What I Already Knew/ What I Wanted to Know
Haruki Murakami once said, “If you only read the books everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”. Reading this quote caused a multitude of questions to arise in my mind regarding the effect words have on human behavior, belief systems, and the wildfire spread of ideologies. This quote was the source of inspiration for research that lasted a few weeks.
I already knew that literature was highly influenced and affected by society and what happens in it, as literature reflects society and its condition. However, I never thought about whether society reflects literature or not. I knew that certain books can have the power to change the mind of one person, but not the mindset of a whole country. I also never considered the power that words have over readers, and I was not aware of the extent of their influence on our minds. Therefore, I chose to investigate the different ways in which books have changed societies in the past.
After that, I narrowed down my research to the early 1900s. I have always found the early twentieth century a very interesting time in history. Those years witnessed many changes that have shaped our modern societies. These changes are the results of many historical events, such as the First and Second World Wars and the establishment of the USSR. I believe that this part of history is one of the most important parts, which is why there are many pieces of literature written about these events or others that took place at the same time. That made me focus my research on the effects literature had on societies, specifically in the early 1900s.
History and literature have always been my main passions. I am an extreme reading enthusiast and a person that appreciates books and the hidden messages within them. I am also fascinated by the study of historic events and their impact on the modern world. Thus, I combined both of my interests in research with the hope of satisfying my curiosity and answering my questions.
Before starting my research, I brainstormed the questions I wanted to find answers to A. What are the most influential pieces of literature from the early 1900s? B. How did literature politically affect society in the early 1900s? C. How did literature socially affect society in the early 1900s? D. How did literature culturally affect society in the early 1900s? E. What made these pieces of literature so influential and popular? F. How can readers avoid the negative influence of books? G. Is there a guide that can help readers choose the correct content to read?
After establishing my questions and what I wanted to know I formed my proposition: Not just empty words on paper, pieces of literature have secretly shaped and affected our societies politically, socially, and culturally, especially in the early 1900s.
The Story of My Search
My search took a few weeks. I started my research by looking into the most influential books in the 1900s. I found what I was looking for in an article published on the World Economic Forum website. The article included a list of the most influential books in history. From that list, I chose the books that I wanted to focus on. This source was very useful to me because it helped me reach my thesis statement. After reading that article I chose to study the political effects of literature through Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, its cultural effects through George Orwell’s novel 1984, and its scientific effects through Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity. That is where my real research began.
I decided to start by searching about The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. Fortunately, since this book is a very famous piece of literature, I did not face any difficulties in finding authentic and reliable sources. One of the sources I found was a speech presented by Eric Hobsbawm at the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto. The speech explained the spread of the manifesto and why it was so popular back then. From the speech, I delved deeper into the Russian Revolution of 1917 and found many resources. The most useful resource was research published on Marquette University’s website. It talked about the Russian Revolution in detail and explained how communism played a major role in it. Through these resources, I was able to answer all my questions regarding the political effects literature had on society in the 1900s.
While reading about The Communist Manifesto, I came across Hitler’s Mein Kampf and its effects on German society. The autobiography intrigued me. Therefore, I changed my research topic and studied Mein Kampf’s social effects instead of The Meaning of Relativity’s scientific effects. First, I looked for documentaries regarding Hitler and found a very fitting documentary called Apocalypse: The Rise of Hitler. The documentary included information about Mein Kampf’s spread and what made it so powerful. Then, I searched for its effects online and found an article by Ashely Kannan that was of great help to me. I also discovered an article published by BBC that was well organized and easy to understand. The article was about the role Mein Kampf had in Hitler’s rise to power. These were all I needed to answer my new questions about literature’s social effects.
After that, I began the research on my last book, George Orwell’s 1984. I began by watching videos about Orwell, and one video was of great help to me. This video by The School of Life, helped me understand Orwell’s beliefs and writing techniques. This information included the factors that made 1984 popular. Then, I searched online and found many articles about 1984 that were published by British newspapers, such as The Guardian and BBC. Luckily, 1984 is very celebrated in Britain which makes it of great interest of the British media. Therefore, I easily found reliable sources about it.
Although I found numerous online sources about my topic, I faced difficulty in finding books about it. I looked in the school’s library, but I found books regarding American history and not European history. So, I looked in another library. But unfortunately, I only found one book about my topic in the Dhahran Public Library. The book, A History of English Literature, only included information about 1984. Thus, my research about Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto is not supported by any books. I have realized that European history and literature is not common interest in my region.
