This Victor Hugo quote from the preface of Les Miserables is one of my favorite quotes of all time. The meaning, word choices, and rhythm – the way it builds – it has a power that sticks with you. It’s stuck with me since the very first time I read it.
Here is the full text in case it was too hard to read in the image:
SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
It hits you, doesn’t it?
This quote has been in my head a lot recently (I don’t know why…) as well as the themes of the book and the political situation(s) that led up to it. Like the quote from the preface, the novel makes a strong commentary on the need for political and social change at the time, and Victor Hugo wrote it while in exile as well as other political tracts. Those tracts influenced many of the surrounding countries to change some of their policies, showing once again that books can change the world.
On the other hand, the lasting popularity of the books along with its musical and movie adaptations (this Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables being my personal favorite – other than the book) shows that those same themes continue to speak to people despite the 154 years since it was first published. Which means that many of those problems are still here: big, bad, and breathing down our necks. Or hideous, hateful, and hiding – too often, unfortunately, in plain sight or behind the cloak of harmlessness.
It’s reminding me of the question of ethics in writing: Do writers have a moral obligation to society?
I’m still waiting for an answer. And while my mind likes to ponder through a plethora of options, it also is uncannily good at coming up with new questions like “Do writers have a responsibility to write works that challenge social conventions that they feel are wrong?”
Many writers have certainly done so: “The Hangman” comes to mind. And “The Lottery.” Oliver Twist. The Jungle. I could go on for hours – probably because many writers’ greatest strength is writing, so it’s a natural way for them to respond to something they feel is wrong.
But what about the idea of responsibility? Wanting to is one thing (and that’s great), but do we have a responsibility? That seems like a loaded question, one linked to an age-old gray area: does inaction mean shared guilt?
Terrifying thought, right?
Of course, my brain isn’t satisfied with leaving it there. It immediately throws another question at me: are books and articles still as powerful as they once were, or has the advent of television and the internet diluted their strength?
That question didn’t even occur to me earlier. Too many people agreed that books could change the world. On the other hand, most of the books on those lists are from before the internet. Or email. Or smart phones. In fact, many of them changed the world in a time when opinion was more commonly spread by word of mouth than anything else.
Today, people are bombarded by messages. Anyone can post anything online for other people to read. There’s no guaranteed quality, accuracy, or even that the author is who he or she claims to be (let alone if a quote is misattributed). People can see hundreds of written messages or articles in one day or two whereas before they might not see hundreds of written messages in their lifetimes.
Does that mean that a single article or novel will have a lower chance of having a big impact even if it’s just as well written as all the famous ones listed as changing the world? Are important stories being buried beneath the roar of the masses?
I truly believe in the power of writing, and the messages that can be conveyed through a story. As the Victor Hugo quote says, “books like this will not be useless.” But simply being useful doesn’t mean that it will actually be used.