I read a lot of books, and many of them have affected me in some way, but there are three books that quite literally changed my life.
The first book is the Bible.
I believe that the Bible is the word of God, and that the central message of the Bible is that Jesus is Lord and King. This means I am not the boss. Most importantly, he calls the shots on my life–and he seems to be saying that I need to use what he’s given me to love my neighbour.
When I read the Bible, I see a pretty clear and consistent message that He wants all people, but especially his chosen ones, to think more about how they can bless other people than how to get a hold of money and power so as to gratify their desire for comfort and pleasure. There are regular injunctions to take care of the poor and, for those in power, to make sure there is justice for the poor. It is also apparent from the Holy Scriptures that God is an environmentalist and that He wishes, in some respects, Americans were more like the French.
I could go on and on, but let’s move on to Steinbeck.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This book changed my life. It’s about people who are poor. They are poor, to begin with, but things get a lot worse when the big banks and big business turn them off the land, leaving them with no means to feed themselves or their families. Beginning with the used-car salesmen who sell them junk vehicles, their journey from Oklahoma to California is filled with people abusing them, ignoring their desperation or taking advantage of their plight.
It’s been a long time since I read it so I might have the details wrong but in one rare act of kindness the family on whose journey the narrative is focused received a bit of beef fat. The mother mixed the rendered fat with flour and made some dumplings. In the context of their desperate condition, this meager meal was a feast.
Ever since, I have never looked at discarded fat, bone, and gristle the same way. Importantly, these people were not in this condition because they were lazy, they were in this condition because of vast forces like government policies, climate, geography, economics, and (not insignificantly) human greed and corruption.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
If I hadn’t read The Grapes of Wrath, this novel would have saved me from conservatism (it also saved me from becoming a liberal). The setting of A Fine Balance is India, and it too explores the life of the poor which is not really all that different than that of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s novel. It’s frustrating at times to experience vicariously what it is like to live between hope and despair–with despair usually in the ascendant. Here again, the Conservatyve myth that the poor are poor because they are lazy is shown as the lie that it is.
People are usually poor, for the same reason people are rich–not because they did or didn’t work hard, not because they made good decisions or not, not because they had initiative or not. People are rich or poor because of government policies, climate, geography, economics, and human greed. The only difference between the rich and the poor is into which circumstance one was born.
I found myself responding to these novels in two ways–compassion and gratitude.
It’s very hard to be compassionate if you ren’t very grateful.
A Function of Art
These two novels are great works of literature. One of the functions of literature is to broaden and deepen our understanding–I am a Canadian in 2016–I don’t know what it’s like to be poor; I didn’t live in the 1930s, or in India. I get enough of a glimpse of what it might be like through these novels–and they changed me. They move me toward an understanding of others and their lives and, consequently, bring me closer to dialogue.
I don’t think conservatives read these books.
Please read these books.