No escape? No exit? Time for some desert island reading!

With just the right books, you’ll never want to leave

Micheline Ishay, professor, Josef Korbel School of International Studies

“Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

You have most likely seen the musical and the movies, but many no doubt have missed reading Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.This magnum opus tells the story of a fugitive who escapes prison during a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Throughout three volumes, Hugo captures with unparalleled verve and psychological insights the economic curse of poverty, the wretched conditions of single and poor mothers, the trivialization of great injustice and the drama of social conflict.

“The Origins of Totalitarianism,” by Hannah Arendt

During the post-industrialization era, under nationalist banners, imperialist countries were colonizing the world to secure food, raw materials and cheap labor. In a real tour de force, Arendt traces the 19th century roots of conquests built on exclusionary policy. In the 20th century, these policies will culminate in the rise of totalitarianism. From there on, Nazism and Stalinism depended on the dismantlement of civil societies based on class interests, the reliance of the mob, and the targeting of Jews and other perceived “superfluous” or “stateless” people. As Western societies again face rising dangers of fascism, racism and antisemitism, Arendt has reemerged as a prophet of our epoch.

“The Testaments,” by Margaret Atwood

In an evocation of those dangers, the acclaimed novelist takes us to a dystopian world, the Republic of Gilead — a fictional theocracy established in North America. As the republic slowly disintegrates, three women who have come of age in a merciless regime of fear converge their efforts to dismantle the strict religious and fascist state. At a moment of disorientation for defenders of universal human rights, Atwood is correct: Dystopia should not be the last word.

“Utopia for Realists,” by Rutger Bregman

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the great dysfunctionality of our world. The prevailing view is that we are moving inexorably toward more surveillance, more robotization, more unemployment and more self-serving authoritarianism. A few, however, challenge that sense of pessimism by depicting new possibilities for advancing the common good. In“Utopia for Realists,” the philosopher Rutger Bregman shows how policies — including a universal basic income, a 15-hour week and open borders across the globe — are attainable. This is not the definitive response to counterprevailing dystopia — it might be even a bit too voluntaristic — but this genre of literature is a step in the right direction, as it links bold ideas to a pragmatic vision of a better world.

“The Wretched of the Earth,” by Frantz Fanon

We are living in a surreal time—one in which fascistic trends, a pandemic, economic scarcity and racial divisions have converged in a pressure cooker. Recent global rage against police brutality and systemic racism reminds us of the longstanding anticolonial struggle. Writing with literary verve and utilizing psychoanalytic and economic tools, Frantz Fanon describes the brutality and repression carried out by French colonizers in Africa. Though written in a different context, Fanon’s opus stands the test of time, offering an important window into social psychology, the structure of oppression and the dilemma of violent resistance. 


Micheline Ishay is distinguished professor of international studies and human rights at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, where she also serves as director of the International Human Rights Program. Her latest book, “The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East,” was published in 2019 by Yale University Press.

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