Thursday, August 23, 2012

"It's just a book"

Pornographers claim that you cannot judge a book unless you have read it. By that standard, we would spend our entire lives reading pornography. No, we are entitled to judge a book from reviews, other opinion, and authors' earlier work.  On August 19, 2012, a Toronto Star reader defended the latest porn offering by stating, "It is just a book." My unpublished response to the Star:

In defending the Shades of Grey trilogy, Paula Berry makes two errors. The first is the implication that books have little or no influence for good or ill.

Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said that Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe caused the Civil War. Slight exaggeration, but it did fire up Northern antagonism against the South. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair brought about a revolution in the U.S. meatpacking industry, and lead Theodore Roosevelt to create the Food and Drug Administration. Yes, a book, even fiction, can have great influence.

Ms. Berry's other error is to equate the New York Times bestseller list with quality, along with the belief that "smut, prejudice or whatever" would keep a low-grade book off such lists. Bestseller lists are not endorsements. They merely indicate sales, and not literary, social or any other value.

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To the list of highly influential books we might add the fiction of Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. The anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque was so influential that Adolf Hitler ordered it burned. A hot topic in the current U.S. election campaign is the door-stopper novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Other significant works of fiction appear in any history of Western thought, such as European Intellectual History since 1789 by Roland N. Stromberg.

And in the The Globe and Mail of September 22, 2012, scholar, author and broadcaster Kenan Malik commented on the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Malik wrote, "Rushdie was in effect sentenced to death for writing a story. Many were to be killed for translating and publishing that story. Bookshops were bombed for stocking it. It is a measure of the strangeness of the world in which we live that storytelling can be such a hazardous craft."  Even Rushdie himself, just before the novel's publication, said,"It would be absurd to think that books can cause riots."

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code slithered into best-sellerdom. This work of fiction defied logic and history, yet became truth to the unwary and to those unfavourably disposed toward the Catholic Church.

On the death of Pole Pius XII in 1958, the secular media accorded him great tribute. This ended with the 1963 appearance of the fictional work The Deputy. In it, Communist playwright Rolf Hochhuth portrayed the pope as having done nothing to save Jews from the Holocaust.. This has gained such currency that today many accept it as truth.

What's strange is the surprise some of us have at the power of the written word.


Anonymous said...

Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

Anonymous said...

The statement, "It's just a book" means, "Who cares? This particular book is going to have no lasting impact, no matter how many people read it." It doesn't apply to all books, and isn't applied to all books because many books are not just books. This series are just that. More likely it's a reflection of society rather than having any impact on it.

Most people reading the Shades of Grey series know it's stimulating trash, and anyone who refers to it as significant literature in public will not make that mistake twice.

Stowe showed the North the conditions for black slaves in the South. Camus, like it or not, is lit, and exposed the futility of life from a certain point of view. Shades of Grey doesn't tell anyone anything. A book can be trash that will be forgotten or literature that will change society. It can be neither, but it can't be both.