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!