Writers With a Mission

By: Jeff Herman

Whatever happened to Karl Marx? You probably don't know. All I know is he wrote a book titled something like DAS CAPITAL in German, which became a template for the Russian Revolution. His name became co-branded with Communism (Marxism, Marxist), and his hairy-cranky face overlooks a lot of plazas (or used to) in places like Pyongyang and Bejing. As an aside, parts of Asia have large Christian communities, which means that two of the most recognizable people in the far east are Jewish, though there are almost no native Jewish communities.

A book can help change history, even when people don't read it. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he allegedly said, "So you're the little lady who started this big war". Though few people in the South dared to read her book, they couldn't stop referring to its purported lies and distortions about slavery.

More than a hundred years ago a successful French writer wrote a book titled something like, I ACCUSE, which provoked a popular revolt against the military's domination of the government. The book helped unravel a massive conspiracy of deceptions and cover-ups known as The Dreyfus Affair.

A generation ago, many Russian writers were forced into exile partly for writing books that few people in Russia had any access to. However, the people in power did read the books, and were so alarmed that they felt compelled to expel the writers.

Fifty years ago a book titled UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED, by Ralph Nader, was too dry and technical for most people to read, but it gave the American auto industry the equivalent of a nervous breakdown, and has probably preempted countless deaths. The book exposed numerous corporate cover-ups regarding unsafe cars, and forced Congress to establish regulatory agencies. As an aside, General Motors attempted to damage Nader's reputation by paying professional hookers to seduce him. They failed, and it helped give Nader the ammunition to win a huge civil action against GM, which he used to fund Nader's Raiders, his non-profit consumer advocacy foundation.

There's a long list of books that helped make history. The evidence suggests that they weren't written for money, though many of them made a lot of money. In some cases, the authors' personal lives were turned upside-down in bad ways, and they knew that would be a consequence. The common denominator is that the authors had the compulsion to make a difference by saying something important.They were all gadflies, and for every successful gadfly there must be many who don't get heard. Even being a troublemaker has a lot competition. We can assume that writers with missions have egos, or they wouldn't want their names and faces to become emblems for the cause.

Have there been any recent books that have had a huge social impact? I can't think of any. They may have been written and published, but there wasn't a sufficient community of like-minded people to embrace the book and its purpose. Maybe causes need to have a strong measure of preexisting support in order for a book to establish self-sustaining roots. It follows that this may be an age that lacks coherent causes, even if they are called for.

One of the nice things about the American publishing business is that pretty much anything will be published if it's deemed profitable. Non-marketability is the only censure in America. Let's keep our eyes open for a book that might ignite a mission, or at least look for a mission that needs a book.

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