Books as Bombs

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views…but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already.” Graham Greene

We sometimes hear of books that have exerted a major influence on someone's life or a large group of individuals. Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther is perhaps the foremost example of the powerful impact of the reading experience. It led so many young individuals into acts of imitative suicide that it was banned in several countries soon after it was published.

The San Francisco bookstore, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, used to have a page on its website that invited readers to "name the book that changed your life." One contributor responded: "The Harry Potter books changed my life. I used to hate reading. Now I am the best reader in the class. Those books changed my imagination. I wasn't too much of a dreamer. Now, I love to imagine things. I just hope that they change someone else's life like they did mine."

The Autodidactic Press once offered a similar invitation on the "Books that Changed Lives" page on its website. In citing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one individual wrote: "I first read the book as a sixth grader. The book was so searing that I vowed to become like that unusual man. Today I am a Muslim as a direct result of Malcolm's autobiography."

Recently a student of literature wrote to me: “James is mirroring my reality. It is the only thing keeping me afloat, knowing that some other mind experienced these complexities. Art is a world separate from the social, a refuge.” Her experience is similar to the one Shirley Hazzard described in a recent interview when she declared that poetry “literally and figuratively saved my life and enabled me to live inwardly.”

Book can sometimes lead to political and social change across a wide population of individuals. In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a book that had a profound impact on me and almost everyone else who has ever read it. Sinclair’s novel documented the horrible conditions, the filth, the corruption, and the total disregard for the workers that existed in the meatpacking industry. It was the driving force that led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and general expansion of regulatory control of the food industry.

While rare, Louis Menand reminds us in a recent New Yorker essay, “Books as Bombs” that other books have had a similar widespread influence. Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities has had a major impact on urban planning in this country and elsewhere. Rachel Carson’s now classic Silent Spring is often said to have given birth to the Environmental Movement and led directly to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Michael Harrington’s The Other America is credited with shaping Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. And many automotive safety regulations were a direct result of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed.

In his essay Menand reviews Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. He writes, “…an enormous number of women recognized themselves in its pages [The Feminine Mystique], and many wrote Friedan grateful letters describing the book’s effect on them: “I feel today, as though I had been filled with helium and turned loose!” “Like light bulbs going off again and again.” “I understood what I was feeling and felt validated!!”

Coontz is somewhat more restrained in describing the impact of Friedan’s book. “Books don’t become best sellers because they are ahead of the time. But people like to be able to point to a book as the cause for a new frame of mind.” And as Menand notes, in the 60s books were bombs. In my view there is no reason to believe they are any less explosive today.

Coincidentally in the week following Menand’s review, The New Yorker published a new Alice Munro short story, “Axis,” about the relationship of two women that illustrates the kind of force The Feminine Mystique and other feminine best-sellers of 60s had on women:

“When the great switch came in women’s lives—when wives and mothers who had seemed content suddenly announced that is was not so, when they all started sitting on the floor instead of on sofas, and took university courses and wrote poetry and fell in love with their professors or their psychiatrists or their chiropractors, and began to say “shit” and “fuck” instead of “darn” and “heck”…