R.Evolutions are often associated with great upheavals and bloodshed, accompanied by metaphors for eruptions and earthquakes. Revolutionaries are often portrayed as heroic, strong, and invincible figures, but the reality is often very different. Revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson, for example, wielded pens instead of swords. I have always been fascinated by the men and women who used ideas and words to fight their battles. Or those who quietly rose up against their oppressors, undermining and outwitting them with their minds, philosophy, covert operations, wits, and nonviolent resistance.
My book Magnificent Rebels: The Early Romantics and the Invention of the Self tells the story of a group of brilliant poets, thinkers, and philosophers who came together in the small German university town of Jena in the last decade of the 18th century and changed the way we think about ourselves, the world, and nature. At a time when most of Europe was held in the iron fist of absolutism, they put the self center stage and imbued it with the most exciting power of all: free will and self-determination. They did it by giving passionate lectures and by writing books, pamphlets, articles and poems, and with pens as sharp as French guillotines. “A word of command set armies in motion,” wrote the poet Novalis, was “the word freedom.”
For this piece, I chose a mix of fiction and nonfiction books because its “heroes” are all unlikely revolutionaries.
1. The Age of Wonders by Richard Holmes
This is a fascinating account of a period (roughly from Cook’s Endeavor and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle) that brought together science and poetry, rationalism and emotion, meticulous observation and imagination, all bound together by the notion of “wonder.” The revolutionaries here are astronomers, botanists, chemists, explorers, and poets, and together they launched what Holmes calls “a revolution in romantic science.” It’s also an evocative reminder of how much this sense of wonder has been erased from today’s science.
two. The Superior Story of Richard Powers
I have been reading a lot ofcli-fi” in the last three years and Powers’s novel is by far my favorite. There are several leading men here who could earn a spot on this list. There is, for example, Nick and Olivia who fight for the protection of a giant sequoia living for months at the top of the tree. Or botanist Patricia Westerford, who is based on actual scientist Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist who discovered that trees communicate with each other through an underground network of roots and fungi. Westerford, like the real Simard, turns everything we know about trees upside down. She is mind blowing and visionary. The multi-thread novel is a masterpiece in which science and poetry are deeply intertwined.
3. William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
Orphaned, lower class, and determined to make her own way, the unstoppable Becky Sharp is an anti-hero and definitely an unlikely revolutionary. She defies her humble origins and takes her destiny into her own hands. With a fiercely independent mind, cheerful and funny, she schemes to ensnare gullible men into marriage. You don’t have to like her as she takes what she can, cheats and cheats, but unlike other Victorian women (in the novels and in real life), she refuses to be tied down to the role that society has destined for women as she.
Four. This is the hour of Lion Feuchtwanger
In my early 20s, I devoured Feuchtwanger’s books, and this is one of his best. Published in 1951, it is a historical novel about the Spanish artist Goya who used his paintbrush as a weapon. We see Goya become court painter to the Spanish crown and follow his tempestuous romance with the Duchess of Alba. But instead of complying with social expectations and playing his role within the court, Goya rebels when he displays his famous Whims (printed engraved cartoons) to criticize the aristocracy, the catholic church and address social injustice.
5. Hymns to the night by Novalis
Novalis is one of the protagonists of my book Magnificent Rebels (as well as Penelope Fitzgerald’s beautiful novel The Blue Flower). He was a poet but also a mining inspector and died at the age of 28. Stopped in time and youth, he became the epitome of the young romantic. Hymns to the Night (1801) is a set of six long poems, magical and strange verses that play with night and death, which has been hailed as the most important poem of the German Young Romantics. Although Novalis did not fight against absolute rulers or injustices, he revolutionized literature. Against the rigorous rules of neoclassical poetry and the refined refinement of French drama, Novalis’s riveting Hymns to the Night dissolve order and divisions, expectations and metrical patterns. It is a promise of what was to follow.
6. The Colson Whitehead Underground Railroad
At the heart of Whitehead’s novel is Cora, a slave fleeing the Georgia plantation where she was born. She is hunted down, gang raped, and again and again faces capture and the horrors of slavery. The revolutionaries here are the black and white activists who in the early 1800s formed a secret network of safe houses and routes that help enslaved workers escape from southern plantations to northern states. In Whitehead’s imaginative and fictional account, this metaphorical “underground railway” becomes a literal system of underground tracks and stations. In addition to Cora’s story, this heartbreaking and devastating novel evokes how ordinary people risked their lives to make the world a better place.
7. Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt
Born in 1769, Humboldt was a Prussian aristocrat who became the most famous scientist of his day. He revolutionized scientific writing when he combined observations and empirical data with poetic descriptions of landscapes. For me, Views of Nature is the model for writing about nature today. Although Humboldt is almost forgotten today, his ideas about nature have shaped our thinking. He saw the world as a living organism and an interconnected whole, and he predicted damaging human-induced climate change more than 200 years ago. Views of Nature was his favorite book, and is still worth reading today.
8. Beer at the Waguih Ghali Snooker Club
Set in the aftermath of the 1952 Egyptian revolution, Ghali’s biting and funny novel follows the narrator Ram as he tries to find his place in a chaotic, post-colonial world. Existing on the brink of extreme privilege and seemingly discontent, however, he finds himself drawn into a world of politics and rage over the legacies of imperialism. Fighting his way through the clubs of Cairo and the streets of London, Ram is a most unlikely revolutionary, and possibly a failure, in his efforts to create an authentic self in a traumatized society. Love and politics wake him up, but how do he or the revolution survive?
9. Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
“I will first consider women in the great light of human creatures, who, like men, are placed on this earth to develop their faculties,” Wollstonecraft wrote in this seminal work in 1792. For a woman to write a book Politically, standing up for women’s rights at a time when fathers and husbands determined every aspect of their daughters’ and wives’ lives was extraordinary enough, but writing it under her own name (instead of remaining anonymous) was even more revolutionary.
10 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Carson trained as a marine biologist and was a gifted writer. In Silent Spring, he evokes in beautiful prose the devastating effect of synthetic pesticides on nature. The book’s impact was seismic, eventually leading to a ban on DDT, as well as inspiring a generation of environmental activists.