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The 10 Best Protest Books of All Time

by Staff Writers

Without literature, society falls apart. One can argue the same thing about pretty much any creative or academic pursuit, of course, but the written word boasts an especially ancient, diverse, and swollen history. Injustices crumble and hegemonies rise because of books, articles, pamphlets, essays, and pretty much any other medium through which humanity expresses its ideas and observations. The following represent a small sliver of some particularly notable or influential ones that have shifted perspectives and inspired (or, in one case, might inspire) lasting change.

  1. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: Journalist Upton Sinclair set out to expose the horrid, dehumanizing treatment of immigrant laborers in the United States, particularly those employed by food processing facilities. Though fiction, the author’s painstaking research tore apart the vicious reality experienced by exploited workers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Americans, however, received The Jungle as less of a treatise on the mistreatment of labor forces and more of an, "I’m eating WHAT?!?!" Sinclair’s grotesque depictions of substandard meat processing facilities (one famous early scene showcases a man falling into a lard vat and eventually ending up on grocery store shelves) disgusted readers to the point that they called for legislation. The Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act both passed in 1906, the latter of which established the Bureau of Chemistry that would later come to be known as the Food and Drug Administration. When learning of his audience’s misreading his attempt, the writer quipped, "I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

  2. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan: Building upon literary foundations set by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a journalist who lost her job for no reason other than pregnancy decided to dismantle the patriarchal system keeping her and other career-driven ladies down. Betty Friedan almost (but not entirely!) launched the feminist movement in the "Western" world, putting her reporting skills to just use by surveying housewives across America. Doing so unearthed decades, if not cen turies, of repressed dissatisfaction, manifesting itself in heightened depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide rates. Many women felt that the unflinching rigidity of postwar gender roles and hefty emphasis on conformity and materialism served as a degrading social prison. It precluded them from pursuing the careers and hobbies they so desired, eventually leading to some major overhauls promoting female equality.

  3. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: Roughly a decade before the Civil Rights movement, Ralph Ellison’s only novel that wasn’t published posthumously made clear the African-American community’s frustration beneath societal repression. Unapologetically honest and brutal, Invisible Man illustrates how the white hegemony suppressed racial and ethnic minorities, leading them to feel like complete nonentities in their own neighborhoods. Through the unnamed protagonist, the narrative painfully recounts the whats and whys behind unjust prejudice in order to reflect society’s own faults back at it. Even organizations such as The Brotherhood (here a rather obvious stand-in for the Communist Party) touting their commitment to an equitable nation fail to adequately address the harsh reality for oppressed demographics.

  4. Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: While the Counter Reformation split the Catholic Church, a nun in Spain-controlled Mexico dared to challenge her superiors regarding the rights of women. During the seventeenth century, the only educated females could be found in convents, but fearless Juana Ines de la Cruz declared that even outside their walls the ladies deserved the exact same chances as their cloistered counterparts. Along with her progressive views regarding science, the notoriously patriarchal, authoritarian ecclesiastical institution thought they had themselves quite a hot little heresy on their hands. Poetry may not have been her only protest medium, but it proved the one for which she earned the most acclaim; many scholars go so far as to declare her the very first Latin American poet of any significance.

  5. Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau: This book-length essay by one of the pre-eminent American transcendentalist philosophers ruminates on the relationship between the government and the people within its care. Civil Disobedience largely stemmed from the author’s protests with the Mexican-American War and slavery alike, so suffice it to say he doesn’t exactly hold the ruling class in the highest esteem here. Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on how the people need to stand up and declare their opposition to injustice without resorting to violent means (he famously quit paying taxes funding initiatives he found distasteful) continues resonating even today. Game-changing activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi looked to him for inspiration quite the ringing endorsement for this particular piece of protest literature!

  6. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois: W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay collection often receives citation as one of the very first sociological inquiries ever not just a work dealing exclusively with race issues. The descendent of American slaves, he pulled from both history and the then-current sociopolitical climate to issue forth a clarion call about equality for black citizens. Educational opportunities are discussed in particular, but he also spends a fair amount of time dispelling stereotypes painting the demographic as inherently ignorant, violent, and sex-crazed. Du Bois also painstakingly analyzes the role of religion in keeping the African-American community cohesive during oppression and features true stories of different individuals. Here, the social sciences served as an adroit (and nonviolent) conduit for protesting injustice, dissolving institutionalized perspectives that create wounds instead of healing them.

  7. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson: Environmental justice and public health advocates should probably keep a copy of naturalist classic Silent Spring on their bookshelves if they don’t already. Its 1962 publication almost single-handedly inspired the green movement thanks to the connections made between damaging the planet and, in turn, its peoples. Pesticide use receives the major bulk of Rachel Carson’s ire, and she exposed many of the serious health problems the chemical companies denied. Citizens shocked by the revelations grew inspired to finally start protesting corporate-sanctioned environmental destruction once they realized the toll it took on their overall health and well-being.

  8. Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly: Sometimes, the best protests involve little more than simply showing brutal conditions and marginalization with little to no editorializing. In one of the most courageous examples of undercover journalism of all time, Nellie Bly faked mental illness and found herself interred in a Blackwell Island insane asylum. For over a week, she perpetuated the charade and noted the dehumanizing, squalid conditions in which the patients were kept. After securing freedom, she ripped the Women’s Lunatic Asylum to shreds, horrifying readers to the point that legislation had to be passed. Thanks to both Bly and the cooperation of a grand jury, the Department of Charities and Corrections received hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked specifically for improving the lives of individuals living in mental health facilities.

  9. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands as one of the quintessential works of abolitionist literature, penned by a schoolteacher and activist hoping to convince her fellow Caucasians to reject the slave trade. Although contemporary readers will no doubt cringe at some of the African-American stereotypes, when placed into its proper historical context the book was actually progressive and heavily influential. Most academics even consider it a pivotal publication in convincing the United States to dismantle the slavery system despite the now-troublesome depictions within its pages. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s intent, however, was to show that African-Americans (particularly those kept in forced servitude) were fully human, possessing the same set of universal strengths and weaknesses as other races.

  10. Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn: Long before Occupy Wall Street, Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn wrote extensively about how overconsumption and materialism would inevitably lead to America’s socioeconomic downfall. Published in 2000, the book (and accompanying organization) protested the cultural hegemony praising consumerism as the be-all, end-all of existence, likening the nation to a corporation. Consumers of media and materials alike do not deserve manipulation, he passionately argued, and encouraged followers to fight back against the conglomerations exploiting their minds and wallets alike. It just took 11 years for the mainstream to pay any real attention.