There’s nothing out there to beat a book for escapism; after all, who wouldn’t rather be transported to Middle Earth, Tralfamadore, or even to the windswept Kansas prairies of Laura Ingalls Wilder rather than suffer through a dull day in work? But books aren’t all about fantastical transportation – they’re also about revolutionary inspiration! Words do have the power to change the world – and here’s ten empowering examples to rouse your fighting blood:
1. William Tyndale’s Bible (1526)
Sure, it doesn’t sound counter-cultural, but Tydale’s English-language translation of the New Testament, first published in 1526, was a huge force in the Protestant Reform movement. The book, along with its translator, was considered heretical; it had to be smuggled into Britain, where copies were publically burnt, and Tyndale himself was eventually strangled and burnt to death in 1535. As well as altering Christian tradition, Tyndale’s Bible also introduced new words into English – good old ‘scapegoat’ is one of his…
2. The Wild Fire, Lung Ying-tai (1985)
Taiwanese essayist (and current Taiwanese Minister for the Ministry of Culture) Lung isn’t well-known in the West, but she’s a powerful figure in the Chinese-speaking world, where her early work, including the The Wild Fire, is recognized to have been a contributing factor in the democratization of Taiwan. It’s a work of socio-political criticism that incited death threats against its author, who went on to fight for personal and political freedoms and greater visibility for the arts in her country.
3. The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973-1978)
Solzhenitsyn’s work is a comprehensive uncovering and condemnation of human rights’ atrocities committed in totalitarian Communist Russia in the twentieth century informed by the writer’s own time in the prison camps; The Gulag Archipelago, in particular, is an exhaustive three-volume exposé of the camp system. A history rather than a novel (his novels deal with similar stuff), it’s built from eyewitness reports and the author’s experiences and research, and, predictably, while alerting the rest of the world to what was happening, it was banned in Russia until the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1989.
4. The Diary of Anne Frank (1947)
The world-famous diary of a young Jewish girl in hiding with her family in Amsterdam during WWII, this is the book that people who don’t read books have read. Inspirational and devastating, Frank’s journal is a continual reminder, lest we need one, of the enduring humanity of oppressed peoples and those that will risk their own lives to help. It changed the world because it reminds us, again and again, of that courageous spark.
5. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928)
Famously the subject of more than one embattled obscenity trial, Lawrence’s tale of adultery across class divides was initially published in a censored form; it was the publication of the full version in the UK in 1960 that prompted the legal furore: Penguin had to prove that Lawrence’s repeated use of a certain four-letter word had ‘literary merit’. They won, and the next edition, in 1961, contained the following publisher’s dedication: ‘This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ and thus made D. H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.’ It’s generally considered that the publication of the unexpurgated edition in the USA was a big win for the sexual revolution, thus securing Lawrence’s world-changing credentials in perpetuity.
6. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Mark, Friedrich Engels (1848)
Rather than setting out a glorious vision of communism’s inevitable future triumph, Marx and Engel’s short text is in fact a succinct analysis of the problems of capitalism and the authors’ approach to historical and contemporary class struggle. A rallying cry to intellectual revolutionaries both then and now, it’s a theorization of society and politics that critics and political theorists today still recommend. Power to the people!
7. 1984, George Orwell (1949)
The thought police, doublethink, Room 101, Big Brother, thought crime: Orwell may not have invented totalitarian oppression or historical revisionism, but he spelled it out for us so memorably that he altered the very way we think and talk about panoptic society and freedom of speech. In the wake of the 2013 reports of widespread US government surveillance and the subsequence debate around civil liberties, Amazon reported that sales of just one edition of 1984 leaped by 7005%. So much for escapism!
8. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie (1988)
Rushdie’s magical realist tale is one of two Indian actors, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who are magically saved from a plane explosion; subsequently, Gibreel takes on the personality of an archangel and Saladin takes on that of a devil, and in between there’s a selection of dream-like sequences that are generally read as coming from Gibreel’s angelic mind. One of those involves a re-writing of the life of Muhammad, and was condemned as blasphemous by some Muslims; the book was banned in India, and in 1989 the then-Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death and that of his publishers. While many argued back saying that the book was rather a complex exploration of the immigrant experience in Britain, the threat was taken seriously, and Rushdie spend the next decade under police protection (and kipping in Bono’s house, allegedly). While, in 2012, Rushdie told the BBC that he didn’t think the book would find a publisher these days, due to our current ‘climate of fear’, the fact that The Satanic Verses is still in print testifies to the endurance of free speech.
9. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel – with its stories of escaped slaves and rebellion – was arguably one of the contributing factors that led to the American Civil War shortly afterwards; it certainly fuelled the growing abolitionist movement with its message of Christian condemnation of slavery. On the other hand, of course, it did promote some pretty abhorrent stereotypes, thanks to its unsubtle characterization of black people – the dutiful servant, Tom; the kind-hearted old mother; the pickaninny children. One way or the other, it was undeniably and enormously popular, prompting a questioning of the morality and political significance of slave-ownership amongst the American public.
10. The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall (1928)
One of the most famous LGBT novels of the early twentieth century, Hall’s tale of (female) Stephen Gordon and her various relationships and encounters with social prejudice met with condemnation and legal challenges regarding obscenity when it was published, though, in fact, the sexual descriptions within must be amongst the most discrete imaginable. Its main achievement was to bring lesbianism into the limelight. In 1935, a UK Home Office representative remarked that, “It is notorious that the prosecution of the Well Of Loneliness resulted in infinitely greater publicity about lesbianism than if there had been no prosecution.” There’s no such thing as bad publicity!
Not a comprehensive list by any means, but we think these have all made the world a very different place. If you can think of any others that warrant a mention we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.