A book he started writing in secret during his time imprisoned at Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom details just that – his early life in British South Africa, education and political rise, and the 27 years he spent in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the state. A social justice icon who’s revered in South Africa and around the globe, Mandela’s life journey is a compelling story of struggles, setbacks and strength of character.

Throughout the book, Mandela describes himself as a voracious reader who devours political and philosophical ideas: “Any and every source was of interest to me. I read the report of Blas Roca, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, about their years as an illegal organization during the Batista regime. In Commando, by Deneys Reitz, I read of the unconventional guerrilla tactics of the Boer generals during the Anglo-Boer War. I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro. In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and nontraditional thinking that led him to victory. I read The Revolt by Menachem Begin and was encouraged by the fact that the Israeli leader had led a guerrilla force in a country with neither mountains nor forests, a situation similar to our own. I was eager to know more about the armed struggle of the people of Ethiopia against Mussolini, and of the guerrilla armies of Kenya, Algeria, and the Cameroons. I went into the South African past. I studied our history both before and after the white man. I probed the wars of African against African, of African against white, of white against white. I made a survey of the country’s chief industrial areas, the nation’s transportation system, its communication network. I accumulated detailed maps and systematically analyzed the terrain of different regions of the country.”

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

While his access to literature became severely limited at Robben Island, Mandela continued to read whatever he could: “Political books were off-limits. Any book about socialism or communism was definitely out. A request for a book with the word red in the title, even if it was Little Red Riding Hood, would be rejected by the censors. War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, though it is a work of science fiction, would be turned down because the word war appeared in its title. From the first, I tried to read books about South Africa or by South African writers. I read all the unbanned novels of Nadine Gordimer and learned a great deal about the white liberal sensibility. I read many American novels, and recall especially John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which I found many similarities between the plight of the migrant workers in that novel and our own laborers and farm workers. One book that I returned to many times was Tolstoy’s great work, War and Peace. (Although the word war was in the title, this book was permitted.)”

He also studied Islam and Afrikaans, in an effort to better communicate with his fellow prisoners and the warders. And when faced with the possibility of the death penalty, he found solace in the words of a smuggled Shakespeare collection: “Be absolute for death; for either death or life shall be the sweeter.”

Read on for the books that inspired and encouraged Nelson Mandela, and complement with the reading lists of fellow freedom fighters Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou.


The Revolt by Menachem Begin

“I read The Revolt by Menachem Begin and was encouraged by the fact that the Israeli leader had led a guerrilla force in a country with neither mountains nor forests, a situation similar to our own.” -NM

On War by Carl von Clausewitz (also rec’d by Bob Dylan)

“Clausewitz’s central thesis, that war was a continuation of diplomacy by other means, dovetailed with my own instincts.” -NM

Work by Nadine Gordimer

“I read all the unbanned novels of Nadine Gordimer and learned a great deal about the white liberal sensibility.” -NM

The Collected Works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

“While I was stimulated by the Communist Manifesto, I was exhausted by Das Kapital. But I found myself strongly drawn to the idea of a classless society, which, to my mind, was similar to traditional African culture where life was shared and communal. I subscribed to Marx’s basic dictum, which has the simplicity and generosity of the Golden Rule: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” -NM

The Complete Works by William Shakespeare (also rec’d by Jane Goodall)

A copy of Shakespeare’s complete works was one of few books Mandela had access to when imprisoned on Robben Island. Known as the “Robben Island Bible,” the book was smuggled in and circulated among inmates, who signed their names in the margins. Mandela wrote his next to the lines: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow 

“In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and nontraditional thinking that led him to victory.” -NM

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (also rec’d by Bob DylanBruce Springsteen)

“I read many American novels, and recall especially John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which I found many similarities between the plight of the migrant workers in that novel and our own laborers and farm workers.” -NM

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (also rec’d by Bob DylanErnest HemingwayMartin Luther King Jr.)

“One book that I returned to many times was Tolstoy’s great work, War and Peace. (Although the word war was in the title, this book was permitted.) I was particularly taken with the portrait of General Kutuzov, whom everyone at the Russian court underestimated. Kutuzov defeated Napoleon precisely because he was not swayed by the ephemeral and superficial values of the court, and made his decisions on a visceral understanding of his men and his people. It reminded me once again that to truly lead one’s people one must also truly know them.” -NM

Books by Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom (1994)

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