How books change us and are changed

July 23, 2014

Books change. They change us individually and collectively. Tom Paine’s direct style convinced countless colonists that it was Common Sense to become an independent nation. Henry David Thoreau lectured New England college students that they were better off hand-crafting knives than they were sitting in stuffy classrooms. He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Not long after Walden, Harriet Beecher Stowe ingeniously combined sentimentalism and the gothic to compel Americans to pick sides in the great slavery debate. Her world of good slaveholders undone by economic disaster, of heroic families pursuing freedom, of loving little white girls, of horrible older white men, and ultimately of a martyr named Tom, helped start a civil war. Before the Civil War, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more copies than any other book except for the Bible. In fact, Stowe’s story was so morally powerful that it generated sales of the Bible.

Books are also changed. In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois pricked the conscience of white Americans with his Souls of Black Folk. In an age of Jim Crow segregation and spectacle lynching, his literary effort to unveil those behind the veil was beautiful and tragic. One black Presbyterian minister wrote to him, “God has raised you up at this juncture in our history, as a race, to speak to the intelligence of the country in our behalf.” But Souls of Black Folk also contained several lines that demeaned Jews as “shrewd and unscrupulous.” Jacob Schiff, a financier, wrote to Du Bois that these phrases “gave an impression of anti-Semitism.” By 1953, Du Bois agreed and had eight references to Jews altered or removed. Those who have read Souls since would have no idea of the change.

Other books get new forewords, new covers, and sometimes new chapters. Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, for instance, is now in its fifth edition. The soon-to-be-released 25th anniversary edition has a new chapter and afterward. 

Perhaps no book has changed the world and has been changed within it more than the Bible. The entire range of human experience and explanation has been influenced by its books within the book. Some have gone to war because of it; others have advocated peace. Some have justified free-market capitalism; others have found in the Bible the rudiments of organized socialism. Some have defended slavery and patriarchy; others denounced one, the other, or both. The president of the American Historical Association told his colleagues in the early 20th century, “Millions have known little of any book save one, and that one the most interesting of religious books, the most influential, the most powerful to mould and transform.”

Of course, there is not just one Bible. If you wander into any church, you will probably find several translations and versions. Some stick to the New King James, but others embrace The Word, the NIV, or one of a host of others. boasts more than 180 versions in more than 70 different languages.

It’s not only the translations that make for distinctive Bibles. Some have book jackets, perhaps with the words of the Serenity Prayer or with a pouch to hold paper. Some will have drawings or maps. Some study Bibles have little paragraphs at the bottom that offer lessons in geography, meaning, and content. And of course, millions have underlined and highlighted passages in their Bibles. Millions have written on the tops, sides, and bottoms of pages.

Because books change us and because books are changed in meaningful ways, we at Then and Now are beginning a series of posts entitled “Books Change.” Our authorship will be wide, ranging from senior scholars in the field, such as David D. Hall of Harvard University and Richard Lischer of Duke Divinity School, to new authors publishing the books that are changing our fields, such as W. Scott Poole, Elesha Coffman, Todd M. Brenneman, Mark T. Edwards, and Heath Carter.

We hope you will take the occasion to consider what books have changed you, those around you, and your society, and why. Have there been books particular to your family or to seasons in your life? Are there books you love to hold or thumb through for the memories they invoke? Are there books published in our age that you think are influencing the world now and will in the years to come?

Our weekly feature Then and Now harnesses the expertise of American religious historians who care about the cities of God and the cities of humans. It's edited by Edward J. Blum and Kate Bowler.


The company we keep

The first association that came to mind when I read the title to this post was that of Wayne C. Booth's book "The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction." This erudite work dives deep into the debate about how we read narratives and how they are written, narratives of all kinds. Booth writes, "We all live a great proportion of our lives in a surrender to stories about our lives, and about other possible lives; we live more or less in stories, depending on how strongly we resist surrendering to what is 'only' imagined. Even those few tough-minded ones among us who claim to reject all 'unreality'; even those those who read no novels..." With this in mind, I've experienced the power of both novels and non-fictions, and the degree to which I experience the impact of books often depends of my context when I'm reading them.