Despite the setbacks that I have faced in my research, I received many valuable suggestions form my classmates. Through discussing my topic with them, I was able to get a clearer perspective of what I wanted to focus on, and their suggestions helped me in forming my thesis and in deciding my research outcome. I have decided to create a guideline that will help readers choose books correctly after finishing my research.
After a few weeks of researching, I collected enough information that answered all my questions. Only one question was left unanswered, which is: How can I protect myself from the negative effects of literature? I was able to answer it at the end.
The Search Results
According to Thomson (2015), The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is among the most influential books in history. The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, but its influence appeared in the early twentieth century. By the 20th century, the Manifesto had already spread across Europe. More than a hundred editions were published in more than thirty languages in the region between France and Russia. With the spread of the Manifesto, communist ideologies spread as well, and the communist parties in Europe kept the book in constant publishing. Due to that, the communist parties in Russia and Germany gained thousands of supporters and voters. (Hobsbawm, 1998).
The most important effect of the Manifesto is the Russian Revolution of 1917. The revolution was led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Lenin was a believer in the Marxist ideology, and along with the Bolsheviks and many communists, they headed the October Revolution of 1917. This revolution ended with Lenin overthrowing the Russian government and establishing the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union’s economy, politics, and spread of wealth, many of Karl Marx’s ideas could be seen. This included the abolishment of private ownership and capitalism. (Fernholz, n.d.)
There are many theories that explain why the Manifesto is so influential. One theory states that Marx’s message and the aim was the reason of its wildfire spread. Karl Marx created a way for workers to liberate themselves from capitalism, and his book became communists’ guide in changing society. On the other hand, some scholars believe that the Manifesto spread due to Marx’s futuristic vision. In the book, Marx did not only analyze the capitalist society, he also predicted a horrible future for it, and suggested ways of avoiding that outcome. This vision influenced many readers to rebel against capitalism and to join communist parties. (Hobsbawm, 1998).
Another very influential book is Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. The autobiography was released in the early nineteen twenties of the twentieth century in Germany. The book mainly talked about Hitler’s worldview and his plans to expand Germany’s land. It also talked about the struggles that the German people were facing and his experience with them. The sales of the book were moderate at the beginning. They increased in the late twenties, but when Hitler became chancellor in 1933, owning the book became mandatory. The German State began giving it to newlywed couples instead of the Bible. This has led many scholars to call Mein Kampf the “Nazi Bible”. (Vaudeville, Clarke, 2011). “At the outset of World War II, the book had been translated into 11 languages and sold 5 million copies.” (Whipps, 2008).
Mein Kampf was one of the causes of the fast spread of the Nazi ideology, which led to the reshaping of the terman society. The autobiography made Hitler an important public figure, as it helped him gain supporters for the Nazi party. His talk about the German struggle touched a lot of Germans who went through the same struggles as Hitler. Due to that, Germans’ faith in the Nazi party, and the Nazi regime later, strengthened with the increasing sales of the book. All of that paved the path for Hitler to become chancellor in 1933. Furthermore, it gave him enough support to commit all the war crimes that he committed in the Second World War. In addition, many Germans started living by some of Hitler’s beliefs. For example, anti-Semitism and anti-communism increased in the thirties and forties, and both beliefs were main parts of the Nazi ideology. (Kannan, n.d.)
There are many reasons to the unprecedented influence that Mein Kampf had on German society. According to BBC (n.d.), one reason is that in the autobiography Hitler sounded like someone who deeply cared for Germany’s well-being and someone who was passionate about turning it into a better country. In addition, the documentary by Vaudeville and Clarke (2011) has mentioned that Hitler’s “fanaticism” and “populism” compelled anyone who read his book to believe in what Adolf said. Furthermore, Hitler’s plans that were mentioned in Mein Kampf convinced the people that Nazism was the only solution to Germany’s economic problems and inner conflicts. All these factors gave Mein Kampf a wide base of readers, which made it leave a deep imprint on Germany. (BBC, n.d.)
Moreover, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was one of the most powerful books published in the early 1900s. According to The School of Life (2016), the science fiction novel was published in the forties and described Orwell’s prediction of how Britain would be in the year 1984. His vision was considered dystopian and was frightening to many readers. This novel is one of Orwell’s most celebrated works, and it is one of the reasons why many scholars consider Orwell as the most significant English writer of the twentieth century. As the English Novelist Robert Harris has said, “1984, I think, is the most influential book ever written, and so you could say the greatest book ever written. I remember reading it as a teenager and being completely enthralled by it.” (Johnson, 2009).
