“There is a presumption of universality to the ideal of justice—social justice, economic justice. It cannot exist for a part or class of society; it must exist for all.”
– E. L. Doctorow
While recent progressive legislation has been enacted to minimize discrimination based on religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, prejudice and discrimination is still a frightening part of contemporary society. As politically and socially engaged college freshman, read these books below to experience the perspective of those typically do not write the history books. Learning from others, whether the characters are nonfiction or imagined, empowers individuals and creates tangible historical change.
The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow
If you couldn’t put down Doctorow’s Ragtime in your American Literature class, you will be equally engrossed in this historical fiction novel, based on the execution and trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Interweaving third and first person narrative in a non-chronological retelling of his communist parents’ capital punishment for conspiracy to commit treason, Daniel’s childhood anecdotes and history tangents will open your eyes to the experience of McCarthy-era Jewish communists. You’ll be outraged by the legal and social injustices Daniel’s family experiences, haunted by the deaths caused by Red Fear and anti-Semitism, and captivated by Doctorow’s stunning prose. The urgent message to overcome ignorance by recognizing the flaws of history and stopping negative cycles remains poignant decades later.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
If you are fascinated by the beauty of language and music, you’ll love this novel based on the late nineteenth-century Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru. Through the unlikely loves and friendships transcending language barriers and cultural backgrounds, Bel Canto reveals the power of human connection in combatting terrorism. This beautiful story of art and love trumping prejudice and violence ruminates on how communication fosters relationships. You’ll be mesmerized by the tender, private moments Patchett creates in the midst of inevitable danger and inspired by the coexistence of individuals whose distinct cultures interact only with hate.
Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
If you were fascinated by George Orwell’s 1984, you’ll love this hybrid novel encompassing dystopian, coming of age, and science fiction genres. Narrated by Kathy, a “carer,” readers are introduced to a sheltered school for children filled with constant art, strange rules, and devoted, coddling teachers. Relationships quickly spiraling out of control outside of their safe haven, and Kathy and her friends gradually reveal who they are and why society despises them. This highly imaginative, suspenseful world is enchanting and thought-provoking about what it means to be human.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
If you appreciate great art, you’ll be captivated by Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her family. Through non-linear, recursive narrative and incredible drawings, Fun Home chronicles childhood in rural Pennsylvania, discovery of her homosexuality in college, and her father’s suicide. Bechdel’s personal experiences of literature informing her understanding of her own sexuality reveals the role that both nonfiction and fiction stories can play in understanding ourselves and others. This unflinchingly truthful and beautifully told story combines humor with poignancy to bring LGBTQ+ issues into the open. The novel is a must-read before seeing the musical adaptation on Broadway or listening to the soundtrack.