Books change the world

Last week I read a tweet that really got my goat, so much so that I stewed on it all weekend. The author, who is someone from the tech/startup community, said, to Tim O’Reilly no less:

“No-one ever changed the world by writing books.”

This pushed my rant button.

I thought about mentioning some books that have changed the face of civilization. Religious books: the Bible, which defines the shape of many Western civilizations, and the equivalent books of religious law in other cultures. Science books: Copernicus’ “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”, which began the scientific revolution, and defined a heliocentric model of the universe. Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, which outlines classical mechanics and gravitation. Einstein’s multitude of publications. Books on economics: Keynes, anyone? Feminism: Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique”. Political thought. Philosophy. Need I go on?

On a micro- level, think about a book you read as a child, as a teenager, last year, last week, that changed the way you felt, gave you hope, gave you relaxation that you needed, or an escape from an unpleasant reality.

I could go on about world-changing books all day. Instead, I’m going to tell you a story about a very unexciting book. This book happens to be one that I wrote, on a subject that I’m passionate about. It’s a book on web development.

Now, this book is only a technical book. It won’t start any revolutions or cause any epiphanies, neither will it make you laugh or cry. My family won’t ever read it, and when non-technical people who are excited to discover I’m a published author hear the topic, their faces fall. It will never be on the New York Times list, or on Oprah, or be banned in countries with oppressive governments. It is a humble technical book.

This technical book has, however, sold quite well over the years. Many people have bought it (thank you), some have liked it, and some have reviewed it. Copies are in libraries, used as the prescribed texts in colleges, sold secondhand, and pirated as PDFs on the internet.

Hundreds of thousands of people have read this book, and, I hope, learned a little something about coding for the web.

Some of those people have probably gotten jobs as a result. Some might have graduated college. Some have built a personal website. Some might have gotten a promotion.

Out of those people, I venture that there have to be a hundred, perhaps more, perhaps less, who have started a company that does some kind of web development, whether it’s a consulting company or a startup. Maybe some of those companies got funded, maybe some were bootstrapped, maybe some were successful.

I wonder if that benchmark is something that the author of the tweet might value.

I hope it’s not too arrogant as an author to hope these things: that the books you write change someone’s life for the better, and in doing so change the world. I continue to believe this, and that is why I continue to write.

13 thoughts on “Books change the world”

  1. One assumes the author of the tweet didn’t mean that the world would be unchanged in the presence of a book — Butterfly Effect alone means something probably changed, and you could accomplish that without even having any readers. But I would assume that tweet author meant something more along the lines of directed change. In a game of cards all you have to do is take one card from the top of the deck and put it on the bottom of the deck and you’ll have completely changed the game — but the change is directionless. Your ability to do this doesn’t mean you are a good card player, or that you are particularly empowered in the field of card playing. Again an extreme example; but I would look inside the probably vague ideas of this tweet and suspect a similar judgement was being made. The books change *something* but when this person says “change the world” they mean large-scale directed change.

    Putting aside such works as the Communist Manifesto — an obvious counterargument, but also not the kind of material neither you write nor O’Reilly publishes — the question remains, is this work part of directed change? I’m willing to put aside the scale argument as a lack of humility, not valuing incremental change, and probably requiring a explicit and well-distributed narrative in order to value change. But is there a direction to this change?

    And, to stop short of a conclusion, I think there is, but I also think it is important to make that ambition explicit, to articulate what that direction is, or at least what it is intended to be. Because I think the question is valid; there’s a difference between making things *different* and making them *better*, and we should all be shooting for the latter.

  2. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations basically defined capitalism. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man created democracy. I’d like to see any startup match that.

    Even if you only take novels and set aside all of religion, philosophy, science, technology and economics, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the greater body of anti-slavery literature ignited the Civil War and led to the end of slavery. All of Shakespeare which still defines wit and entertainment to this day. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was so explicit, it was censored and then helped take down censorship. The Jungle led to food safety laws and workplace improvement regulations.

    And that’s only stuff written originally in English and ignoring everything that redefined literature.

    That tweet couldn’t be more misguided.

  3. I agree Laura, books do change the world. I’m thinking of Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, myself. This is the one where he sets out his invention, the scientific method. All books contain at least an echo of that power, and thus can clearly change the world.

  4. Me too, that kind of statement would push my rant button. I still think that one of the worst disasters which ever happened to mankind was the destruction of the Alexandria library. It has been told that, asked what to do with all those books, the caliph said: If what they say is in the Qur’ân, burn them, for they are useless; if it isn’t, burn them, for they are dangerous. (I don’t know if that statement is true, but even if it is it reflects of course only on one war chief, not on the civilization to which he belonged.)

    The prohibition of any censorship prior to publication has been written into my country’s constitution by its founding fathers in 1830, and I’m proud of it. (Prohibition of publications found to be libellous, calomnious, or otherwise illegal can happen, but only after due process of law.) As Voltaire said: What you are saying goes totally against everything I believe, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.

  5. FWIW, what the person (from Pivotal Labs) meant to express was that they felt they could make more change by working with teams to apply agile methodology than they could by writing yet another book about it. As Larry Wall likes to say “There’s more than one way to do it.”

    But in general, I do agree with your rant. Some books have changed the world more than any number of armies.

  6. For the sake of completeness: Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. It has changed our thinking so profoundly in so many domains, that it led someone to state that “All philosophies from before 1859 are wrong”. 150 years after it’s publication, the book is still being debated by those who can’t accept this new world view.

  7. It’s true Laura, books are world-changers, and changing the little world of one person like the people –including me– who have benefited from one of your books, is worth it. If it’s in a good cause at least (like yours). Though some of them are from the devil himself (Communist Manifesto).

    The book that tops them all and puts the lie to the ignorant tweet, is the first one in your own list, the Bible, more specifically, the King James Bible.

    It has changed not only the world of its believers, it shaped English literature and the language itself, gave the language stability for its ubiquitous use, and told the story that drove the motivation of many massive efforts that have made the world a much better place than it was.

  8. Hi Laura,

    I’m hoping that you read comments as I’m hoping to converse further with both you and Luke. I tracked you here from Amazon in a most roundabout way. I have a project I have been working on, as part of that I have been reading about everything related to PHP and MySQL that I can find. Part of my problem thus far has been finding the right people (no shortage of people with a shiny website and sales team).

    So I decided to see if I could use books written on this topic to find the people I am needing. I found what I thought was a good book (dated but understandable), when I went online to learn more about the author I discover the book has terrible reviews (there are serious coding flaws), I went to the authors website (it was even worse, not quite sure when it was in style). So I started my search all over and limited my search to books that had good reviews and the more of them the better. Your book was by far the most accomplished, and the fact you are married to Luke is all the additional information I needed.

    So here I am. I have a project that I think might be of interest to both of you as it mixes literature and tech. In the event that this idea isn’t of interest to either of you, I’m hoping you could direct me to some genuine talent that could help me pull this together.

    What if instead of, “that the books you write change someone’s life for the better, and in doing so change the world,” you could, “change the way books are written and discovered for the better,” would that change the world?

    The answer to your imposter syndrome question.

    Thanks for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.

    Marc Brackett

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