Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading to Cope and Reading to Resist

Reading to Cope
I barely slept the night of November 8th into the morning of November 9th. When I eventually got out of bed, I was exhausted, my eyes and throat hurt, and an orb of ill-feeling settled into a my stomach. I, as so many of you, spent the next few days in a stress induced haze. I put my old friend Ulysses in my satchel to carry around with me even though I only nibbled at it here and there.

Some of the great books I was reading at the time, The Lesser Bohemians and Float for example, fell by the wayside, not because something about them drove me away, but because I found myself spending more time on social media on my breaks at work and my leisure time in general; fighting on Facebook, tweeting, retweeting, reading the latest horror stories in the Post, Globe, and Times, calling congressional representatives, and signing petitions. Even though those books were there for my brain, at the time, my brain wasn't there for them.

I retreated to lighter stuff, the easier stuff, books written primarily to entertain and enchant, books that didn't want to be examined, critiqued, analyzed, just enjoyed for what they are, but I didn't want to retreat completely. Self-care is important, recharging your batteries is important, getting your brain back together is important so you can use it to the best of your abilities, but there are ways to cope and resist at the same time. So I bought books by Saladin Ahmed and Chuck Wendig because I appreciate their voices on social media, how they both take stands for what the believe in, have unique voices, and remind us, in their own ways, of important things we sometimes forget. And they had books that fit what I felt I needed.

Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon is an entertaining sword and sorcery story that seems to be setting the table for a very interesting exploration of political power in a fascinating world of ghuls and spells. It's hard to predict where The Crescent Moon Kingdoms series goes from here, but Ahmed has set the table to engage with everything from the tension between order and oppression, the conflict between cosmopolitan and rural societies, and the way power changes our ideals, or to just keep throwing plucky heroes and scary monsters at us. Or both.

In middle school I read a bunch of books from the Star Wars universe (as I'm writing this I vividly remember a scene where Luke Skywalker uses The Force to cloud the minds of a fleet of Tie Fighter pilots and can actually feel the presence of the Dark Side within him), so of course I had to get Wendig's Aftermath. Set soon after the destruction of the second Death Star, the bulk of the book thus far (haven't finished it yet) seems to be organizing the world, introducing us to new characters and reintroducing us to old, and, in general, setting things up for the stories that get us to The Force Awakens.

For better or worse, humans are adaptable and my brain began to adapt to the persistent current of stress and disbelief that is and will be Trump's America. That orb of ill-feeling remained, but I was able to put food in my stomach around it. Though I was finally building back up to the reading pile I normally maintain (here's an example of what that looks like), I still wanted something familiar to tag along for a little while, like planting a friend at the bar while you're on a blind date.

So I picked up The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. It as hard to describe how much I fucking love this book as it is to figure why I love this book so fucking much. I recommend it all the time and pretty much everyone I recommend it to eventually tells me how fucking awesome it is. I once lent my copy to my Dad, because I knew he'd love it. A few months later I asked him if I could have it back. He looked me square in the eye and said “No.” So, I just bought another copy.

Along with a couple of those comforting reads, I'm now back up to the reading pile I usually maintain. And, along with everything else, I've been thinking about what my life is going to look like for the next few years and how I'm going to meet my artistic, political, social, emotional responsibilities. What will the resistance look like in Trump's America? There are smarter people who have spent more time studying the nature of resistance who will have more concrete, more useful, more direct actions, techniques, and strategies, but, in terms of how we read, this is what I've come up with so far.

Reading to Resist
I think it's telling that, in the early aftermath of the election, the first thing so many of us on the losing side did was seek out books to help us understand the people who we had apparently ignored, misunderstood, or even insulted. We rushed to books, Hillbilly Elegy, Strangers in Their Own Land, and the Great Unraveling for example. Smart people put together reading lists to guide us. And there will be more, as publishers (like our good friend Melville House) crash books about the coming resistance into publication. Over the course of a night, it suddenly looked like we didn't understand our own country and many of us immediately sought out books to help us understand.

