This week: How Novels Changed the World Edited by: Max Griffin 🏳️🌈
More Newsletters By This Editor
1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
4. Editor's Picks
5. A Word from Writing.Com
6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions
|No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
We have art in order not to die of the truth.
| We humans have a violent history. In fact, from watching the evening news, it's evident we have a violent present. It can seem like death and mayhem are everywhere, and getting worse all the time. Whether it's violence on the streets, in our schools, or in distant battlefields, when we watch the news--or devour social media--we see the world as a dangerous place.
It's enough to make one long for simpler, idyllic days. Surely it wasn't always like this.
The History of Violence
In fact, it wasn't always like this. It was worse. Much worse. It seems worse today because we live in a connected world that's saturated with information. And not just any information. When was the last time a headline screamed, "No children maimed at school today?" It's true that "if it bleeds, it leads"--the bizarre and frightening make headlines, not the common and comforting. That interconnected world paints a distorted picture of reality.
I'm a numbers kind of guy. I like to do the math. What do the numbers tell us? Are we really more violent today than in the past?
Let's start with homicide rates. In the US, homicide rates today are half what they were in 1980. In fact, all violent crime in the US has dropped by half after peaking in 1980. That’s a 44 year trend.
This trend has a much longer and broader history. In western Europe, scholars have compiled databases going back to as early as 1300 on homicide rates. These reliably show that homicide rates in Europe today have dropped by over 90% in the last seven hundred years. In Switzerland, for example, homicide rates dropped from 56 per 100K people in 1375 to 0.38 per 100K people in 2016--that's a 99% drop. Data for other countries are similar.
The historical record for violent crime is trickier. There's a digitized record of the proceedings of the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, dating back to 1674. Computerized analysis of these records provides ample evidence of violence throughout the ages. It's common for crimes to include stabbings, beatings, and other acts of violence.
What's more interesting is that the actual crimes heard by the Court have changed. In the earliest records, the crimes tended to be property crimes--theft--in which the violence appears as commentary rather than criminal activity that merited prosecution. It's as if stabbing someone in 1674 was taken as normal behavior. By the nineteenth century, that had reversed, and property crime was incidental when violence also occurred.
Changes Beyond Social Violence
The changes that appear in the records starting in the seventeenth century aren't limited to homicide and violence. There's evidence to support the premise that publicly accepted "normal behavior" started evolving at the same time. For example, manners evolved over time along with the parallel decrease in violence.
Among the best-sellers in the seventeenth century were "courtesy books," a sort of "Miss Manners Guide to Etiquette" for that century. They included gems like, "don't foul the stairwells," "don't defecate in public," and "don't touch your privates under your clothes" in public. They also admonish restraint--as opposed to using "thine sword or dagger"--against accidental offenses such as having your toes stepped on.
This evolution in manners was part of a broader change in culture that began in the seventeenth century and accelerated over time. Manners are an example of restraint, of exercising self-control and taking into account others. In the 1600s, things like torture, public executions, witch hunts, and other activities we'd find barbaric today were common. The political--and religious--leaders of the day thought violence was a great way to enforce their will. But over time, this tendency to violence lessened and became less acceptable.
It's as if a "civilizing influence" was at work.
In fact, a sea change occurred at about this time. The Enlightenment came, along with ideas of equality and justice. People's views changed, and with them, their actions and their social and political institutions. This was truly remarkable, both for its scope and for the speed at which change happened. It wasn't universal, though.
At the same time that Europeans started treating each other in a more "civilized" manner, they launched the colonial era that included things like the slave trade. Mortality on slave ships was as much as ten percent--far more horrendous than the homicide rates in the late Middle Ages.
These observations give rise to two related questions. First, what caused this change in mores, and, second, what limited it?
One Technology Changed Everything
This social change embodied in the Enlightenment follows perhaps the most significant technological change of the last thousand years.
In 1450, there were probably fewer than 30,000 books in all of Europe. Books were expensive--the vellum for a typical Bible took the skins of over 2,000 sheep and consumed years of skilled labor by calligraphers. Reading books was for priests and rich people. Literacy was a rare skill.
Then in 1455, the world changed forever. Gutenberg invented the printing press. By 1500, there were about nine million books in Europe. That's an information explosion of magnitude at least equal to the one brought by the World Wide Web.
Literacy and demand for books skyrocketed. Mostly, people wanted to read the Bible, but it dawned on them that books were good for other things. It's no accident that courtesy books became the rage.
By the eighteenth century, novels appeared and rapidly became best sellers.
Novels Changed the World
What happens when you read a novel?
Well, we're authors. We know what happens, right? We don't need Hitchcock to remind us that the audience cares about the characters. When you read a novel, you get inside the head of another person. It's a fictional person, to be sure, but the better the novel, the more real the character and the fictional world. Reading a novel encourages empathy. It exercises the parts of the brain involved with interacting with other people, with imagining what someone else thinks and feels. With exercise, those parts of the brain get stronger.
This isn't just wishful thinking. Modern neuroscience research supports this.
The printing press led to literacy. Literacy led to novels. Reading novels led to improving the ability to imagine different viewpoints and experiences. Novels may not have caused the civilizing trend, the improvement in manners and the reduction in violence, but they certainly contributed to it.
We have a string of events that at least partially explain the Enlightenment. But what about the limitations? How did supposedly enlightened Europeans manage to build something like the slave trade?
The earliest novels--works like Robinson Caruso--were about Europeans. Native peoples, if they appeared at all, were at best subservient and at worst inhuman savages. Empathy didn't yet extend to the entire human family.
But once the notion of equality is loose in the world, it's unstoppable. Slavery was acceptable because of the "curse of Ham"--the supposed superiority of the white race. But Uncle Tom's Cabin eviscerated that lie. Harriet Beecher Stowe showed slaves as human beings who suffered horribly under the yoke of bondage. Her book was instrumental in galvanizing opposition to slavery because people reading it could no longer view slaves as less than human. It became an engine of empathy. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables did the same thing for the poor and women trapped in poverty.
When they wrote their novels, the words of those early authors brought their characters to life. They changed the world and gave hope to the hopeless. Novelists, often with deliberate intent, have continued this tradition.
Some examples, like The Turner Diaries or works by Ayn Rand, oppose the ideals of the Enlightenment, but other, more positive examples, include works like Native Son, by Richard Wright, or Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain and Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant inspired liberation movements of the seventies and beyond. Even Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, or Keroac's On the Road contribute to and expand the tradition begun in the Enlightenment.
The stories we write can be powerful tools for good or ill. My own stories are, at best, minor entertainments, but I strive nonetheless to create a diverse cast of believable characters who live in believable fictional worlds and who struggle to achieve believable goals. If I can expand the horizons of my readers, so much the better.
I'll be taking a sabbatical for a few months from writing these newsletters. I expect to be back in July, refreshed, and ready to start again. If you have topics you'd like me to think about while I'm away, please do write to me. I'm always willing to take up something new.
Many of the ideas in this newsletter are taken from a PBS documentary, The Violence Paradox. Some details are also available at the website Our World In Data. The Council on Criminal Justice has trend data on violent crime in the US.
Have an opinion on what you've read here today? Then send the Editor feedback! Find an item that you think would be perfect for showcasing here? Submit it for consideration in the newsletter!
Don't forget to support our sponsor!
To stop receiving this newsletter, click here for your newsletter subscription list. Simply uncheck the box next to any newsletter(s) you wish to cancel and then click to "Submit Changes". You can edit your subscriptions at any time.