2021 reading list for book lovers and activists

12 great books recos for the high-minded people in your life.

We spend so much of our time at AGO thinking about solutions to big problems.

Naturally, our reading list is full of people doing the same.

Below you’ll find 12 books that inspire us. There are books about storytelling and activism, books that celebrate the splendor and magnificence of the natural world, books that have forced us to take a closer look at the invisible systems that govern society, books that have left us with a fresh perspective, and books that envision better paths forward.

We hope that you’ll share these books with the high-minded people in your life—the book lovers, the storytellers, the environmentalists, the activists. And we hope that they'll inspire you as they inspired us.

Regeneration by Paul Hawken

This vital book about the climate crisis is the first to describe the burgeoning regeneration movement happening around the world. Hawken offers a holistic path to ending the climate crisis, describes a role for each person on the planet, and explains that the solution doesn’t require a big crusade—we can each take action to respect, protect, and create life—right here and right now. As Simon Mainwaring wrote in a recent review, “[Hawken’s first book] Drawdown was a what-could-be-done book [...] Regeneration is a how-to-get-it-done book.”

Regeneration set my personal journey in the environmental justice movement on a whole new trajectory, inspiring a renewed sense of connection to my community and of the magnificent tapestry of life around me. It’s given all of us at AGO a new approach to our climate practice, igniting in us so many new ideas and solutions we can activate as a team and with our partners” — Gillian Gutierrez, AGO Managing Director

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

A mind-expanding exploration into Western and Aboriginal culture and societies. As Kamea Chayne explained on a recent podcast: “Instead of using the Western lens to study and understand non-Western cultures, [Sand Talk uses an] Aboriginal lens to look at Western civilization and its crises.”

“This book gave me a new way of seeing everyday Western life most of us around here are immersed in—from the things we learn in school, to the language we use, to our relationship with money and spirituality.” — Elsie Iwase, AGO Strategy Director

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This collection of essays about ecology, botany, philosophy, and indigenous wisdom is a favorite of nature lovers everywhere. Kimmerer—a trained botanist, professor of plant ecology, and member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation—explores the awakening of ecological consciousness and how we can re-attune ourselves to nature and reestablish a reciprocal relationship with the natural world.

“I found myself learning a new approach to language and way of relating to the world as I waded into the poetic descriptions of scientific observation.” —Carla Yuen, AGO Strategy Lead

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A magnificent and moving meditation on the history and legacy of racism in America, written as both a personal history and a letter to Coates’s teenage son. In the words of Toni Morrison: “The language of Between the World and Me is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory."

“Even with all the recent dialogue around racial issues, there hasn’t been much in the mainstream that hit my spirit the way this book did. I related to it personally, but it also helped me empathize better with the Black men in my life. Coates is a ridiculously amazing writer. Everyone in the U.S. should read this book. It’s a lot for an unprepared heart, but the discomfort is part of the journey.” — Danielle Reid, AGO Engagement Manager

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

We Rise by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

A call to climate action written by an extraordinary young activist. Indigenous climate activist and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez was just 16 years old when he wrote this book, which is full of actionable information for young activists about how to build intersectional movements, along with advice for living more sustainably and building resilient communities, and conversations with other activists, revolutionaries, and celebrities.

“Xiuhtezcatl not only shares what he’s learned on his journey so far but offers actionable tips other activists can use to create real change. It’s both practical and inspiring.” — Mariana Botero, AGO Senior Strategist

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

On Fire by Naomi Klein

A well-researched and impassioned argument that free market capitalism will not provide a solution to the climate crisis. Like Hawken, Klein believes that climate change can’t be addressed without a major simultaneous political and economic shift to a more equitable and just society—and she shows us exactly how to get there.

“This book got me really fired up for my own activism.” — Raine Manley, AGO Engagement Director

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The only novel (and a Pulitzer Prize winner) on this list, The Overstory is a brilliant work of historical fiction that follows nine human characters—including a few real figures in academia and law—and a number of trees. The stories unfold “in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest” to reveal the “vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive” natural world around us.

“We should listen to the trees more. They've been here before us and likely will be long after. Powers helps us hear their wisdom and recognize our own folly.” — Andrew Kessler, AGO Chief Executive Officer

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

A collection of essays—part memoir, part history, part cultural criticism—that explore racial consciousness in modern America. The title refers to the thematic thread that holds the book together: “minor feelings” occur “when American optimism contradicts [...] the lies you’re told about your own racial identity.” The book, which has received a ton of critical acclaim, has been described as “radically honest,” “devastating,” “humorous,” and “utterly original.”

“I don’t think I’d ever really felt seen until I read this book. It made me angry, but also gave me confidence to talk about a part of my identity I used to reserve for very few people in my life.” — Carla Yuen, AGO Strategy Lead

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

Genesis by Sebastiaō Salgado

Salgado’s “love letter to the planet,” Genesis is a collection of black and white photographs taken over a period of eight years to celebrate places, peoples, and animals “that have so far escaped the imprint of modern society.” To create the collection, Salgado traveled to the Galápagos, Antarctic and the South Atlantic, Brazil, the Sahara, the Amazon, the Grand Canyon, and the glaciers of Alaska. He also visited the Stone Age Korowai people of West Papua, the nomadic Dinka cattle farmers of Sudan, the Nenet nomads of the Arctic Circle, and the Mentawai jungle communities west of Sumatra. Genesis is widely considered Salgado’s magnum opus.

“Salgado’s photography has always been special for me. In each image, he captures something profound—an expression of life for better or worse. Genesis is filled with pure emotions, and reflections about the value of mother nature and the meaning of human existence.” — Marco Grasso, AGO Senior Designer

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Powells.com

Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson

An engaging and instructive book that questions the continued pursuit of exponential economic growth in a finite ecological system and imagines a “post-growth” economy that could protect employment, facilitate social investment, reduce inequality, and create ecological and financial stability. Like many of the books on this list, Prosperity Without Growth calls on readers to imagine a different way of doing things and challenges the idea that prosperity and consumption are one and the same.

“This book is utterly fascinating. Tim Jackson explains how little our current economic systems are serving us and how we can change them for the better. He’s also just a really good storyteller.” — Rachel Thomas, AGO Senior Writer

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Part deeply researched ecological history, part personal narrative, Wilding is the beautiful and inspiring story of what happened when a couple decided to return 3,500 acres of intensive English farmland to the wild. The book discusses other successful rewilding projects, the incredible benefits of reintroducing native flora and fauna to a landscape, and how shifting baselines blind us to the staggering loss of biodiversity over the last century.

“Isabella Tree is a gifted writer (and narrator, if you like audiobooks). Wilding is full of gorgeous descriptions and vivid sensory details. It’s a love letter to the English countryside—past and future—full of hope and determination.” — Rachel Thomas, AGO Senior Writer

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

A masterclass in storytelling from one of the greatest living American writers. Saunders uses a selection of classic 19th century Russian short fiction to explore literary techniques and talk about what makes stories good. His advice isn’t only relevant to writers of fiction, but also to activists building the kind of compelling narratives that advance social movements.

“This book is full of rich observations about art and storytelling. I’m trying to incorporate the book’s principles into my own writing and feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.” — Danielle Reid, AGO Engagement Manager

Where to buy it: Bookshop.org, Libro.fm (audiobook)