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Can writers change the world? Steven V. Roberts, Anita Silvey and Bruce Feiler 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 this week from a range of Festival contributors -- historians, novelists, childrens writers. Steven V. Roberts, Anita Silvey and Bruce Feiler offer today's perspectives.

Steven V. Roberts is an author and veteran journalist. He and his wife, author and television journalist Cokie Roberts, write a nationally syndicated newspaper column. Roberts most recent book is "From Every End of This Earth: 13 Families and the Lives They Made in America.”

Here's Roberts's response:

Writers are storytellers. Some of us, like me, write about living people (we’re called journalists). Others, like my wife Cokie, write about dead people (they’re called historians). Many make up their characters (most but not all of them are called novelists). In the end we all try to do the same thing: observe and reflect what it means to be human. If we accomplish that goal, we help our audience understand their communities, their families, and above all, themselves.

What can self-knowledge do? It can help us seize our strengths and submerge our failings. It can help us seek out “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln called them, while fighting off the forces of darkness within us. Writers are stalactite makers, dripping away in the limestone caverns of the mind. Yes we can change the world. We just do it very slowly. One word, one book, one reader at a time.

-- Steven V. Roberts will speak in the History & Biography tent on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 3:15 p.m.

Anita Silvey, a former publisher of children's books, is the author of “100 Best Books for Children” and “500 Great Books for Teens.” Her new book is “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book: Life Lessons from Notable People from All Walks of Life.”

Here is her response:

Writers not only can change the world – they have always done so. "For Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Books," I asked 110 leaders from a variety of areas – politics, arts, sports, and commerce – to talk about a children’s book that had influenced their lives. Funny, insightful, and inspiring, these stories testify to the amazing power of the right book for the right child – at the right time. People as diverse as Steve Forbes and Pete Seeger spoke with passion about books that had shaped them. For these leaders the books encountered in childhood had led to professions, philosophies of life, and even the place they chose to live as an adult. They allowed individuals to develop moral philosophies and to see the possibilities of life.

Since children need adults to lead them to books, not only do children’s book writers have a profound impact, so do all the people who put books into children’s hands – parents, librarians, booksellers, teachers, and all children’s book advocates. When we give books to children, we become part of their future, part of their most cherished memories, and part of their lives.

-- Anita Silvey will speak in the Teens & Children on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 3:30 p.m.

Bruce Feiler is the author of five consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including "Walking the Bible," "Abraham," and "America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America," which has just been released in paperback. His latest book is "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me," which recounts his efforts to grapple with his diagnosis of a rare form of bone cancer.

Here is Feiler's response:

The list of books that have changed the world is obviously long – from the Hebrew Bible to "Common Sense" to "The Communist Manifesto" to "The Feminine Mystique." It’s easy to think of any number of writers who have penned speeches, articles, or court rulings that have changed the course of history. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, after all. Now that’s change we can believe in.

In the last few years, two of my books, while reaching far smaller audiences, have still managed to inspire people to take meaningful steps toward change. "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths," a portrait of the shared father of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, triggered thousands of interfaith conversations around the world. And my latest book, "The Council of Dads," the story of how I responded to a cancer diagnosis by asking six friends to form a team of godparents for my young daughters, has prompted people around the world to form Councils of Moms or Dads for their own kids.

But despite all this evidence, I still believe writers should be wary of trying to change the world. Too often such pretensions lead to stultifying prose, self-righteous bloviating, or empty propaganda. I certainly know this from some of my own failed writings over the years. Writers should entertain, educate, nudge, and inform. They can try to elevate. But ultimately they should tell the truth and leave the social change to others. So writers can change the world, alright. They’re just much more likely to do so when they don’t even try.

--Bruce Feiler will speak in the Contemporary Life tent on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 11:45 a.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 23, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
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