If a book can change a mind, one of its beautiful mysteries is that it seldom does so right here, right now, or by this weekend. Art moves through consciousness on its own timetable. A book changes your mind over years of reflection and inquiry, forgetting and re-remembering. A book might change your mind while you’re asleep. You might not realise how much it has changed your mind until a decade later.
One of the most mind-changing speakers at this year’s SWF, the American essayist Rebecca Solnit, has written that authors “want to make something beautiful that will change the world, and we hope that it will not only do that but also change it for the better … You make art because you think what you make is good, and good means that it’s good for other people, not necessarily pleasant or easy, but leading toward more truth or justice or awareness or reform.” A book, she writes, is very often “a life raft onto which [the reader] clambered in an emergency”.
But it might not address the emergency by polling day. When naming a book that has changed the world, the first Solnit reaches for is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which provided “the truth that pesticides menace us and birds and ecosystems. And … changed the world, making it safer for millions of children.” Silent Spring brought an end to the use of the pesticide DDT, but note: the book was published in 1962, and DDT was not banned in the US until 1972; worldwide, not until 2004. Mind-changing books sink in and germinate; where they create lasting good, they need time.
In Australia, we can say something similar of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch: books that percolated through the culture for decades, changing minds not necessarily when they were first read, but a generation later when they inspire someone else to write something that inspires someone else, in turn, to act in a way that carries the torch further.
Nobody can assert that the fiction of Alexis Wright and Kim Scott, or Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, has brought instant improvement to the lives of Indigenous Australians; yet no mind that has read those authors can emerge unaltered, unbroadened. Books remain the best-invented vehicle for changing minds over time, across generations, to address tasks that can only be achieved with patience over the long haul.
As a way of change, this places a book not as a form of political discourse but as its polar opposite. Election campaigns are tribal and consumerist and measured by who wins next weekend. In books, the same reader can shift from a blue mood one week to a red mood the next. They can take world-changing action in 2042 thanks to a book they read in 2022. Even minds that have never read a book can be changed by it without knowing. An influential book has long divorced itself from the person who wrote it. As a truly long-term mind-changer, a book shits all over an election campaign.
It only takes readers to keep their minds open and aware of the span of time. If this openness and awareness can help those derided elites in any way next weekend, it will remind them that change happens far more slowly and subtly than an election; that whoever has got the tick by Sunday, whichever party that has triumphed through popularity rather than policy, our real decades-long challenges still remain in front of us.