The Power of the Pen: How Books Drive Social Change

The pen is mightier than the sword. Books are not only an age-old form of entertainment; they are a strong driver of social change. Books—even the most far-fetched fantasy—reflect real life, challenging and reinforcing opinions, social injustices, and stereotypes, positive and negative. Many books emerge in response to upsetting events or in times of social turmoil to advocate for change. Others push negative ideology, propagandize, or support existing unfavorable conditions. Take, for example, Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, a “pseudo-scientific work…that warn[ed] of the decline of the ‘Nordic’ people.”1 Hitler would eventually adoringly refer to this book as “my Bible,” and it continues to fuel white supremacism today.

Regardless of the intended outcome, books are one of best modes of transmitting ideas from one person to another to sway or strengthen their beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Fiction books are particularly powerful, as their carefully crafted characters and enthralling plotlines engage the reader in a different way than nonfiction because the reader is having fun and intends to be entertained when they pick up the book. Fiction, however, can also be more insidious because the transmission of ideas is subconscious; people don’t always intend to be taught when reading a novel. These books can, for example, to enforce the same dangerous teachings as The Passing of the Great Race, except the way a novel does this (through characters, plot, symbols) is much more subtle than a nonfiction book that explains these themes explicitly. However, in the same powerful way, fiction can enforce and promote positive change, and many books have accomplished this.

A plethora of books sprung historically to advocate for and successfully drive social change back in their days. For example, both of George Orwell’s masterpieces—Animal Farm and 1984 (both published in the 1940’s)—continue to enlighten and frighten modern audiences of the horrors of totalitarianism. They serve grave reminders of the relationship between power and corruption and the role of the average individual in resisting abusive governmental practices.

Inspired by the Spanish civil war and the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin,2 “it’s almost impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance, authoritarian politics, or perversions of truth without dropping a reference to 1984.”3 These themes, while incredibly important to the war-torn years just before 1984’s publication, resonate strongly with modern audiences as well, especially in recent years. In 2017, during president Donald Trump’s inauguration, sales of the book skyrocketed, increasing 9,500 % in the week before January 25th, 2017 and only beginning to taper off after Kellyanne Conway’s “Meet the Press” interview.4 Terms such as “Big Brother,” “double think” and “newspeak,” “have become part of everyday currency,” that is, many people understand and use these invented words in mundane life.5 1984, despite its age, continues to warn and educate readers about totalitarianism, empowering them to identify and act against governmental abuse in their own lives.

Books in the past have successfully driven citizens to rally against unfair governmental practices. Abraham Lincoln himself credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a novel about the brutal struggles and trials of an enslaved man in the South—with starting the Civil War. He famously said to the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, “so you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this war.”6

Published about 50 years later, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was similarly revolutionary when it turned the meatpacking industry on its head by exposing the horrendous living and working conditions endured by the (primarily immigrant) workers and their families. Set in the Chicago meatpacking district, the government’s investigations following the book’s publication “found that Sinclair’s portrayals of the sanitary conditions in the stockyards were true, and public outrage led to Congress enacting two laws.”7 The Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited the sale of “misbranded or adulterated food and drugs,” and the Meat Inspection Act did the same for “misbranded or adulterated livestock,” essentially creating some of the first food safety laws in America.7

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, uncovered colonialism in Africa (a much more modern issue than many realize today), giving voice to the voiceless and casting light on people who were invisible the rest of the world. In 1998, when Random House excluded it (and all African authors) from a list of “100 Best Novels,” writer and academic Ali Mazrui advocated for the book and what it represented by pushing African publishers to create their own “100 Great Books” list, putting the spotlight on African literature for the first time ever.8

While there are many books that influenced history, influential books are not a thing of the past. Books still and always will grow from and spurn social change. In 2017, Angie Thomas wrote The Hate U Give after watching a YouTube video of Tupac deconstructing the colloquialism “Thug Life,” hoping her novel would expose police brutality and its affect on black people in America.9 The book was soon after turned into a film and watched by many, continuing to add its voice to Black Lives Matter, a movement that is happening now.

However, it is worth repeating that any book has the power to influence unintentionally. Not all spring from grave injustices, such as war or systemic racism. Any book reflects society regardless of if it was intended to or not; all books contain truth. Mining the truth from books takes practice. A great starting place is to learn to ask: who is the villain? What is the main character struggling against? Conflict often subtly indoctrinates a sense of good and evil, a good narrator struggling against an evil or bad force. Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom’s Cabin against the slaveholders. Winston Smith of 1984 against the government. Starr of The Hate U Give against a brutal police force and the racist government systems that ignored the deadly shooting of her unarmed black friend by a police officer.

Books are not just mindless entertainment—though they are fun! They, however, also serve a broader purpose. They have the power to educate and influence. Understanding this empowers readers to learn from the books they reader, to absorb the author’s message, and to embody the change the book promotes. Reading is powerful. Readers are powerful, and everyone has the ability to participate in this remarkable process. All they have to do is pick up a book.

  1. Purdy, Jedediah. “Environmentalism’s Racist History.” The New Yorker. 13 Aug. 2015.
  2. Lynskey, Dorian. “Rewriting the Past: The History that Inspired George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” History Extra.
  3. Packer, George. “Doublethink is Stronger than Orwell Imagined.” The Atlantic. July 2019.
  4. de Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko. “George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Is Suddenly a Best-Seller.” The New York Times. 25 Jan. 2017.
  5. McCrum, Robert. “The Masterpiece that Killed George Orwell.” The Guardian. 9 May 2009.
  6. “Stowe’s Global Impact.” Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
  7. Francis, Meredith. “How Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ Unintentionally Spurred Food and Safety Laws.” WTTW. 23 January 2020.
  8. Urshel, Donna. “Achebe’s Impact.” Library of Congress. Dec 2008.
  9. Rayburn, Isabelle. “‘The Hate U Give’ Brings Insight on the Impact of Police Brutality on Youth of Color.” The Rocky Mountain Collegian. 4 Oct 2021.

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