The novel had a long-lasting impact on pop culture in Britain. According to Seaton (2018), 1984 shocked the culture because it showed them the evil side of the media, which includes televisions, radios, and newspapers. In the novel, Orwell displays how political parties convince people of their ideas through manipulating the content of the media. In other words, how they use propaganda in brainwashing the public. This helped many readers understand how some regimes rose to power, such as the Nazi regime in Germany. It also made them more careful with the content that they exposed themselves to. In addition, McCrum (2009) has mentioned that some phrases from 1984 became a part of the English language. The novel did not only change the culture’s thinking, it changed its dialect too. Words and phrases like “newspeak”, “doublethink”, “Big Brother”, and “Orwellian” became very common after the novel and are still used. The extend of 1984’s cultural influence on society makes it one of the most evocative novels in history.
1984 gained a huge readership due to multiple aspects. Quennell (1974) has stated that Orwell was a “humanist”, as he has experienced both the middle and the lower-class lives, which taught him how to appeal to both audiences. That gave him the ability to touch people through his writing and consequently made him a successful author. Furthermore, according to The School of Life (2016), Orwell’s aim from writing was to spread awareness regarding specific problems in society. He viewed literature as a way to change the world into a better place, in which people are kind and live in harmony. This advantage made Orwell’s novel very famous because people saw a reflection of their daily lives and struggles in it.
Through this paper, I learned how to conduct complex research that requires weeks to complete. Although I planned my research process before starting it, I could not follow my plan due to other subjects’ assignments. But I handled the situation and fixed my plan according to my schedule. I also faced a problem in finding books related to my topic. Other than that, I completed my research easily. That was because I chose a topic that was very common, which helped me in finding resources and references.
This research improved me as a researcher, as I have learned how to choose the best and most reliable resources. It also taught me the difference between primary and secondary resources and the importance of using primary sources. In addition, writing this paper improved my writing skills, as my paraphrasing and organization of thoughts advanced. I also learned how to cite different types of resources, and how to create a list of references. The most important thing I learned is how to write a concise and straightforward thesis statement. I will benefit from these lessons the next time I conduct research.
Moreover, the search results changed me too. I now have a better understanding of the power that words possess. After my research, I realized that literature and society are two faces to the same coin, as both affect and are affected by each other. All the information that I learned has taught me how to choose a book wisely. First, I must choose a book with a topic that fits my background, beliefs, and society. Second, I should read reviews about the book and its reception. Then, I should read about the author and his/her view on life. I believe that if readers followed these steps negative and radical books, such as Mein Kampf, would have never gained popularity and fame. Also, publishers and scholars should pay attention to every word that is published and sold to the public, because it is always the books that are belittled and ignored at the beginning that leave the deepest impact on society, and an example of that is Mein Kampf.
Therefore, the next time I go to a library, I will think twice before lifting a book of the shelf; because I have witnessed the power of books. And I will always remember that literature is not just words on paper, it’s magical spells that can harm and heal, can destroy and build, and can enslave and liberate.
List of References
- Fernholz, E. M. (n.d.). The Russian Revolution of 1917. Retrieved February 2nd, 2019 from: https://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/russian-rev.htm
- Hobsbawm, E. (1998). The Communist Manifesto in Perspective. Talk presented in the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
- Johnson, A. (2009, June 7th). Orwell's 1984 is sixty years on. Retrieved February 8th, 2019 from: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/orwells-1984-sixty-years-on-1698619.html
- Kannan, A. (n.d.). How did Mein Kampf help Hitler in his rise to power? Retrieved February 3rd, 2019 from: https://www.enotes.com/how-did-mein-kampf-help-hitler-his-rise-power-422599
- McCrum, R. (2008, May 10th). The masterpiece that killed George Orwell. Retrieved February 8th, 2019 from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/10/1984-george-orwell
- Quennell, P. (1974). A History of English Literature. London, Great Britain: Book Club Associates.
- Seaton, J. (2018, May 7th). Why Orwell’s 1984 Could be About Now. Retrieved February 8th, 2019 from: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180507-why-orwells-1984-could-be-about-now
- The School of Life. (2016, November 25th). LITERATURE - George Orwell. Retrieved February 6th, 2019 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvXU3vzHq8E
- Thomson, S. (2015, November 15th). The 20 most influential books in history. Retrieved January 31st, 2019 from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/the-20-most-influential-books-in-history/
- Vaudeville, L. & Clarke, I. (2011). Apocalypse: The Rise of Hitler. France: National Geographic Channel International.
- Whipps, H. (2008, September 1st). How 'Mein Kampf' Changed the World. Retrieved February 3rd, 2019 from: https://www.livescience.com/2821-mein-kampf-changed-world.html
- Why the Nazis achieved power. (n.d.). Retrieved February 4th, 2019 from: https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zsrwjxs/revision/8