There is no doubt that a writer’s work can influence a wide range of cultural, political and social issues. The question I’m posing today is whether this influence is genre specific. It’s highly likely that we’ll be able to find a historical, philosophical piece of literary fiction or a non-fiction book that has caused or created change but, what about other genres, like graphical novels or thrillers? Can they influence the way people think, the way society functions or even the scope of government policy?

1984One of the first books that springs to mind as an obvious candidate in this category is George Orwell’s 1984. No one reading that book or seeing it performed as a play can mistake its potential as a political device. The power of the story comes from its frightening pseudo-realism, its ability to urge the general public to question their beliefs, to decide what they want from their leaders rather than purely accepting what they’re told….

originspeciesThe Origin of Species by Charles Darwin is a personal, non-fictional favourite of mine. Its impact on science, particularly in the fields of genetics and ecology, is tremendous and liberating. In a sense, he and his associates gave humanity another survival advantage. Their theories pushed our thoughts and lives in a meaningful direction. Our enhanced understanding of biology, nature, climate and natural selection means we can continue to make positive changes – and limit the detrimental effects of globalisation – for generations to come.

persepolisPersepolis by Marjane Satrapi attracted worldwide attention for good reasons. It’s a young person’s take on the time before, during and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It’s also a graphic novel, an uncommon artistic medium in Iran. The work highlights the dramatic effects of the revolution on women and children, many of whom were forced to live in exile. Memoir writing flourished at that time because those people were emerging slowly from a culture that caused and even valued “a sharply defined separation between the inner and the outer, the private and the public” (Ref 1). Most importantly, Satrapi illustrates how different Iran is to the nation many Westerners perceive it to be. In her own words, “An entire nation [should not be] judged on the wrongdoings of a few extremists.”

Eric Ambler, who is said to have influenced some of the greatest thriller writers of our day, was a key proponent of change via the influence and power of the written word. All his books were out of print by 1998 but what he wrote was often politically brave and not run-of-the-thriller-mill. I haven’t read them all but The Guardian’s Thomas Jones has and his 2009 article is very informative. As Robert James Bidlinotto of The New Individualist thoughtfully observed in an article he wrote back in 2007 for the Atlas Society, “Almost no one takes thrillers seriously or believes that they have anything important to impart to readers. They are pure escapism. However {…} For the morally ambitious soul, it can provide a lot more: the inspiration and insight to become a better person.” (Ref 2).

To look at this from the other side of the coin, rarely has a book caused so much damage as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Its impact on humanity was breathtakingly severe. Most writers begin and end their careers hoping they can influence positive change of some kind. This book, still banned in many countries, is undoubtedly one of – if not the most – selfish, despicable concoctions of words anyone has ever created. But it still proves the point that books can have an enormous impact on public opinion, world politics and the future of our race.

hollowmenPoetry is a subject I rarely write about but, to finish off my brief history of influential books, I’ve picked a few classics in the genre. T. S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men is a stiff contender – a poem about overthrowing the dictatorship of 1970‘s Portugal. Also, Birmingham-born W. H. Auden, a man of incredible wit and intellect, had a profound effect on our desire to understand psychology, politics, morals and social issues. His poems were influenced by the ideas of Marx and Freud. Interestingly, his first book was published in 1930 with the help of T. S. Elliot.

wilfredowenAnd, last but not least, the great war poets, my personal favourites. I first read Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at school and their influence on me and my writing was life-changing. Never before had I realised the power words can have on taking a person to another place – maybe not a place they want to go to, but one they ought to understand nonetheless.

So, which books do you think have changed the world for better or worse?


References:

  1. Milani, A. (2004) Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran, Washington DC: Mage Publishers.
  2. http://www.atlassociety.org/tni/best-thriller-writers-ever

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