Tuesday, April 13, 2010

But can't books ...

What can books do? How can books advance the working-class struggle? Or can they? Do they ever? Have they ever? Back to my ongoing albeit reprehensibly inconsistent grapple with these questions.

Last week I talked about what books can't do. I said, basically, that no book can substitute for lived experience, a union strike being the clearest example. You can read Victor Hugo's great 19th century novel Germinal, about a coal miners' strike in France, or you can read Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven about a struggle by coal miners in 1920s West Virginia -- and you should, these are great books, you can and should read these and any other novels about strikes, not that there are very many -- and it might affect you deeply. But reading a novel about a strike can never revolutionize your consciousness the way actually being on strike can.

The same goes for any issue, any struggle. As the dearly missed Marvin and Tammi sang so long ago in Motown, there's nothing like the real thing.

OK then. I've made the record. I don't live in the clouds, I don't ascribe some crazy-ass magical power to books, I don't substitute reading for the real world. Having said that, though, the rest of what I want to say is on the flip side: the case for what books can do. Fiction in particular.

Because I do believe that novels and stories can help change the world. There, I've said it. A book can help raise consciousness, help move people to action, help spread the word about this inequity or that battle. Fiction can contribute, then. Contribute to the cause. I really think this is true.

How? Which books? By whom? About what? These will be the next spots on my meander.