When Books Inspire Action

Bloggers list the texts that inspired they way they think. But reading can also be a call to do things, from flirting with the boy next door to staging a sit-in



When I was 20 years old, I marched off to get arrested in a pair of gray slacks and a gray sweater that didn't match and didn't suit me. I certainly believed in the reasons and 14 of my friends and I were going to walk into the Yale Admissions Office, sit down, refuse to leave, and proceed to sing folk songs as loudly as possible. Reforming the university's financial aid system seemed like a broadly good idea. But when it came to getting an arrest record for the cause, my decision can be laid at the door of Jean Merrill, a then-82-year-old children's book author who'd never met me in her entire life.

As the "ten books" meme has swept the Internet, prompting writers to declare the importance of everything from Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life to J.M. DeMatteis' Kraven's Last Hunt entry in the Spider-Man line in the development of their thinking, I've found my thoughts turning frequently to Merrill's The Pushcart War. It's not that her satiric portrait of urban machine politics and corporate titans—complete with progressive, pretty celebrities, poker-playing politicians, and truck company owners, plus a children's crusade inspired by a jailed peddler—is the best piece of children's literature ever written. But the memory of a fictional flower-seller and the influence of his arrest was one of the things that helped me say yes when my friends needed one more person to make the sit-in successful. The Pushcart War was one of the books that pushed me, a terminal bookworm, out into the world, that made me not just think, but act.

In "Self-Reliance", Ralph Waldo Emerson says that there's a danger in relying too much on books to explain the world and one's place in it. "We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives," he cautioned. "We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men of talents and character they chance to see,—painfully recollecting the exact words they spoke."

And as writers have put out their lists of influential books, other commentators like the libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez have asked what they mean by "influence." Julian's choices "were books that I found I could strip-mine for a lot of handy multipurpose conceptual tools I find myself applying in a variety of contexts...while of course it's revealing to learn which particular books people named as influences, it's also interesting to infer from what people say about them how they tend to be influenced by books." Did they try to write like Hemingway, he wonders? Or take up bullfighting? Or go to war?

Most of the bloggers whose lists I've read have written mostly of the life of the mind. Dylan Matthews, the Harvard undergraduate blogger, praised Nicholas Fearn's Zeno and the Tortoise, which he read in the sixth grade, for convincing him "that ideas could be exciting, and arguing about them could be fun." Health care blogger Ezra Klein noted that the blogger Demosthenes showed him "that I could speak about Washington in a language I recognized." And to the extent that books affect their behavior, it appears to be in exercising those ideas and adopting certain styles in writing and verbal argument. Ta-Nehisi Coates said in this section that Christopher Hitchens' Letter to a Young Contrarian spoke to him: "someone was telling me "It's OK, Ta-Nehisi. You were right along. Or at least you were right to fight."

But for those of us who grew up timid about the world Emerson counsels us to live so boldly in—the emergent nerds not yet aware their compatriots have taken over pop culture, the girls who get their glasses in the third grade—encountering "every work of genius [in which] we recognize our own rejected thoughts" isn't just a matter of the future course of our ideas, but how broadly we live our lives. Emerson said that the lesson of such experiences ought to be to speak our minds rather than wait for validation. But that validation isn't unimportant. Finding ourselves in books lets us know that our fears are legitimate because they're shared. And the characters' triumphs are both a manual for navigating the maze of the world, and a challenge to us to do it ourselves before our counterparts on the page outstrip us.

In the realm of the heart, for example, my first real attempt at flirtation came after a neighbor boy lent me a copy of Ender's Game the summer before seventh grade. Orson Scott Card's tale of alien invasion, child soldiers, and genocide is no romance. But the book's portraits of talented, alienated young people struck such a deep chord with me that I was sure my benefactor must have understood me, known what the book would mean to me. I wrote him a thank-you note, sprayed it with a mild eau de cologne from the Gap—beginner's perfume—and tucked the missive into the pages, a gesture of daring and hope.

Similarly, my friend, the blogger Bamber, writes that her own youthful stabs at romance were unduly influenced by Gone With The Wind and Ayn Rand novels. "I've spent a lot of time getting over them," she joked in her book list. Nobody actually wants to date the unholy fusion of Scarlett O'Hara and Dagny Taggart." Perhaps not, but at least the novels gave her a sense of where to start.

My romantic ideals fared no better. My neighbor never responded to my note, and I had never bothered to think out what I would do if he did. But despite that dead end, I held close the memory of Valentine Wiggin, who as a proto-blogger helps her older brother rise to global prominence. I took my own tentative steps into the medium in college, starting a blog on New Haven city politics and consulting for the Web team on Mayor John DeStefano's gubernatorial campaign. It would take several more years for me to learn that working in politics wasn't for me, and like Valentine, who became a historian in Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender's Game, I fumbled my way into another kind of writing, and another idea of who I might be when I grew up.

My reading hasn't always been so consequential. Cimorene, the contrarian princess in Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest novels inspired me to dictate exceedingly precise requirements for a Halloween costume to my grandmother, a whiz with a sewing machine—and led me to become perhaps America's only Tonya Harding fan in during the 1994 Winter Olympics. It matters to my writing that Tony Kushner's Angels in America left me with an unshakeable preference for sprawling prose and a fiercely personal approach to politics and political rhetoric. But it mattered just as much for my life that Tor Seidler's fictional biography of an artistic rodent, A Rat's Tale, shaped my faltering expectations of how I was supposed to behave during my first kiss, preparation that turned out to be entirely beside the point when that moment, unexpectedly and finally, came to pass.