Don’t Just Read Books
By Maya Beck, Senior Editor
I was reading Charles M. Blow’s column in the New York Times and came across yet another formulation of a sentiment I’ve seen often since November 9th:
Spend part of the day reading about the rise and fall of empires and how it always seems far-fetched and inconceivable until it actually happens. There are many books that address this topic, but if you want something shorter, try Andrew Sullivan’s “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic,” a counterintuitive meditation on how tyranny can spring from populism, or my colleague Paul Krugman’s “How Republics End.”
But, by all means, read something. That is oppositional in and of itself when facing a frightening man who seems constitutionally averse to intelligence—from national intelligence to individual intelligence—and who is apparently, how shall I say this, far from a voracious reader.
I don’t entirely disagree, seeing as how I immediately followed the first two links, and am currently reading The Grand Hotel Abyss in order to bone up on my critical theory and better understand the world under Trump. (It’s a ridiculously apt book that examines how strong ideas can fail to make change in the world.) I also begged my younger brother for his copy of The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Look at me, building up my intellectual armament like nobody’s business!
But the third link in that quote from Blow has an interesting counterpoint: “Some historians have argued that people who read lots of books do not necessarily make the best presidents, though many of the greatest presidents, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt—were learned men who read deeply in history, philosophy and religion.” And also: “There is no clear correlation between studious presidents and success in the office, historians said.”
And that is what I want to talk about.
Well, actually, Kevin Nguyen said it better than I ever could:
The logic of Book Twitter is: Books are inherently good. Therefore, if we’d all just read more books, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected. If you believe that books have the power to do good, you also have to believe that they can do just as much harm. After the election, there was no soul searching on Book Twitter. No one questioned the power structures of publishing. Can we talk about how one of the Big Five publishers is owned by News Corp? Often the publishing of things like Bill O’Reilly’s twisted histories is justified as a means to support literary fiction. But does anyone ask if that trade-off is worth it?
Instead, there was just a lot of self-congratulatory tweets like Shteyngart’s that read like a call to action but really only urged Book Twitter to keep doing what it was already doing. Book Twitter doubled down on its unending positivity and back patting, which amounted to a lot of white people tweeting the equivalent of “All Books Matter.”
This post helped convince me I wasn't crazy.
As a quick reminder, I am young, female, lower-income, person of color, ex-Muslim, and so and so on, intersectionality ahoy. I don't expect books to match my whole self, only parts of me. Still, I have been struggling to find resonating literature that helps me cope with the world after the election. I’m not even sure if literature is the solution to a post-truth world.
Many of my in-person experiences with Book People have been awkward, if not disheartening. I was once subjected to some weird microaggressive questions of authenticity when reading my fiction in an all-white class. (“How did you come up with that?” The same way you did? “Is that how you grew up?” Dude, it’s a fiction class and that’s none of your business. Why don’t you ask me about craft like you did everyone else?) Twice now I’ve quit writing classes because they lacked people of color. No regrets.
I am very occasionally the only person color in literary spaces ostensibly dedicated to diversity, whether student, intern, job seeker, festival volunteer, or writer among writers. There are often assumptions that I do spoken word (I don’t) instead of novels and shorts and stuff. I’ve had to make a mental resolution not to take a job anywhere that I would be the first person of color on staff, in order to spare myself the loneliness and anxiety.
So, no, the book world isn’t some enlightened anti-bigotry wonderland where books are magical beacons of Good. Given the unproportional whiteness of the publishing world, books most likely replicate the biases of the structures that created them, contributing to the bubbles that allowed the election to blindside the sensible world. You can easily read only what you want to read and learn nothing new and never grow as a person.
Or, you can be well-read in harmful books. Kevin Nguyen mentions Bill O’Reilly as a creator of harmful books, but the New York Nonfiction Bestseller list features the literary equivalent of Fox News via Glenn Beck, Megyn Kelly, Rush Limbaugh, and titles like Gary J. Byrne’s Crisis of Character. Recently, a Breitbart News editor been offered a book deal, giving his hate speech the legitimacy of a Big Four publisher. But the greatest irony on the topic of harmful books is that non-reader Donald Trump is a bestselling author because of The Art of The Deal and other books. According to his ghostwriter, his words created Trump’s success. The man is all illusion at his base, all myths and fibs and stories.
Oh my god, it’s all the fault of Book People!
Again, I’m not sure literature is the solution to a post-truth world. Books are just one kind of connection, and I feel that we need every kind of connection in order to cope, especially in-person connections.
I would personally like to tell everyone, “Don’t just read books, read good books. Read many books.” Yes, read what Trump should read but also read widely, uniquely, against the grain and ahead of the curve. Maybe even read just enough right-wing propaganda to understand their views. Read the rest of the Charles Blow article, because he’s actually making a similar point and has a neat list of Trump Era survival to-dos.
And then turn your theory into praxis and do something with that knowledge. My current inspiration is the that famous quote by Marx: "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."
Maya Beck is a Paper Darts senior editor, lapsed Muslim, recovering otaku, socially awkward blipster, and genre-confused writer.