On Influential Books

What makes a book influential? I believe it’s a message that can withstand the test of time. Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mocking Bird appeared when social and racial tensions in America were high and its message about shattered innocence with an appeal for compassion impacted audiences. But has the world changed to become more tolerant and less divided? The novel’s continuing popularity proves that it hasn’t, that Harper Lee touched on an enduring theme. In 2006 To Kill a Mocking Bird topped the list of British librarians who were asked to name a book every adult should read before they die (https://www.theguardian.com/books/200…).

Library lists of twentieth-century influential titles may differ. Selections made by the Boston Public Library––and I’ll speak here only about several works of literary fiction and non-fiction––include George Orwell’s 1984 , The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. These books have influenced our collective consciousness, their titles became household words.

Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl appeared in 1947, shortly after the end of the Second World War and well ahead of major Holocaust studies and memoirs. It has accomplished what later volumes could not. Anne Frank’s tragic fate affected us personally, deeply, and unforgettably; through her story we could grasp the unfathomable nature of the Holocaust and the fate of millions. In the midst of today’s global conflicts this book will continue to live on, acquiring new meaning and importance.

Numerous books have been written about fascism and communism, the twentieth-century’s plague; however, few titles had the capacity to capture international audiences and become classics. In 1984, when I was still living in Moscow, my friend gave me a samizdat copy of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. That year marked a unique literary anniversary of Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s book was still banned in the USSR: its publication only became possible at the height of Gorbachev’s glasnost. Back then, reading it in Russian, I was unaware that its translation had been secretly commissioned by the Communist Party Propaganda Department for distribution among a select few. In an Orwellian turn of events the Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth controlled what Soviet people should read. But a copy of Orwell’s novel slipped into samizdat. Soviet readers viewed 1984 as a close portrait of their tyranny, along with the fear and conformity it inspired. Although Orwell had never lived in a totalitarian state, he intuitively captured its nature: “a boot stamping on a human face––forever.” Published in 1949, his novel supplied metaphors and terms we use today.

Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, launched in the West in December 1973, produced, in Robert Conquest’s words, “an almost unprecedented, worldwide impact” on audiences. It revealed the truth about the hidden empire of deadly Soviet prison camps and changed the way communism was perceived; the term “gulag” entered nearly every language. Although books about Soviet concentration camps had appeared before Solzhenitsyn’s, The Gulag Archipelago provided overwhelming evidence and changed the minds of millions about the socialist paradise. Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the Soviet political system exploded in the West during Cold War; the fact that the author was an ex-inmate still living in the USSR gave his work tremendous moral authority.

In 1958, the year Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Edmund Wilson extolled his novel Doctor Zhivago as “one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history. Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state… who did not have the courage of genius.” At the time, Vasily Grossman’s incomparably more scathing novel, Life and Fate, was unknown. Written almost simultaneously with Pasternak’s, Grossman’s work was a powerful testimony about crimes of the Communist and Nazi regimes, which he presciently compared. An early chronicler of the Gulag and the Holocaust, Grossman put the two totalitarian systems on trial.

In 1961, after Grossman bravely attempted publication of Life and Fate in a Moscow journal, his novel was seized by the KGB. The Soviet authorities correctly considered this work more dangerous than Pasternak’s; they compared its potential impact to a nuclear bomb, and vowed to keep it suppressed for 250 years. In the event, they managed to postpone publication until the Gorbachev era––enough to reduce the initial effect of Grossman’s message. The novel’s reputation and influence grew slowly over the years. Today it has become recognized among the most important works about the calamitous twentieth century. In the West it has influenced scholars researching the Second World War, Ukraine’s famine, and the Holocaust. In post-Soviet Russia, where comparison between Nazism and Stalinism remains illegal, the book could not become influential.

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