Thursday, November 1, 2012

What Happens When We Read Novels (World, I'm Talking to You)

Here's a pop quiz for a chilly Thursday morning: why should we read books, and especially novels? There was a time when novels – as far as the Brits were concerned, French novels in particular – were thought to be bad for you because they were all about frivolity. The act of reading them was frivolous and so was their content (sex, anyone?).  In the 19th century novels took over; everyone was gobbling them up. And in this century and the last, they have enjoyed a special status in Western culture.

This is a good thing.

Why? Hold on a bit. Because this is really a larger question about the world in which we live. Not just our American world, although yes, I am talking about Americans in this election season. But ALL of us.

Have you noticed that we don’t see each other as people anymore? I’m not referring to our mothers or our friends or co-workers or bosses (okay, maybe our bosses), but THE PEOPLE ON THE OTHER SIDE. Of the political spectrum. Of the tracks. Of the earth. The folks who speak differently or eat different foods than we do. (However, I WILL draw the line at understanding folks who eat fried tarantulas. I’m sorry, I just CANNOT fathom that.)

Here in America we have become so polarized – and I’m not excluding myself – that we cannot hear each other talk. We cannot converse. We can't look at each other’s faces without revulsion, or at least dismay. We are symbols to each other, and that’s about it. Symbols of that “type” who believes X. That “race” who does Y.

This, Readers, is a danger to us all. I am as guilty of it, in the political sphere, as anyone else. And it has got to stop.

You know, those folks on the Other Side (whatever side that might be) feel shivery when they are close to the person they desire, just like you and I do. They get hungry. Sometimes they are kind, and sometimes not, just like us. They have parents (if they are lucky) and kids (ditto). Maybe they love cats, or ferrets, or goldfish, or dogs. Maybe they don’t. Some of them live gentle lives, some of them do not. Just like us.

I need the reminder, just like you probably do.

The people on the Other Side don’t share our opinions. We don’t like theirs. But for Pete’s sake, if we can’t TALK to them about it instead of screaming at our TVs we are all sunk. If we can’t hear each other and – here it is, folks – EMPATHIZE with The Other, our nation and our world is going to die a painful moral death. (I use “moral” in its most liberal sense of justice and kindness and respect to all people.) And that will be ugly.

It already is ugly. Benjy knows this. And he is freaked out by the news. I listen to the relatively quiet voice of NPR in the car and even that is too much.

Ben: Turn it off! It scares me!

Me: But Ben, it’s politics. An election is happening. It’s important.

Ben: It stresses me out. PLEASE turn it off.

Me, sighing (because I am OBSESSED with this election): Oh-kay.

I find it ironic that all those shooting games he plays don’t stress him out but Nina Totenberg does. And yet, I get it. I do.  He hears the way we are yelling at each other without listening. He notices that our world does not seem to practice empathy -- at least, not so much in the public sphere. And that is a scary thing for a boy whose emotional universe is always off-kilter. Whose life is ruled by anxiety and depression at the best of times.

So, you ask. What about books?

Well, here’s what I think. I think every CEO in this world should be required to read Dickens’s Hard Times, and then read it again. And every hedge fund manager should have to read Dickens’s Little Dorrit.

And the rest of us should read, read, read, too. Because novels help us to walk in other people’s shoes. They teach us EMPATHY.

So, Readers, what books do you think we should be reading? And what should be required reading for the President, whoever he ends up being, and Congress? Comment!


  1. I'm with Ben. Sometimes when Nina Totenberg reports on doings of the Supreme Court, I get a little scared, too.

    I get my political news from the Economist and Foreign Affairs (not exactly timely, but I love the analysis). I'm extremely liberal and am always amazed at how fair the conservative Economist is, compared to conservative outlets here.

    1. Me too, AAL. It's all scary. And yet, it's like a car crash: I can't seem to look away. I like the Economist too -- and I'm also a lefty (in case you hadn't noticed).

      Thank you so much for dropping by, and come back again!

  2. Anna, this is sooooooooooo prejudiced and yet I can't help but think there is some truth to it--I knew you were a lefty by this post and I know only 2 posts worth of information about you. BECAUSE I don't see "the Right" calling for this kind of understanding across the aisle.

    I totally agree that reading would solve lots of problems! Although outside your recommendation for novels, the number one book I would recommend for all our leaders is "Somebodies and Nobodies" by Robert Fuller.

    Keep preachin', girl!

    1. Bren, I think the left and the right are equally unable to empathize and connect with each other, in general. I hope I made that clear. But that doesn't mean I think both sides have equally valid positions! That would seem to be humanly impossible -- our world views are too dissonant, and I am not THAT much of a relativist. Any right-wing readers of this blog probably feel the same way about me and my positions -- why wouldn't they?

      I agree that "the left" is probably better at empathy than the right. What I wish for -- and it looks like you do, too -- is that we could simply talk to each other, explain where we're coming from and why. I'm not likely to become more conservative from such an encounter but it might help me to see the person on the other side as a person and not a symbol, you know? And I would like them to offer me the same opportunity, to be seen as myself and not a concept.

      Thanks for the book rec! I will check it out. And thanks for coming back!

      Cheers, Anna

    2. I have to severely limit my political exposure in order to stay more stable. (I'm Bipolar, and my main trigger for swings is stress.) It's not that I'm not interested or concerned; it's just that I have to balance my mental health against something that I know will make me sicker.

      I don't know about books for required reading, although I have some in mind. I think maybe a month or two living at poverty level with only those organizations and help available to everyone else might be eye opening.

      Maybe the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. They're all about working together and getting by on what you can make or doing without.

    3. I hear you, Addy Rae. I think this election is stressing everyone out. It sure is me, and Benjy can't tolerate it at all anymore. Have you seen that viral video of the little girl crying because she can't stand hearing about "Bronco Bama" and Mitt Romney anymore? It's funny -- but then again, not really.

      I love your book recommendation -- Little House!! My childhood faves! And also your idea about Having to Live Without. There are a lot of people who would benefit from that experience.

      Thank you for your comment, and please come back! Cheers, Anna