For a luminous example of how books fuel action, all we need do is look at the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his autobiography, King describes how reading Thoreau's "On Civil Disobedience" while in college was transformational.
"Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times."
In 1955, King put that theory into practice. Mrs. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. King helped transform that courageous first act into what would become the American Civil Rights Movement.
"...what we were preparing to do in Montgomery was related to what Thoreau had expressed. We were simply saying to the white community, "We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system."
In addition to Thoreau, King read philosophy and history and was fascinated by the nonviolent demonstrations of Gandhi. King grew up studying Scripture, and saw Gandhi's work as a bold manifestation of Christian teachings.
"Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale."
King's book-fueled life of action was observed the world over. His 1964 Noble Peace Prize afforded him even more power. Despite being assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39, his actions and ringing voice echo still.
King's life was inspiration to Nelson Mandela, who at the time of King's death would serve another 12 years in prison on Robben Island, before emerging to lead South Africa and uproot the evil tree of apartheid.
One of the blessings of Martin Luther King's lifespan was that it coincided with the era of audio recording.
The audio version of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. contains original recordings of not only his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, but also of lesser-known speeches and sermons that posterity is most fortunate to have preserved.
Maja Thomas was the producer and director of the audio recordings. Over a five-year period, she collected the material from archives all over the United States. "Some existed only on the original cassettes that people brought to church, and contain short gaps from being turned over midway through the sermon," says Maja.
Time Warner AudioBooks digitally remastered all the sermons and speeches. The resulting audio version of the autobiography won a Grammy.
It's heartening to contemplate that long after all of us are gone, listeners yet unborn will be able to hear the power of Martin Luther King's own voice urge them to face injustice anywhere they may have to.
"...either we go up together or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness."
In this first month of 2010, these words of Martin Luther King's are once again a rallying cry: words to rebuild by, as each one of us, in our own way, helps those in Haiti overcome the unfathomable.
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