On Friday, 9 May 2008, I read to a Morning Meeting (an all-school assembly) at Western Reserve Academy a little piece I'd written about the recent proliferation of a certain kind of subtitle for books--a subtitle that includes words like changed the world or changed history or changed whatever. I had been noticing them everywhere.
I submitted the piece to a few periodicals. Struck out. So I filed-and-forgot. But I thought about it again today because I've been working on a review of a new book called The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History. It's about the 1816 eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia--an eruption that really did kill thousands and wreck summers around the world. Of special interest for literary types is the summer of 1816 in Geneva, Switzerland, where Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Shelley), and others had to stay indoors a lot because the weather was so stormy. To entertain themselves, they decided to write ghost stories. Frankenstein ensued.
Anyway ... five years have passed since that talk/essay. And here it is, a bit updated for a modern (!) audience ...
The Essay That Changed the Universe
As a book reviewer and compulsive recreational reader, I’ve come across in recent years any number of books about people or events that “changed” America—or the world—or whatever. In 2003 I reviewed Triangle: The Fire That Changed America; I recently read Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America. There have been any number of others.
But how large a number? That bookstore display table made me curious.
When I entered “changed world” into the title field on Amazon’s search screen, I got 2,464 results, including those with gravitas (The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World and Molecules That Changed the World) and those without (Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World and The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon—The Story behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World).
The list reminded me, too, that Atlantic Monthly Press has a current series—Books That Changed the World. Among them, Plato’s Republic, the Bible, Paine’s Rights of Man, Das Kapital, Clausewitz’s On War.
To judge only by the frequency of subtitles, world-changing is much easier than America-changing. In my Amazon search “changed world” whelmed over “changed America,” which had only 583 results. Some samples: All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime [the murder of Emmett Till] That Changed America, Words That Changed America (a collection of famous speeches), Feminine Ingenuity: How Women Inventors Changed America, The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later, Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever, and Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America.
As I consider all of this, I wonder: Would it be too cynical, too curmudgeonly, to suggest that publishers who affix these subtitles to their books are guilty of soupçon of exaggeration? I mean, in some sense doesn’t every historical event, doesn’t the life of every person, change the country that person lives in? Change the world? And more?
Think about it: As I type these very words, something is coming into existence that wasn’t there before. So the country and the planet are no longer exactly the same as they were. Neither is the universe.
So … this is the essay that changed the universe!
That makes me feel pretty important.
But then, just now, feeling inflated, I see a chickadee alight on a limb outside my window. A male. He’s looking around nervously. There are cats in the neighborhood. “And where,” he’s probably wondering, “are the female chickadees, anyway?” I consider: A male chickadee was not perched on that branch a moment ago. That male chickadee just changed that tree, changed my yard, changed Hudson, changed Ohio, changed America, changed the world … changed the universe!
But he also changed my essay … changed me. So I’m no longer special. Every single one of us—plant or animal, cowslip or kudzu, amoeba or blue whale (every flap of a butterfly’s wing!)—changes the universe every moment. What awesome power! And, hell, it’s not just living things, either. Every puff of a zephyr, every shudder of the earth’s shoulder …
Speaking of “changing the universe,” I entered that combination in Amazon just now. Only forty-seven matches—most of them various versions of the same thing, James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed. But there were a couple of interesting ones: Quantum Legacy: The Discovery That Changed the Universe and the immodest-sounding The Day I Changed the Shape of the Universe.
Well, not too immodest, really, is it, since we all change the shape of the universe every single day, every moment we draw and release breath? And even afterwards? As we degrade in the ground—or as our ashes fly in the wind—we’re changing the chemical composition of the universe. It’s what we do, we earthlings. We change things--and not always (or even often) for the better. And there’s no changing that.