Postscript: "books that made a difference"

À propos the 11/24 blog (below), California author Dirk van Nouhuys writes:
"I was working for the Department of agriculture as an editor when Silent Spring was published. I'll tell you it shook that organization to it's roots (which were in agribusiness). The Secretary, it was Orville Freeman, issued a directive that no dept. employee could comment on the book publicly except in the area of "his" expertise and with the permission of his supervisor. I agreed with my sympathetic boss (People like her understood what was going on) that I could say it was well written, but no one asked me."

The naked blogger

Happy Thanksgiving!

In a desperate attempt to boost ratings for this blog, I am writing this STARK NAKED!

Hey, it worked for Sharon Reed, anchor woman of Channel 19 News in Cleveland. The night she took off her clothes on camera, "WOIO-TV achieved a record 700,000 viewers, a 17.1 rating, far above the station's usual average of about 10. The station also registered a million hits on its Web site," reports David Carr in today's NYT.

Thanks for this candid portrait to Professor Sanders.


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.


Recommended reading

Corey Robin's review of The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, by Greg Grandin (Chicago, 311 pp), Dedicated to Democracy. Corey Robin teaches at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea.