Five Books With a Moral Purpose

Ron Charles recently reviewed Hillary Jordan's novel Mudbound, which had won the Bellwether Prize for "socially responsible" fiction. Ron didn't much like the book, which for his taste was too preachy and predictable.

What turned him off seems to be exactly what turned on Barbara Kingsolver, who established the prize to encourage literature that advocates for "positive social change." As the prize's Web site explains, "The mere description of an injustice, or of the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature."

Reading the criteria for the Bellwether Prize got me thinking about the line between morality and moralizing, righteousness and self-righteousness.

Writing that is overtly, intentionally "socially responsible" is hard to oppose in theory, but it's hard to like in practice. I resist any resounding social commentary that is spoon fed to me: It's not that simple, I think to myself, or if it is that simple, it's not interesting.

And yet, I've been moved by books, both fiction and non-fiction, that are full of righteous indignation, have clear moral messages and seem aimed at "positive social change." Here's a list of five (as always) and some thoughts on how they broke through my resistance. Which overtly, intentionally "socially responsible" books have you loved, and which have you despised?

1. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
I read Sinclair's blood-and-sweat soaked description of the meatpacking industry in Mrs. Jones's ninth grade social studies class. I had not really given a thought to where meat came from or to the people who produced it, other than farmers. I was shocked not just by Sinclair's descriptions (some of which I assumed were no longer true) but by my ignorant, callous, blithe dependence on people and conditions far away. I re-live those feelings of guilt and vulnerability every time I read about fish farming, factory work and chemical production in China.

2. Hiroshima, by John Hersey
What socially responsible theme could be more obvious, and therefore uninteresting, than that atomic warfare is a horror to be avoided? Even at 14 or 15, when I first read Hersey's book, the underlying message was no revelation. But I challenge anyone to come away from Hersey's book unmoved. Survivors' stories, simply told, with little of Hersey's voice but all of his journalistic attachment to detail and his novelistic talent for pacing. It's still the closest one can come to being there in 1945. Still the best argument for nuclear disarmament.

3. Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, by James Carroll
A former Catholic priest, now a Boston Globe columnist, Carroll examines his own conscience along with the history of Christian anti-Semitism. I've seen Carroll attacked as anti-Catholic, but that makes no sense to me. What comes across in the book is his deep love for the church, which for him necessitates a deep examination of its historical role in anti-Semitism. It clearly is not easy or comfortable for Carroll to think about the church and the Holocaust; I found the book an exemplar of hard introspection.

4. Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, by Matthew Scully
I did not expect this book to move me, but it nearly turned me into a vegetarian. Were I a better person, it would have.

Scully was a speechwriter for President Bush from 2001 to 2004. Dominion, which takes its title from the Bible, is a religious argument for better treatment of animals. You might think it would be easy to dismiss Scully's argument either as irrelevant to non-believers or as the sheer sentimentality of a man who never got over the loss of his childhood dog.

You would be wrong. The way we treat animals is wrong; Scully has me convinced.

5. Standard Operating Procedure, by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris
I'm now reading this detailed account of the events and personalities behind the Abu Ghraib torture photographs. The whole episode is still appalling, of course, but it's also becoming more understandable -- not rational, not excusable, but no longer unthinkably bizarre. For one thing, I'm beginning to get a sense of who the prisoners were and what they were thinking. The one who haunts me is the one who turned the psychological tables on his captors by intentionally inflicting on himself all the humiliation they doled out; if they rammed hooded prisoners against a wall, for example, he rammed his own head against the wall with his eyes wide open, wearing no hood.

-- Alan Cooperman

By Christian Pelusi |  May 8, 2008; 6:34 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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The Known World, by Edward P. Jones.

Is it possible to be a just slave-owner? Is it possible to behave honorably, but not challenge the system, in a society that allows slave ownership?
It's a beautiful book, and deserved all the prizes it got.

Posted by: acorn | May 8, 2008 9:39 AM

I agree about The Known World. I wanted to add The Corner, by David Simon and Edward Burns, who also created The Wire. You may not agree with the idea of legalizing drugs, but Simon and Burns make a very good case for it.

Posted by: KLeewrite | May 8, 2008 12:51 PM

You have to be kidding me!

A pro reviewer endorsing the historical revisionism and slander found in Constantine's Sword....?!

Carrol is not "in love" with the Church - he is in love with himself; he is a notorious anti-catholic profiteer who's idea of "hitler's pope" has been utterly rejected by scholars.

I hope Cooperman's next review recommends Finkelstein and his book "The Holocaust Industry" as another "an exemplar of hard introspection."

Typical propaganda....

Posted by: BradC | May 9, 2008 2:31 AM

I agree with the previous comment; the idea of selecting a book that argues for the effective destruction of traditional Catholicism (based on false and libelous charges) on the list for books with "moral purpose" is an outrage.

I will be contacting the editors over this one, Mr. Cooperman.

Posted by: Jen Percy | May 9, 2008 5:21 AM

"Human Smoke" by N. Baker

Shows the inhumanity of WWII and exposes those who sought to romanticize the wholesale slaughter committed during the 30's and 40's.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 9, 2008 5:33 AM

I can't help tweaking a little, given a couple of the strongly worded comments above: I vote Christopher Hitchens. Any of "God is Not Great," "The Missionary Position," or "The Portable Atheist." Each with moral purpose. :-)


Posted by: C | May 9, 2008 10:40 AM

I haven't read "Constantine's Sword" (although it's waiting on my book shelf), nor am I Catholic. I can't attest to Carroll's call to effectively destroy traditional Catholicism. But hasn't the veracity of the Church's anti-Semitism, especially during World War II, been proven? I know I've seen several books about it -- Carroll's not the only writer to tread this ground.

Posted by: KLeewrite | May 9, 2008 11:39 AM

Carroll calls for female and married priests, independence and "voting" within parishes (a la protestantism), and the changing of the New Testament!

If this is not an attempt to destroy the traditional Catholic people, I don't know what wonder Cooperman and the WAPO endorse it...

Of course they would never attack Jews or Hindus or even Muslims in a similar fashion.

Anti Catholicism is the anti semitism of the Left.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 9, 2008 1:38 PM

As for alleged anti-semitism by Catholics during WWII, ask the 800,000 Jews saved in Italy, France etc. because they were hidden within Church institutions.

The pope did not have the power to "stop" Hitler - he did what he could as he also had to protect the Catholic faithful and clergy in Germany (labeled an enemy of the state by Hitler).

This is not anti-semitism - this is a smear by the anti-catholic radical left.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 9, 2008 1:45 PM

A Problem from Hell -- Samantha Power
A passionate critique of collective inaction in the face of various genocides.

Silent Spring -- Rachel Carson
In addition to all the other accolades Carson received for voicing environmental concerns and standing up to the chemical industry, the book is beautifully written.

A Room of One's Own -- Virginia Woolf
Perhaps not the "social change" type as we think of it today, but equal opportunity WAS social change before the concept came into vogue; Woolf speaks forcefully for allowing women to develop & express their gifts, and makes us wonder about the literary / artistic contributions that might have been.

Wilfred Owen's poetry
Exposes the horrors of war at a time when the public was carried away by its romanticism.

Posted by: SC | May 9, 2008 7:33 PM

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee
Flowers for Algernon

And thank you to the unnamed person to toss in WWI poetry. Vera Brittain's memoir "Testament of Youth" changed the way I perceived war, particularly The Great War.

Posted by: Chris | May 11, 2008 4:42 PM

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

An early harbinger of the green movement, published in 1975. And a fun read, too.

Posted by: CJB | May 15, 2008 5:20 PM

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