Howard Zinn’s Recommended Reading List for Activists Who Want to Change the World




Image by via Wikimedia Commons

Back in college, I spotted A People’s History of the United States in the bags and on the bookshelves of many a fellow undergraduate. By that time, Howard Zinn’s alternative telling of the American story had been popular reading material for a couple of decades, just as it presumably remains a couple more decades on. Even now, a dozen years after Zinn’s death, his ideas about how to approach U.S. history through non-standard points of view remain widely influential. Just last month, Radical Reads featured the reading list he originally drew up for the Socialist Worker, pitched at “activists interested in making their own history.”

Zinn’s recommendations naturally include the work of other historians, from Gary Nash’s Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early America (“a pioneering work of ‘multiculturalism’ dealing with racial interactions in the colonial period”) to Vincent Harding’s There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (an “excellent start on Black history”) to Samuel Yellen’s American Labor Struggles (which “brings to life the great labor conflicts of American history”).


His suggested books cover not just the 20th century but eras like the Civil War, and even, extensively, the time of Christopher Columbus. For those who take their analyses of the past in comically illustrated form, Zinn also highlights Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the United States as “funny and remarkably rich in its content.”

Certain Zinn picks stand out as being of special interest to Open Culture readers. These include Noam Chomsky’s Year 501, in which “the nation’s most distinguished intellectual rebel gives us huge amounts of information about recent American foreign policy”; Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition, with its “iconoclastic view of American political leaders, including Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson and the two Roosevelts, suggesting more consensus than difference at the top of the political hierarchy”; and W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, “a direct counter to the traditional racist accounts of Reconstruction, presenting the narrative from the Black point of view.” Zinn also praises The Sixties, “a vivid history, well-written, thoughtful, by one of the activists of that era”: Todd Gitlin, who died earlier this month.

Despite its understandable inclination toward nonfiction, Zinn’s list also has room for several classic American novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. You may remember some of these books from your own high-school and university days, but whatever you got out of them back then, you’ll experience them more richly by revisiting them now, deeper into your own intellectual journey. As Zinn’s own life and work demonstrated, you can always find more angles from which to view the political, social, and cultural history of your county — the farther removed from those you were shown in school, the better.

via Radical Reads

Related content:

Matt Damon Reads Howard Zinn’s “The Problem is Civil Obedience,” a Call for Americans to Take Action

African-American History: Modern Freedom Struggle (A Free Course from Stanford)

Howard Zinn’s “What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire”: An Illustrated Video Narrated by Viggo Mortensen

American Literature, From the Beginnings to the Civil War: A Free Online Course from NYU

Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

Adorn Your Garden with Howard the Zinn Monk

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • James Arthur says:

    Ahhh…Howard Zinn…the man who (rightly) criticizes belligerent actions by the U. S. government right and left, but who supports the fascistic power behind such governments that ensures it’ll always happen. “I want a powerful government, but only to do GOOD things.” Zinn and Zinnistas have always been, mentally, a few tacos short of a combo platter.

  • michael joseph loehrer says:

    There’s nothing quite like a communist who authored books for innocent high school kids.

  • Freedom Strong says:

    No one better at spreading Communist Propaganda and pedaling fake, distortions of history with massive ommision of facts than the ultimate cult leader himself, Zinn and his Koolaid drinkers.

  • Truth says:

    Trust no academic books unless it is published by the Oxford University Press. Their students you will have the truth of whatever subject you’re studying, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

  • R. Pittman says:

    “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
    What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
    And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn

  • J says:

    Zinn is a polemicist and a propagandist, but not a historian — not even a revisionist historian. So many errors and outright lies in his People’s History. There is zero moral difference between Zinn’s socialism/communism and Goebbel’s fascism. Whatever value I may have found in other writings and the mission of open culture is tainted by the endorsement in this article of that heinous, racist, and misery-inducing ideology. Not the first time I’ve received left-fascist propaganda in the Open Culture email, but this is the final straw. I cannot and will not be associated with your hate.

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