Different ways to make a difference

Novelist and journalist John Gorman (author of King of the Romans) recently (on an e-mail list) posed this question: "It has occurred to me recently, however, that books may not matter as much as they once did. In this connection, can anyone think of a book published in the last 20 years that has made an important difference, comparable to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring or Upton Sinclair's Jungle?"

In response to John Gorman's question: His two examples show that he is thinking of books that change legislation or political order or a nation's whole moral outlook. The Pentagon Papers did that, and quite possibly the Report of the 9/11 Commission will also. Charles Patterson's book Eternal Treblinka aspires to make that kind of difference, too.

However there are many different ways of "making a difference." CATCH 22 has changed thousands, maybe millions, of people's ability to perceive the absurdity of military logic, a very useful lesson. Philip Roth's novels and even the somewhat less accessible ones by Thomas Pynchon are among many that have made readers ask uncomfortable questions, which is the first step in moving to change things.

Thoughtful and thought-provoking writing is more important than ever, as the flood of disconnected information and our awareness of the horrible consequences of state power have become overwhelming. Fiction is especially useful, affording an opportunity to explore possibilities and think through likely consequences of different courses of action. "Nonfiction" (if there really is such a thing) can also help change the world, especially in the forms of investigative journalism or clearly written (popularly accessible) reports on scientific discoveries. Books, blogs, plays, movies, poetry -- any writing that surprises and strirs us to think in new ways -- make a difference.

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