Literature has a lot to offer. Entertainment, education, psychological and cultural enlightenment, even a hefty profit. But, now and then, a publication comes along that actually makes reality shift. It opens our eyes to truths we’re either oblivious of or avoiding. Most such books that come to mind are from the past and some people argue that modern literature just doesn’t pack the same punch. Why would that be? And what’s so special about books that change the world? Let’s explore the issue with past and present examples.
George Orwell’s novel came out in 1949, a dystopian story about a totalitarian England watching and controlling its citizens’ behaviour, thoughts and even perception of the world. As real human governments keep veering in that same direction, it seems that 1984 will never stop being current. When people are in danger of falling into the same governmental, media and societal traps, this book resurfaces to wake them up and inspire them to stop its fictional narrative from becoming reality.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Some of the books that change the world the most are dystopian. This is because they’re based in the real world and poignantly reflect the outcome of horrible possibilities that often turn into high probabilities. Margaret Atwood’s novel is one such literary work, published in 1985 and also warns against an oppressive regime. This time it’s a theocratic US government dealing with a fertility crisis by stripping women of their rights before assigning them to either a domestic, housekeeping or reproductive role. A valuable and frequently brandished reminder of how badly things can go if patriarchal ideologies are allowed to thrive.
The Diary of Anne Frank
As powerful as fiction can be, non-fiction has even greater lessons to impart. The horrors of WWII are a major example of human events that must never be forgotten so that they’re not repeated. Anne herself didn’t write in her diary just to vent while hiding from the Nazis, she compiled all her memories in there and a revised version (The Secret Annex) for posterity. And, since their publication in 1947, the texts of Anne Frank still exist today in almost every human language, thanks to Miep Gies and Otto Frank. Unlike 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, they recount very real events and have an even more powerful moral influence over readers.
Books that change the world can do it for good and bad. The Bible is basically an anthology of religious beliefs, but which has left many footprints and fissures in human history since antiquity. The texts themselves have also changed so many times in the hands of the church. This makes them less a loyal representation of Christianity’s original teachings and more a product of the religious institution’s interactions with the human nature to a range of effects, from inspiring to atrocious. The Bible shows how much sway a literary work can have over people, but also how important it is to think and question while reading. In fact, it’s vital when dealing with texts trying to direct human behaviour and even more so when their intent is harmful.
So What Makes a Book Influential?
Based on the examples above, let’s summarise some key features of literary works that stay ingrained in our consciousness and progress as a “civilised” species.
- Themes drawn from real concerns
- Discussions of uncomfortable truths
- Quality and / or moving writing
- A willing audience
- A degree of luck in societies actualising a given book’s messages and creating a need for its words to re-emerge
21st-Century Influential Books
Returning to this article’s original question, does this century’s literature have examples of books that can change the world? For me, the answer swings between ‘yes’ and ‘it’s complicated’. On the one hand, the amount of texts and opinions out there makes it hard to separate facts from inaccuracies and lies. On the other, you’re also left with so many good works from prestigious, indie or self-publishing avenues.
Because of this abundance, an extra silver lining is that readers can be a lot more informed and already on-board with ethical or cultural messages in books. This perhaps makes them less groundbreaking than they could have been if published 50 years ago. Of course, this is dependent on readers having an open mind, choosing good texts and navigating the often intentionally muddied literary waters.
Having said that, there are books of the 21st century that have stood out for their much-needed psychological and societal impact. Current crises related to black lives, women’s rights, immigration and more are motivating authors to produce powerful works that turn heads and push for positive change. Here are some examples:
- White Teeth & NW (Zadie Smith)
- Home Fire (Kamila Shamsie)
- Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine)
- The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
- The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
- Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
There’s no shortage of books nowadays in print, digital or audio form. It’s exciting for bookworms, but also makes it tricky to pick out the truly influential works among them. But the point is that the 21st century absolutely has its share of inspirational texts. What has changed is the world around literature as technology, politics, the media and so on overwhelm our perception of what’s fair or correct. This can be countered, however.
With the variety of platforms available to them, authors are in a great position to deliver truths and inspire unity against the wrongs of our times. The pen is still by far mightier than the sword, so books that change the world continue to emerge for the benefit of an increasingly sensible and ethical audience.
Want to explore the power of literature further?