In Defense of Books

Let me start out by saying I’ve drafted and abandoned tons of posts in the last few months. It’s not that having two kids is precluding me from writing (although, it certainly has made it more difficult) but with the current state of our country, everything I write feels so shallow and petty.

Since November 8th, reeling from shock, I’ve retreated into my favorite refuge: books. It’s a good thing I’m nursing all the time because I’m barely keeping up with my epic wish list. I’ve been reading fiction, non-fiction and memoirs; books in English and French, from Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America. I’ve been particularly drawn to books about political upheaval and repression although not exclusively. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but what I’ve found is good company in my feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

This sense of connection and camaraderie across history and continents is such a gift. Beyond helping me cope, it enriches my worldview with new perspectives on life, my country and these times. The only thing greater than the sense of solace I get from reading is sharing the books I’ve read with family and friends.

Most of the books I read come from the library, but those that I buy, I always pass on. It occurred to me today that I share what I’m reading not only with people who agree with me politically but also with those who do not. I find that books, particularly literature, have a way of crossing borders and breaking down barriers. At a time when we are more divided than ever, with neighbors and families turning against each other, stories can bridge the gap.

It used to be that the country would simultaneously experience culture in waves through popular films or records. As entertainment has become increasingly individualized, even this sense of cohesion has been largely lost. The exception seems to be popular books. I have struck up many amicable conversations with strangers because we’re both reading a new title. We shared our appreciations and criticisms, how the books applied to our lives and which of our friends suggested them. We never once talked about politics. The experience of sharing a book with a stranger is harmonious and enjoyable, regardless of who that stranger is. It is a welcome moment of kindness and civility that breaks the constant tension we’re living in.

Although we live in a society where we have more access to information than ever before, we are taking this trove of knowledge for granted. The literacy rate in the developed world is close to 100%, but people squander this gift. Rich resources are going untapped, stories unheard and experiences set aside. Facts are becoming optional, and no wonder. We have a president “who doesn’t have time to read.”

Perhaps you only have time to read two pages a day, but sometimes that’s all it takes. What’s important is that we’re reaching out beyond ourselves to incorporate the knowledge of another human existence. Seeing life through many sets of eyes creates compassion and empathy, two things that have been sorely missing from our public discourse recently. Regardless of political persuasion, I think we can all agree it’s time we start talking about our common humanity again. So I say, be a patriot: read a book.

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