If you consider yourself an activist or advocate for social justice, there are some books that absolutely must be on your to-read list. Both fiction and non-fiction works can be extraordinarily mind-opening and can reignite your passion for your cause. Whether your heart lies with environmental activism, gay rights, homeless advocacy or a broader understanding of social justice, these books are worthy of your consideration.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, fiction
Les Miserables the book is not identical to Les Miserables the musical. While the character Jean Valjean plays a substantial role in the book, there are whole chapters in which his name isn't even mentioned. The title sums it up: this novel is about the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and all of those who suffer. Victor Hugo was truly ahead of his time (probably ahead of modern time as well) when it comes to social justice and moral philosophy.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, fiction
This careful examination of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the effects of corporatism and the ensuing expansion of poverty is insightful and heart-rending. Migrant farmers find themselves picking fruit and vegetables to sell for mere pennies a day, meanwhile they are unable to even feed their own families. They watch as corporate farms burn and destroy fruit and vegetables to keep the prices high and prevent the starving from stealing the "extra." They see acre upon acre of land go unused, but they cannot even plant a few carrots because it is owned by the banks and the migrants are charged with trespassing. With poverty as rampant as it is today, The Grapes of Wrath's timeless lessons are particularly relevant.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, non-fiction
This autobiography co-written by the now-famous young lady shot by the Taliban is important for two main reasons. First, most people in the Western hemisphere equate Islam with jihad extremists -- those who rape women in broad daylight and terrorize school children by shooting at their buses. Malala is a Muslim that advocates peace, and she takes the time to dispel myths and misconceptions about Islam. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, she passionately and tirelessly advocates for quality education for all children -- girls as well as boys, poor as well as rich. After reading I Am Malala, you will never take your education for granted again.
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, fiction
This is one for the environmentalists. The idea is that the farther away we get from our natural state of being, the more harm we cause to the planet and ultimately to ourselves. Cars are nice, computers are nice, the internet is nice, but at what cost? Humans have, albeit unintentionally, caused the decline or extinction of numerous other species, polluted the air and water, and made land unlivable due to over-farming. In the process, we have left a vast many of our own kind without shelter, food, or drinkable water. The more we "progress," the more damage we ultimately do. But what is the alternative? Ishmael has an answer.
Two Boys Kissing by Daniel Levithan, fiction
It is a rare and wonderful thing to come across a book that is so beautifully and powerfully written as "Two Boys Kissing." Some of the story is built on true events, which makes it that much more compelling, but the real beauty is that it is narrated by "those of us that came before" -- gay men that struggled, suffered and died from AIDS, suicide or hate crimes. Their purpose is to now watch over young men that are struggling with their identity, their feelings, their families and other parts of their lives that are, for better or worse, affected by their sexuality. Those of us who are straight will never fully understand their daily struggles, but at least we can have some insight.
An Uniquet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, non-fiction
Stigma surrounding mental health is as real today as it was decades ago. The author is both a psychologist and a patient with manic depressive disorder. In her brave and compelling autobiography, she dispels the myths about mental illness. She also gives the reader detailed descriptions about what living with a mental disorder is like. If you know someone with an unquiet mind, you can't afford to pass this book up.