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Can writers change the world? Richard Holmes and Jerry Pinkney 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? We're providing answers from a range of Festival contributors -- historians, novelists, childrens writers -- over several days. Richard Holmes and Jerry Pinkney offer today's perspectives.

Richard Holmes is best known, in the words of Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda, as "one of England's most admired biographers, his particular area of expertise being the romantic era in England and France." Among his books are biographies of the poets Shelley and Coleridge. His latest book, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science," takes a different way into his area of specialty. In his review Dirda called the book "enthralling."

Here is Holmes's response:

It’s a good question, and usually leads to a passionate discussion of the difference between art and propaganda, and the works of Tolstoy or Emerson or D.H. Lawrence or Sigmund Freud. But I have a literary Irish aunt (a fiery fan of James Joyce) who once dismissed it with a snort of derision. “Writers don’t have to change the world. Sure, it’s changing fast enough anyway. They should try and slow it down instead. Or maybe make it go backwards.”

Considering this Joycean riposte, I have slightly reformulated the question. When did people stop believing that writers could -- or should -- change the world? Up to the mid 19th century in Europe this was an automatic assumption, part of the Enlightenment project and central to the idea of progress itself. “Knowledge is power,” said Sir Francis Bacon as early as 1597; and for three centuries improving knowledge and ideas were fundamentally the business of books and writers.

In 1820 Shelley could still hopefully proclaim “poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Though admittedly W.H. Auden later said that this made writers sound “like secret policemen”.

But Shelley’s exact contemporary the chemist Sir Humphry Davy (who changed the world by inventing the miner’s Safety Lamp in 1816) began to put a different view. It wasn’t the writers, he suggested in 1829, but the scientists who could and should change the world. “At that time, when Bacon created a new world of intellect, and Shakespeare a new world of imagination, it is not a question to me which has produced the greatest effect upon the progress of society -- Shakespeare or Bacon; Milton or Newton.”

So sometime in the mid-19th century I think people began asking instead: “Can scientists change the world?” And throughout the 20th century the answer came back with increasing force: yes, certainly they can and are changing it. Penicillin, air travel, nuclear power, the mobile phone, the Internet, climate change itself....

So now in the 21st century we have inherited a new question: is it change for the better or change for the worse? And this is exactly the question that writers in the broadest sense -- poets, novelists, dramatists, film makers, historians, even biographers -- are still the best people to answer in the long run, and at the deepest most imaginative level.

Is our world the kind we want, or the kind we should have, or the kind we have foolishly lost? Do we have reasons to hope, or to fear; to dream and wonder; or simply to laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing? By posing such questions, and exploring all possible answers, writers are no longer asked to change the world. They are asked to continually re-imagine it -- a far more radical request. But still, I’m not sure my Joycean aunt would approve.

-- Richard Holmes will speak on Saturday, Sept. 25, in the History & Biography tent at 3:50 p.m.

Jerry Pinkney has won innumerable awards for his stunning children's illustrations, including a Caldecott Medal, five Caldecott Honor medals and five Coretta Scott King awards. He has illustrated more than 100 titles, and his books have been translated into 11 languages and published in 14 countries. His latest book is "Three Little Kittens."

Here is his response:

It has often been said that the first exposure to literature and art are in books created for children. Quality children's literature infuses a child's early years with books that will help enhance imaginations, enlarge a sense of curiosity, and heighten a child's view of possibility. Books at best will also entertain, educate, engage, and foster the young in learning about this world that we all share. Children who read will most often become adults who read.

Adults who read tend to be more civic minded, more active in volunteerism, visit more cultural institutions, and tend to travel more often. Reading can be transformative, changing individuals. Only individuals pulling together will ultimately change the world. Reading is fuel that drives the engine. If people are the future, my answer is yes. Writers and artist can help change the world.

-- Jerry Pinkney will speak on Saturday, Sept. 25, in the Children's tent at 5 p.m.
And now, a question for you: Which books did you love as a kid? Which books defined your high school experience or got you through college? Tell us what you loved to read before BlackBerrys and iPhones ruled the world. Share your responses in the comments below or Tweet @washingtonpost your favorite book titles using the #booksthatchangedmyworld hashtag. Then, check out books readers loved here.


By Steven E. Levingston  | September 22, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
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