing it under one’s own name (rather than remaining anonymous) was even more revolutionary.

10. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Carson was trained as a marine biologist and was a gifted writer. In Silent Spring, she evokes in beautiful prose the devastating effect of synthetic pesticides on nature. The impact of the book was seismic and ultimately led to the banning of DDT, as well as inspiring a whole generation of environmental activists.

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf is published by John Murray. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Thelma J. Longworth