Books That Made a Difference

The six books in this series demonstrate the power of imaginative literature to change individual thought or even social policy, to cause readers to rethink the attitudes and prejudices of earlier generations. Sometimes, they are works that have made it impossible for readers to see and react to "difference," whether of race, religion, nationality, gender, class, or sexual orientation, in the way  their parents and grandparents did. At other times, they have forced readers to reexamine inherited attitudes toward the world around them and reformulate their place in and responsibility to that world as citizens and individuals. They have, in a sense, broken down perceived boundaries between "ourselves" and "others" and put human faces on stereotypes or social problems.

Published near the mid-point of the twentieth century, Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) was the first major novel by a black American writer to reach a wide white audience, and its impact on our culture resounds to this day. The novel traces the seemingly inexorable descent of a young black man, Biggar Thomas, through a pair of meaningless murders. In doing so, it raises questions about such controversial issues as the ability of races to coexist and the necessity of violence in precipitating cultural change.

When Joseph Heller titled his World War II novel, Catch 22 (1961), he introduced a new phrase into the English language. According to "Catch 22," a person avoids a thing by accepting something worse than that thing. The novel's hapless hero Yossarian struggles with this circular logical trap in an upside-down military world where the phrase comes eventually to symbolize the absurdity of all institutional logic. Heller's blackly comic satire underscores the horror of war and the power of modern society, especially bureaucratic institutions, to destroy the human spirit.

Rarely does a single book alter the course of history, but Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) did exactly that. It is a passionate and carefully documented call to arms against the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and weedkillers. Based on information Carson gained during seventeen years' work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the book generated great controversy, including a campaign against it by the chemical industry. The book was instrumental in launching the environmental movement. It is without question one of the landmark books of the twentieth century.

Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) pits defiant anti-hero Randle P. McMurphy against a life-denying authority figure, Nurse Ratched, in an archetypal battle for the souls of the patients in an Oregon mental hospital. The action, as filtered through the eyes of hospital inmate Chief Bromden, involves a fight to the death between the forces of individualism and the those of conformity, the latter represented by the Chief's metaphoric vision of society-at-large as the Combine, a power-hungry machine-like force. Both widely criticized and widely admired, the novel encapsulates many of the issues that fueled the social rebellion of the 1960s.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) Maya Angelou recounts growing up as a young black woman, with a constant awareness of racial difference and her own racial self-hatred. Raised first by a hardworking, sternly religious grandmother, then reclaimed at the age of eight by her mother and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Marguerite blames herself for her plight and retreats into silence. That silence is overcome with the help of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who shares with Marguerite her love of recited literature and poetry. Eventually, Marguerite finds her voice and, through that voice, breaks from the cage of adversity, prejudice, and powerlessness.

Fools Crow (1986) by James Welch tells the story of the Lone Eaters band of the Pikunis--the Blackfeet-a-t a time in the late nineteenth century when the they can see clearly that their way of life is being irrevocably changed by the flood of Napikwan--white people--into the northern Rockies and Great Plains. Facing their own destruction, the Pikunis must move through self-doubt and despair if they are to remain at peace with themselves and with the world around them. Fools Crow calls on us to examine anew our daily actions in relation to the history of the American West.

For Further Reading

For further exploration of books that made a difference, look for these titles at your local library or bookseller. WCH cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in the above series.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
James Carroll, An American Requiem
Doris Grumbach, Coming Into the End Zone
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Randy Shilts, And The Band Played On
Agnes Smedley, Daughter of the Earth
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Retired Discussion Series

Debbie Sturman, Director
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