Top 10 books about unlikely revolutionaries | Books

Revolutions are often associated with great upheavals and bloodshed – accompanied by metaphors of eruptions and earthquakes. Revolutionaries are often portrayed as heroic figures – strong and invincible – but the reality is often very different. Revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson, for example, wielded pens rather than swords. I’ve always been fascinated by the men and women who used ideas and words to fight their battles. Or those who quietly rose against their oppressors, undermining and outsmarting them with their minds, philosophy, covert operations, wit and non–violent resistance.

My book Magnificent Rebels: The First 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 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 at centre stage and imbued it with the most thrilling of all powers: free will and self–determination. They did so by giving rousing lectures and writing books, pamphlets, articles and poems – and with pens as sharp as the French guillotines. “A word of command set armies in motion,” the poet Novalis wrote, it was “the word freedom.”

For this piece, I chose a combination of fiction and non–fiction books because their “heroes” are all unlikely revolutionaries.

1. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
This is a fascinating account of a period (roughly from Cook’s Endeavour and Charles Darwin’s Beagle voyage) that brought together science and poetry, rationalism and emotion, meticulous observation and imagination – all united 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 how much this sense of wonder has been erased from science today.

2. The Overstory by Richard Powers
I’ve been reading a lot of “cli–fi” over the past three years and Powers’ novel is by far my favourite. There are several protagonists here who could earn a place on this list. There are, for example, Nick and Olivia who fight for the protection of a giant redwood by living for months high up in the tree. Or the botanist Patricia Westerford who is based on the real scientist Suzanne Simard – a forest ecologist who discovered that trees communicate with each other through an underground network of roots and funghi. Westerford – just as the real Simard – turns everything we know about trees upside down. It’s mind–boggling and visionary. The multi–stranded novel is a masterpiece in which science and poetry are deeply intertwined.

3. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
The unstoppable Becky Sharp – orphaned, lower–class and determined to make her way – is an anti–heroine and definitely an unlikely revolutionary. She defies her lowly birth and takes her destiny in her own hands. Fiercely independent-minded, high–spirited and funny, she schemes to ensnare gullible men into marriage. You don’t have to like her as she takes what she can, tricks and deceives, but unlike other Victorian women (in novels and in real life), she refuses to be bound by the role that society had intended for women like her.

4. This Is the Hour by Lion Feuchtwanger
When I was in my early 20s, I devoured Feuchtwanger’s books – and this is one of his best. Published in 1951, it’s a historical novel about the Spanish artist Goya who used his paintbrush as his weapon. We see Goya becoming a court painter to the Spanish crown and follow his tempestuous affair with Duchess of Alba. But instead of fulfilling social expectations and playing his role within the court, Goya rebels when he deploys his famous Los Caprichos (printed engraved caricatures) to criticise the aristocracy, the Catholic church and to address social injustice.

5. Hymns to the Night by Novalis
Novalis is one of the protagonists in my book Magnificent Rebels (as well as in Penelope Fitzgerald’s beautiful novel The Blue Flower). He was a poet but also a mining inspector and died at the age of 28 – frozen 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 strange verses that play with night and death – that has been hailed as the most important poem of the young German Romantics. Though Novalis didn’t fight absolute rulers or injustices, he revolutionised literature. Turning against the rigorous rules of neoclassical poetry and the polished refinement of French drama, Novalis’ mesmerising Hymns to the Night dissolve order and divisions, expectations and metric patterns. It’s a promise of what was to follow.

Harriet Tubman, founder of the real-life underground railroad, c1860-75.
Ordinary people risked their lives to make the world a better place … Harriet Tubman, founder of the real-life underground railroad, c1860-75. Photograph: Harvey B Lindsley/AP

6. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
At the heart of Whitehead’s novel is Cora, a slave who flees a Georgia plantation where she was born. She’s hunted, 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 19th century formed a secret network of safe houses and routes that help enslaved workers escape from plantations in the south to the northern states. In Whitehead’s imaginative and fictional retelling this metaphorical “underground railroad” becomes a literal system of underground tracks and stations. Besides Cora’s story, this harrowing 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 age. He revolutionised scientific writing when he combined empirical observations and data with poetic landscape descriptions. For me Views of Nature is the blueprint for nature writing today. Though Humboldt is almost forgotten today, his ideas of nature have shaped our thinking. He saw the world as a living organism and an interconnected whole – and predicted harmful human-induced climate change more than 200 years ago. Views of Nature was his favourite book – and it’s still worth reading today.

8. Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali
Set in the wake of the Egyptian revolution of 1952, Ghali’s bitingly funny novel follows the narrator Ram as he tries to find his place in a chaotic, post-colonial world. Existing on the edges of extreme privilege and seemingly disaffected, he nevertheless is drawn into a world of politics and rage at the legacies of imperialism. Making his way through Cairo’s clubs and London’s streets, Ram is a most unlikely revolutionary – and arguably a failed one – in his efforts to fashion an authentic self in a traumatised society. Love and politics awaken him, but how does he, or the revolution, survive?

9. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
“I shall first consider women in the grand light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties’, Wollstonecraft wrote in this seminal work in 1792. For a woman to write a political book, advocating the rights of women at a time when fathers and husbands determined every aspect of their daughters’ and wives’ lives was extraordinary enough – but to write it under her own name (rather than remaining anonymous) was even more revolutionary.

10. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Carson was trained as a marine biologist and was a gifted writer. In Silent Spring, she evokes in beautiful prose the devastating effect of synthetic pesticides on nature. The impact of the book was seismic and eventually led to the banning of DDT, as well as inspiring a whole generation of environmental activists.

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf is published by John Murray. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.