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You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times Paperback – November 30, 1995

4.8 out of 5 stars 54 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

By any standards, Howard Zinn has led a remarkable life as teacher, writer, and social activist, a life in which those three categories are viewed not as compartmentalized tasks but as part of a unified identity. You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, a title taken from his advice to students about his take on American history and current events, is a powerful testament to that life.

It begins with his 1956 acceptance of a teaching post at Atlanta's Spelman College, a school for black women that would soon be caught up in the civil rights movement. Zinn, who had already been radicalized on the streets of Brooklyn as a teenager, got caught up along with his students (who included the future head of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, and author Alice Walker), and was kicked out in 1963 for "insubordination." He moved to Boston University, where he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and would prove a constant thorn in the side of university president John Silber throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Zinn writes in plain language that brooks no nonsense when it speaks of moral urgency, but he isn't above a sense of humor. Noting that the FBI was watching him constantly during the war era, he wryly observes that, "I have grown to depend on them for accurate reports on my speeches." Individual scenes leap out at the reader: Zinn's horror when he realized, years after WWII, that he had dropped napalm bombs on German troops; a meeting in a college classroom with the sister and parents of one of the victims of the Kent State massacre; Selma, Alabama, police beating blacks attempting to register to vote while federal agents stand by and do nothing. Through it all, Zinn writes, "I see this as the central issue of our time: how to find a substitute for war in human ingenuity, imagination, courage, sacrifice, patience." --Ron Hogan

From Publishers Weekly

Noted left-wing historian Zinn ( A People's History of the United States ) believes that activism and education are inextricable, and his memoir illuminates a well-engaged life. Teaching at Atlanta's Spelman College in the early days of the civil rights movement, he found allies in principled students like Marian Wright (now Edelman) and budding writer Alice Walker. He advised SNCC in Selma, Ala. He volunteered to fight the Nazis but, after Hiroshima, developed a skeptical pacifism he further exercised as a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War. Zinn's narrative is oddly disjointed: not until late in the book does he recount his youth in the slums of Brooklyn, his discovery of Dickens, Marx and Steinbeck and his post-WW II years as a laborer and a 27-year-old college freshman. If Zinn is a bit Pollyannish, he's also inspirational, arguing that, because much has changed in history, "We can be surprised again. Indeed, we can do the surprising."
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press; New edition edition (November 30, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807070599
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807070598
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.8 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #696,060 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I really enjoyed this book. What does come through over and over is Zinn's sense of hope for the future - a sense of hope based on the changes that people can make individually when they speak up and act. Part of what I enjoyed was that the history is connected in a personal way to Zinn and his life, which provided an added richness. This is an interesting story of a fascinating man, but it is also a compassionate and personal view into history and some tumultuous times in the last 30 or 40 years.
It's hard to read this and not ask yourself questions about what you would have done in the same situation, and it seems to me that it's also difficult to avoid questioning what you can do now. Not that you need to agree with everything Zinn says, by any means. It's a push towards living by your own values, and standing up for what you see as right, even in very small ways.
This is not a hard-boiled-hit-you-on-the-head kind of memoir. Zinn has a sense of humor about himself, and doesn't lose a sense of reality. At one point he refuses to pay a fine and spends time in jail. After a night with the cockroaches he changes his mind and pays the fine. He doesn't come off as the perfect saint, only someone consistently willing to say something and someone who consistently tries to do the right thing. I admire him for that. And because of his humanity I can identify with him - and share his hope.
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Format: Paperback
Let's face it. Most autobiographies are ego-massaging personal recollections that shed little light on what makes the author tick. But this book represents what an autobiography should be, because it covers Zinn's political history and how his political and historical views have shaped his life. So in reading this book, we not only know something about Zinn, we learn a great deal about the history of the United States over the past 50 years. To the extent Zinn discusses his personal history, it is usually in the context of his political education, for example, working at Brooklyn shipyards as a youth or flying airplanes in World War II or teaching college in the South during the early 1960's. These personal events shape Zinn's views on labor, war and civil rights. Like Forrest Gump, Zinn was there during the 20th Century's most important events. He has lived an extraordinary life and his views on history deserve the greatest respect. Read this book to see what a real autobiography should look like.
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Format: Paperback
Zinn's casual biography is a really pleasant read, probably because he doesn't attempt to write an exhaustive account of his illustrious life. Rather, he spends more time describing the events he witnessed and, more importantly, the people he met. "You Can't Be Neutral" can be read simply for the joy of it or to get some more background information on one of America's premier social historians, but it can also be used as a supplementary source for the civil rights movement and even the effects of World War II on war veterans. Zinn's description of his experiences in the South just before and during the Civil Rights movement are fascinating, they really give the reader a feel for the frustration felt by the movement's protagonists and the atmosphere of hope they created. I highly recommend to this book to anyone.
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Format: Paperback
If you're thinking about reading this book, you've probably read Zinn before, probably A People's History of the United States. If you haven't read Zinn before, hold off on this book and go read A People's History. This book isn't as much history as it is personal experience mixed in with history. Zinn combines his personal experience in the civil rights and (to some degree) black power movements with life lessons he learned from those experiences. After reading this book, I fell in love with Zinn's writing all over again. I feel like I better understand the man behind the books, and now I will go back and read A People's History and Declarations of Independence again. If you like Zinn, you can't miss the book.
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Format: Paperback
As any reader of his famous A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present (P.S.) knows, Howard Zinn never ceases to challenge the dominant orthodoxies of history. In this book, Zinn demonstrates how he embodied this effort in his own life, from his time as a teacher at a black women's college in Georgia and his involvement in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, though his protests against the Vietnam War to his years opposing John Sibler at Boston University

The result is an inspiring read, though one marred by the odd organization of the book. By choosing to focus on the campaigns he waged against the problems he encountered, Zinn provides less a traditional autobiography than an account of his public career. As a result, the reader is left to piece together the narrative of Zinn's life, which can be frustrating when seeking to understand how he became such a fervent activist to begin with. This is the only complaint with what is otherwise a passionate account of how one person can make a difference in the times in which he lives.
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Format: Paperback
This was the first book I had read by Howard Zinn and it opened many doors for me. I hadn't really formulated any cohesive thoughts about my political views, but this book helped immensely. What Zinn writes about makes sense. The hardship he felt when he realized that he bombed a village in France with napalm, the fights he joined in the Civil Right mvt. in Georgia, the struggles he went through growing up, his realization that history is not clearly written in the textbooks -- it is real. He writes from his heart and with conviction. He knows his ideals are unorthodox, but he doesn't care because they are his and he see them as right.
Anyone who has read some of Zinn's other writings, anyone who has an interest in progressive politics, anyone who wants to find out more about this amazing man should read this book. It is a must for any Howard Zinn fan!!
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