Connie Willis, Crosstalk
It is the real power of a book — not what is on the page, but what happens when a reader takes the pages in, makes it part of himself.
Matthew Pearl, The Last Bookaneer
That books, at least some books, exert power has long been known. Consider the impact of the Torah, the Christian Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many others down through the centuries. But what Connie Willis and Matthew Pearl suggest, through characters in their novels, is that even lesser books by lesser authors hold power over those who read them. Willis specifies “good book,” but almost any book can be thought good by somebody. Thus, almost any book can hold power over someone.
How does this power rexert itself? Let us count the ways.
1. The power to change
Changing anyone’s mind about anything is never easy. Most sermons, lectures and political speeches change nobody’s mind, perhaps because changing minds is so clearly their intent. We all tend to resist attempts to change our minds. Books, however, are more subtle.
Consider To Kill a Mockingbird. There is no way to know how many minds have been impacted by this story about children growing up in the Deep South in the middle of the 20th Century. Perhaps everyone who has read the novel, and that includes millions, has somehow had a change of heart about race, justice, mental illness or whatever as a result.
2. The power to entertain
Most people read books for entertainment. We’re looking for a good time. Thus, those writers who entertain readers sell more books than those who don’t, giving them economic power, if nothing else. But entertainers, from Bob Hope to Madonna to John Grisham, also feel the power of holding a large audience in their hands, however briefly.
3. The power to motivate
Self-help books don’t always work. Even so, many of us sometimes read them to try to lose weight, do a better job of raising our children, feel better or whatever. Just buying or borrowing the book shows motivation. When we’re lucky, reading it will actually motivate us enough to improve whatever needs improving.
4. The power to educate
I am not convinced textbooks are the most educational books around. They have the advantage of packing a lot of information between two covers, but they usually aren’t that interesting. We read them only because we have to in order to get passing grades. We may be more likely to learn from those books we read because we want to learn more about a particular subject, books we choose rather than books chosen for us.
5. The power to inspire
I just realized that to illustrate this point I need only point to the two quotations at the top of this blog post. Both were found in books, and together they inspired these ideas about the power of books. The ideas contained in books inspire other ideas, which can result in other books or any number of other kinds of creative actions.