I frequently daydream of the right moment to pick up one of my favorites like "Travels with Herodotus" by Ryszard Kapuscinski and whisking off with him and Herodotus on their travels again. Jim Harrison's books connect me with the state of Michigan where I live, and listening to "True North" on audiobook while driving hundreds of miles in the Upper Peninsula over Memorial Day Weekend this year couldn't have been matched by a richer literary companion. Pathologies of Power by Paul Farmer and Beyond Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, coupled with deeply formative experiences in East and West Africa, molded my social conscience starting in my early 20s. Other books that impacted me memorably over the years include "Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics" by Gilbert Meilaender, "Freedom" by Jonathan Frazen, "Silence" by Shusaku Endo, "Gilead" and "Absence of Mind" by Marilynne Robinson, among many others.

The most powerful book I've read recently is Dave Eggers' "The Circle." In some ways, I think it is a/the "1984" of my generation or least has a potential to be grouped in that category because of what it says about social media and ourselves in the present age. It isn't necessarily the most well-written book, which I found all the more curious as I read it and felt the weight of its importance. In hindsight, I think this is one of many points Booth makes in "The Company We Keep." He writes, "For any individual reader, the story that will have ethical power is the one that is heard or read as it is heard or read---and that may have little connection either with the author's original intention or with the inherent powers of the story-as-told. The ethics of reading that results when we take this fact of life seriously will itself have a double edge: the ethical reader will behave responsibly toward the text and its author, but that reader will also take responsibility for the ethical quality of his or her 'reading', once that new 'text' is made public." Dave Eggers' book allowed me to connect wandering thoughts about our increasingly digitally-connected and transparent age. In a way, I imposed what I wanted to hear as I read what I heard him saying. Despite Ellen Ullman's tepid appraisal of "The Circle" in the NY Times Sunday Book Review - she writes, “The Circle” adds little of substance to the debate [about the tyranny of transparency, personhood defined as perpetual presence in social networks, our strange drive to display ourselves, the voracious information appetites of Google and Facebook, our lives under the constant surveillance of our own government']" - it has become of those books I can't stop thinking of now when I encounter daily news from around the world both in terms of current events and technology.

Some books sear a mark on the soul. As a medical student, I remember distinctly reading "The Zanzibar Chest" by Aiden Hartley in the summer heat of Nairobi, Kenya in 2005 and stopping at the line: "A century later, Africa was rarely considered worthy of much attention. Editorial interest in foreign news had been declining for years across the board. The wags used to say that as far as a Western editor was concerned, the death of a single white American equaled fiver Israelis, fifty Bosnian Muslims, or fifty thousand Africans." The dispassionate, brutal honesty of the line became an asterisk for how I read world news thereafter. I'll never forget reading Ralph Ellison's poignant line in "Invisible Man" -- "All dreamers and sleepwalkers pay the price, and even the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all” -- and trying to imagine the quotidian invisibility of entire groups of people in the eyes of the mainstream and powerful. And I'll never forget when I heard the lines opening the movie adaptation of "Brideshead Revisited." Although, I don't relate to them for some reason their haunting beauty remains with me as Matthew Goode recited them: "If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name: Charles Ryder. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be. On second thought, one emotion remains my own. Alone among the borrowed and the second-hand, as pure as that faith from which I am still in flight: Guilt." Passages such as these these abide with me as do the books that contain them.

Thank you Professor Blum for your post and your questions to us as readers. In closing, here are a selection of quotes from chapter front pages in "The Company We Keep." May they inspire further discussion and reflections.

"Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint... The greatness of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards." -T.S. Eliot

"The act of getting a story or a novel published is an act of communication, an attempt to impose one's personality and beliefs on other people. If a writer accepts this responsibility, he must see an architect of the soul." -Doris Lessing

"All literary work is an appeal... You are perfectly free to leave that book on the table. But if you open it, you assume responsibility for it." -Jean-Paul Sartre