Books to Change the World

“Reading is a technology for perspective-taking… Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.”
– Steven Pinker

Below you will find an ever-growing list of books that tie in with the themes relevant to this blog. From social activism to feminism to the ancient world’s legacy in the modern world, the works cover a variety of themes, yet all somehow circle back to Common Humanity’s conviction that the past is worth studying (and reading and discussing and uncovering and encountering…) because it can help us make a difference in the world today. So pick up a book and get reading! It’s good for you, and the world.

Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World?, edited by M. Jay Stottman
Well the title of this one pretty much sums it up. It also sums up exactly the type of career I strive for: archaeological activism! Needless to say, I definitely judged this book by its cover, or really just its title. For the non-archaeologist, fair warning that this is not exactly light reading. It is an academic book, a compilation of various scholarly papers on activism in the discipline of archaeology and the relatively new field of “public archaeology.” As a passionate advocate of public archaeology, I wanted to quote this entire book (Twitter’s 120 character limit has never been such a nuisance!). It touches precisely on my one main critique of the academy (not all of it, but definitely some of it) – it needs to remember why we do what we do. Archaeology is about people, so we cannot forget to bring it back to the people. This book demonstrates how archaeology can, and should, be brought down from that ivory tower and be made relevant today. Can archaeologists change the world? The answer is a resounding yes.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker
At a whopping 802 pages, this is no fast read. It is, however, a worthwhile read, and if you have the patience, I wholeheartedly suggest diving in. Or, if like me you have a hefty commute to work, try the audiobook. Clocking in at just under 37 hours, it will keep you occupied for many a train or subway ride. And you’ll probably learn a lot along the way… Pinker is a linguist and psychologist at Harvard University; how he has had time to write seven books, some of which are 800 pages long, I’ll never know… In The Better Angels of Our Nature, his sixth book, Pinker argues that despite the devastations of the modern world, violence has in fact diminished throughout human history. He supports his argument with thorough research, providing detailed historical background and meticulous statistics. It sounds heavy, and it is, but it is also inspiring and illuminating; so much so that I introduced this section with a quote from it. But if you still need convincing, check out Steven Pinker’s TED Talk on this same subject for a (super) condensed version of this remarkable book.

The Iliad, translated by Stephen Mitchell
“Homer sees everything without judgement. He is not shocked at any form of human stupidity, violence, or greed, and finds no need for consolation. He simply observes, and in the purity of that observation he can see life in death and death in life, the interpenetration of the human and the nonhuman, the equal truth of opposites, and the preciousness of even the smallest or most abject of creatures. His vision is not only an aesthetic but a moral one. I call it love.”
These sentences form the last paragraph of Stephen Mitchell’s Introduction to his translation of Homer’s Iliad, and though my love for Homer and the story of the Trojan War may colour my perspective just a tad, in my opinion, I have yet to read a more beautiful prologue to any work. Mitchell perfectly summarizes why I feel so strongly in the power of this story, and why it has endured across the centuries. And that’s just the introduction…
In translating this two and a half millennia-old classic, Mitchell took a slightly more modern approach, incorporating some slang and contemporary idioms. He also cut some sections of the original text, causing many purist Classicists to squirm with contempt. So if you’re looking for some unadulterated Homer, this probably isn’t the Iliad for you. But that’s not why this version is on this list. It’s here because this is a relatable, accessible Homer; one that “sees everything without judgement.”

Twelve Voices from Greece and Rome: Ancient Ideas for Modern Times, by Christopher Pelling and Maria Wyke
This book literally just hit shelves, so I hope I can be forgiven for not having actually read it yet. But a friend posted this Irish Times article ( ), and I knew that I had to include it here. The book discusses twelve ancient authors, offering multiple dialogues on why their classic works continue to be read, discussed, studied, taught, and reinterpreted today. Read the review and you’ll know what I mean. Or better yet, join me in reading the book, and gain a new appreciation for why you were forced to read Oedipus Rex in high school.

Currently Reading (and recommended!):
The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, by Natalie Haynes
The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, by Caroline Alexander

Has a book inspired you lately? Have a suggestion for this list? Let me know by leaving a comment on this post, write on our Facebook page, Tweet at us, or shoot an email to and I’ll be sure to check it out!



One response to “Books to Change the World

  1. Pingback: In need of a good book? | Common Humanity·

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