What part do books play in your life during tumultuous times? Right now, we are in the midst of political convention season with harsh words both inside and outside the convention halls that are symptomatic of our national fault lines. Our news seems an endless stream of violence and hate and the angry responses of others. How do you deal with all of that? And what part do books play?
Some of us may simply decide these are not times when one should bury one’s nose in a book. We get caught up on CNN, or Fox News, or NPR, or the endless bits and bytes of information on Facebook and Twitter. Truthfully, I think most who follow this route simply ratchet themselves up to high levels of anxiety, anger, or depression.
Books offer a great escape for some of us. For a time, we can imagine ourselves in imaginary worlds, on fantastic voyages, or in idyllic settings. Maybe there are wars, but they are far off and imaginary with clearly drawn lines of good and evil–orcs versus men, Romulans versus Earth. These are worlds with heroes and villains. Or we join a clever, iconic detective like Hercule Poirot as he (or she) ferrets out the murderer, as in the Agatha Christie mystery I am reading at present.
For others, we read to understand–whether it is books on Islam, on race relations, on political processes and past presidents. We read to be able to understand how we’ve gotten to this place, to reflect on our way forward and what may be learned from the past. We want to go deeper than the news story soundbites and the ponderings of pundits. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns opened my eyes to the huge internal migration of Blacks from the south to the northern cities of our country between 1915 and 1970, and how it has shaped race relations to this day.
Sometimes we need books that help us step out of our own situation to get perspective from another time and place. While I am disturbed by the unrest in our own country, reading Rohinton Mistry’s account, in A Fine Balance, of India during Indira Gandhi’s time as Prime Minister and the country was under a state of emergency, I gain a renewed appreciation for living in a country where there is still a commitment to the rule of law, that serves as the basis or ground for protests of injustice, where law could not be bought, sold, and enforced by strongmen. It reminds me that if we become complacent about advocating for the living out of a nation’s highest ideals, either at home or abroad, we risk losing something precious and rare in the world.
Finally, it seems to me that we sometimes respond to troubling times by going back to sacred texts as well as the great works of literature. A recent book on lament pointed me back to the biblical language of lament that allows me to give expression to grief and sadness over the paroxysm of violence we see in the world and the bitter enmities that fuel that violence. Troubling times remind us that we can’t live on mass culture pablum, that we need to keep company with those who have wrestled with the deepest questions of the human condition.
I am not going to make particular recommendations for what you ought to read. What I might suggest is that all these different types of books have a place in our reading in troubled times. Books help us confront the deep questions our troubles raise, give us perspective and spiritual resources, and help us lay aside questions that cannot be resolved in a day when it is time to do so. Read well in these times, friends.