Radicalizing Nonfiction Reads to Educate and Excite You


As the 2024 election looms on the horizon, many of us are thinking about the issues that matter most to each of us. So much is wrong with our day-to-day—from the still-raging pandemic to the violence raging in Palestine—but it can be hard to get past the surface-level news rushing at us from all sides.

The books in this list will help you focus and learn more so that you can engage more powerfully in these conversations and debates, and have the background you need to frame your takes going into this election cycle.

Sometimes it can be easy to lose hope in our future, given how many things seem to be going sideways. But these books don’t only show how bad it can get. They show how we can think about these situations and issues differently, how we can work to solve or improve rather than simply lament, and how we can effectively protest and demand better from the people who represent us.

We Do This ’til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice
By Mariame Kaba
Haymarket Books

What does a world without prisons and policing look like? Kaba’s book examines abolition and the questions some of us have about how it can be implemented and how the criminal justice system can be transformed. It dispels misconceptions while also envisioning a kind of organizing and approach that has truly inspired me: that not knowing the exact future doesn’t mean we can’t push for better than our present.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
By Bryan Stevenson
One World

Particularly as some states consider new techniques for the death penalty, Stevenson’s book serves as a glimpse into what incarceration and the death penalty really look like. The book centers the story of Walter McMillian, sentenced to die for a murder he couldn’t have committed, and the quest to free him, but it highlights a lot more about the legal and incarceration system and what activists are fighting to change and improve.

The Undocumented Americans
By Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
One World

Part-memoir, part reported nonfiction, The Undocumented Americans is a book about the boxes we put undocumented people into, and the dangers and anxieties they face on a daily basis while just trying to survive. Villavicencio unpacks the raw injustices, exploitation, and psychological torture and trauma that undocumented people face, all through the stories of real people and their complex lives.

How to Be an Antiracist
By Ibram X. Kendi
One World

This must-read describes how to not just be not racist but antiracist—an active force against the work of racism, blaming policy rather than people, fighting internalization and working to eradicate the systemic racism that haunts our modern day. He talks about his own life, and brings in history, sociology, and more to discuss what an actively antiracist world could look like, and how self-examination and education can get us there.

The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists
By Naomi Klein
Haymarket Books

This small, easily-readable book changed my entire worldview. It outlines how the US’s policies and parasitic history with Puerto Rico set it up for total disaster when Hurricane Maria struck. Klein highlights the horrors as well as the solutions Puerto Ricans are dreaming up and acting on themselves. Klein’s explanation of ‘disaster capitalism’ is vivid and breathtaking, and raised my awareness of the exploitation that follows too many natural disasters.

The T Guide: Our Trans Experiences and a Celebration of Gender Expression—Man, Woman, Nonbinary, and Beyond
By Gigi Gorgeous & Gottmik

In their book written together, Drag Race star and trans man Kade Gottlieb (aka Gottmik) and YouTube sensation and trans woman Gigi Gorgeous talk candidly about their experiences of being trans. They share some cautionary tales and stories of trauma, yes, but much of the book is about the real lived experience of transness, from dating to parents to travel to hormones. It’s funny, educational, and a rich resource.

The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler-Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917–2017
By Rashid Khalidi
Metropolitan Books

This illuminating book has been making the rounds recently because it shares the true history of Palestine: from Israel’s origins in British colonization to Israel’s years of dehumanizing Palestinians and using disproportionate military force and political trickery to subdue them. It also exposes the long history of near-unconditional support Israel has received from the United States. This account counters many narratives about Israel—for example, that this war “began” in October 2023—and will transform your understanding of the conflict.

Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick
By Maya Dusenbery

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This powerful, well-researched book exposes the ways that the fields of medicine and healthcare repeatedly fail women. She unpacks the specters of hypochondria and psychosomatic illness while digging into the real issues behind the statistics and neglect: for example, that diseases that impact women disproportionally are less researched and more likely to be dismissed. It’s an eye-opening read that will read especially true for any woman who’s been dismissed or doubted at the doctor’s office.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Matthew Desmond

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Desmond dives into the massive housing crisis in America and exposes the cycles of evictions and rent hikes that leave so many people homeless and in poverty across the US. He did years of fieldwork, studies, and intensive on-the-ground research in this book that features real people’s difficult stories, and makes the case that housing should be a fundamental human right.

Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation
By Linda Villarosa

This book digs into the racism in our medical system, with a particular focus on Black maternal health, highlighting how racism leads to worse health outcomes in every way. She exposes the impact of weathering (how high-effort coping hurts the body), the myth of personal responsibility, the ways that governments and communities persecute harm reduction programs, the criminalization of mental illness, and much, much more.

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century
Edited by Alice Wong

This readable collection gathers stories, essays, manifestos, eulogies, and more from disabled writers and activists, highlighting the actual lived experience of disabled people across the United States. The book is incredibly diverse and explores visibility, language, harassment, abuse, and more. By digging into this collection, you can challenge your own ableist assumptions, and consider a more radical, disability justice approach for our collective futures.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
By Rebecca Solnit
Haymarket Books

Too often, we tend to focus on our losses. But despair is an all-consuming emotion, and most of all, a passive one—we stop working when we enter a place of despair. In this influential short book, Solnit makes the case for hope as not passive, but as an active commitment to working towards a better future, and points out that often, transformative victories start with people fighting for better in seemingly hopeless conditions.

Leah Rachel von Essen

Leah Rachel von Essen is an editor and book reviewer who lives on the South Side of Chicago with her cat, Ms Nellie Bly. A senior contributor at Book Riot, and a reviewer for Booklist and Chicago Review of Books, Leah focuses her writings on books in translation, fantasy, genre-bending fiction, chronic illness, and fat phobia, among other topics. Her blog, While Reading and Walking, was founded in 2015, and boasts more than 15,000 dedicated followers across platforms. Learn more about Leah at leahrachelvonessen.com or visit her blog at whilereadingandwalking.com.


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