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Can writers change the world? Gurcharan Das, James McGrath Morris and Judith Viorst respond

With the National Book Festival fast approaching (Sept. 25 on the National Mall), we have asked participating authors to ponder the power of their pen. In this age of maximum distraction when reading -- and the influence of books -- often lose out to texting, tweeting and other semi-literary activities, we posed the question: Can writers change the world? All this week, we've provided answers from a range of Festival contributors -- historians, novelists, childrens writers. Today, in the last installment of our series, Gurcharan Das, James McGrath Morris and Judith Viorst offer their perspectives.

Gurcharan Das is a management consultant and author of the international best-seller “India Unbound.” From 1985 to 1992, he was chief executive of Procter & Gamble India and vice president of Procter & Gamble Far East. Later, he was vice president and managing director for Procter & Gamble Worldwide. His latest book is "The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma."

Here's his response:

Writers would like to believe that they can change the world, and sometimes they do. But it happens in unexpected ways. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, was deeply concerned about the way we deceive ourselves, how we are false to others, how we oppress fellow human beings, and how deeply unjust we are in our day-to-day lives. He wondered if this moral blindness is an intractable human condition or can we change it? Tolstoy did little to alter the course of Russian history. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did far more.

Tolstoy, however, helped to change the course of Indian history. A young lawyer named Gandhi read Tolstoy more than a hundred years ago in South Africa. He was profoundly moved by Tolstoy's ideas. He questioned if human misery is also the result of the way the state treats human beings. He sought inspiration both from Tolstoy and from the classical Indian concept of dharma. Dharma is an elusive word that means variously virtue, duty and law, but it is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing. These influences helped him to formulate his ideas of non-violent resistance. Soon he returned to India, where he went on to practice civil disobedience with unbelievable success. In the end, he succeeded in winning India's independence from Britain without shedding an ounce of blood. And this happened in the shadows of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao! No wonder Indians believed that a saint had created their nation. Most Indians did not realize, however, a writer far away in Russia had had played a role in liberating one fifth of humanity.

-- Gurcharan Das will speak on Saturday, Sept. 25, in the Contemporary Life tent at 1:30 p.m.

James McGrath Morris took his time to produce his latest book. "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power" was five years in the making and the result has won wide praise. In The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley said, "There have been other biographies of Pulitzer, most notably W.A. Swanberg's published in 1967, but James McGrath Morris's is the best."

Here's Morris's response:

Writers have sparked revolutions, remade politics, culture and economics, caused us to rethink our place in the cosmos, inspired mass migrations, shaped our love lives, altered our waistlines, and kept us up at night. History rarely proves anything, but on this point the verdict is rather clear. Writers change the world.

From his desk in the British Museum, using a pen as his only weapon, Karl Marx inspired a worldwide wave of revolutions. And, even though the Iron Curtain is down, his writings are still the touchstone of politics and economics for the world’s most populous nation.

Look anywhere and you can see the handiwork of writers. Behind every change lies a great book. Where would the Reagan years have taken us if it had not been for Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged" or George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty"? Where would women be today without Betty Friedan’s "The Feminine Mystique"? The environmental movement without Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring"? The civil rights movement without Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and Richard Wright’s "Native Son"? The fight against AIDS without Randy Shilts’ "And the Band Played on"? Would Americans be serving Boeuf à la Bourguignonne without Julia Childs’ "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" as a hopeful prelude to taking a page from Alex Comfort’s "Joy of Sex"?

Even those who don’t read know the power of the word. Sarah Palin, who is at a loss to name anything she has read, immediately wrote a book in her quest for presidency.

Books -- that is those things printed on paper -- may disappear but reading won’t. Writers will shape tomorrow’s world, as they have in the past. They perform a timeless bit of magic. They put into words the thoughts, ideas, notions, and emotions that make and remake our world.

-- James McGrath Morris will speak in the History & Biography tent on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 2:40 p.m.

Judith Viorst has written several works of fiction and nonfiction for children and adults. Her first children's book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” published in 1972, has sold more than 2 million copies. Her latest book is “Lulu and the Brontosaurus.”

Here is her response:

Can writers change the world? I’ll settle for a few hearts and minds, grateful for those readers who write to let me know, “You’ve touched me,” or “You’ve helped me understand.” I think writing is about making a connection, and sometimes that connection can be broad enough and deep enough to prompt a large number of people to think about the world in a different way. And maybe some of those people will then go on to try to change the world -- that’s their job. A writer’s job is to write.

Judith Viorst will speak in the Children's tent on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 4:25 p.m.

By Steven E. Levingston  | September 24, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
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Next: BOOK WORLD - September 26, 2010

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