Friday, September 24, 2010

Can writers change the world?

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? All this week, we've provided answers from a range of Festival contributors -- historians, novelists, childrens writers. Today, in the last installment of our series, Gurcharan Das, James McGrath Morris and Judith Viorst offer their perspectives.

Gurcharan Das: Writers would like to believe that they can change the world, and sometimes they do. But it happens in unexpected ways. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, was deeply concerned about the way we deceive ourselves, how we are false to others, how we oppress fellow human beings, and how deeply unjust we are in our day-to-day lives. He wondered if this moral blindness is an intractable human condition or can we change it? Tolstoy did little to alter the course of Russian history. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did far more.

Tolstoy, however, helped to change the course of Indian history. A young lawyer named Gandhi read Tolstoy more than a hundred years ago in South Africa. He was profoundly moved by Tolstoy's ideas. He questioned if human misery is also the result of the way the state treats human beings. He sought inspiration both from Tolstoy and from the classical Indian concept of dharma. Dharma is an elusive word that means variously virtue, duty and law, but it is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing. These influences helped him to formulate his ideas of non-violent resistance. Soon he returned to India, where he went on to practice civil disobedience with unbelievable success. In the end, he succeeded in winning India's independence from Britain without shedding an ounce of blood. And this happened in the shadows of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao! No wonder Indians believed that a saint had created their nation. Most Indians did not realize, however, a writer far away in Russia had had played a role in liberating one fifth of humanity.

Full report here Washington Post

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