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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Comments (6)
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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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