Books, in general, offer a particular perspective on the human experience; a long view of history, sense of interconnectedness, empathy, nuance, comfort with a level of ambiguity. They draw lines from past actions to contemporary consequences. They add depth and knowledge. There is the belief, maybe even faith, that if we just read enough about something, we'll be able to get handle on it and solve its problems or improve its conditions. On November 9th, we saw a problem and we immediately sought to educate ourselves so we could understand and solve it. But as the vote totals have been finalized, as we learn more about why people voted for Trump, and as the effect of fake news and Russian hacking begins to reveal itself, the more irrelevant the type of thinking reading engenders and supports seems to be.

Despite strong third party showings, voter suppression in Republican states, and all of the other assaults on her policy and character, Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. By any rational way of understanding the results, Clinton won the argument. And it's not hard to see why she won the argument. Along with Trump's many disqualifying flaws, Clinton presented a cogent, coherent, and comprehensive set of policies that would have used the base established under the Obama administration to greatly improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans while grappling with climate change (you know, civilization's most urgent threat). As we have floundered around to explain what happened, especially in the early days after the election, the Clinton campaign was accused of a lot of things, most specifically neglecting the white working class (whoever they are), but if you look back, she did nearly everything pundits accused her of not doing; talking about jobs, offering solutions to the lack of American manufacturing, having a plan to transition coal mining communities to a new economy, closing the education gap, reducing the cost burden of childcare, etc. In short, the lives of the white working class (whoever they are) would have greatly improved (perhaps as much as any time since the post war boom) if Clinton's policies were enacted. The only thing she didn't give them was the opportunity to whine about people of color. The only reason she's not President is a few narrow defeats in key states.

The value of bookish thinking continues to diminish the more we learn about Trump voters. Not only are we talking about overt white supremacists, but we now know, thanks to a whole range of forces, that many of his voters live in an entirely different world of accepted fact than I do. Furthermore, we now know that there was a percentage of Trump voters who simply refused to believe that he would do the things he promised to do that would HURT THEM. This isn't the usual cognitive dissidence, this is a powerful selective reasoning, a kind of racist optimism that lets people assume Trump would do all those horrible things to people of color but none of the things he promised to white people. They reasoned that, even as he promised to repeal Obamacare and even though House Republicans have voted about 50 times to repeal Obamacare, it helps too many of them to be dismantled. To me, that is a decision making system that has already rejected the system that reading supports. To put this another way; Clinton's failure to convince some voters had nothing to do with argument.

The root of the rejection is deep and complicated, going back thousands of years of religious dogma and tribalism right up through McCarthyism, the Southern Strategy, and the myth of liberal bias in media. In other post or essay or ramble, I might spend a few thousand works exploring the differences between “dogmatic” and “ideological” thinking and how those differences play out in contemporary politics, but I'm thinking about the books we can read right now.

Maybe after a little more time to think and read I'll come up with a better answer, but, right now, it seems the best way to read to resist is to support writers who resist. If you support the stance Celeste Ng takes on social media, her opinions, her #smallacts, you should buy and read her book. If you've already got a copy, you should buy another one and give it to a friend or donate it to a little free library. If you can't afford to buy a copy, you can make sure it's in circulation at your local library. Then, whenever you favorite or retweet a tweet of hers (whether something political or a story about her charming and curious kid) just remember at some point that day, to share a link to her book on your social media (here's a good one to share) and urge your friends and followers to buy it. Part of the challenge of resistance is securing the resources to resist, finding ways to risk losing your job, risk being arrested, risk having your stuff vandalized, risk being physically hurt, and, in our capitalist economy, money is a resource that mitigates all risks.

I have no idea what the resistance is going to look like. I'm not sure even those who understand resistance much more than I do know what it's going to look like. But right now, we can support the fighters and we should. This is how you feed the resistance. And it's really a win-win, because you also end up with another book.

(PS. It occurs to me this post could be read as very self-serving in that I've written a book, I think it's swell when people buy it, and I consider myself resisting. Though I suppose you don't have a compelling reason to believe me, I will tell you that is not what intended for this post and I only realized that interpretation was possible after I'd edited it a few times. But, reading is powerful because of the freedom of interpretation, so I can't stop you from reading this as a writer surreptitiously begging people to buy his book. I can only ask that you don't punish the other authors who I've mentioned in this post. If you were thinking of supporting them before it occurred to you that I might be being selfish with this post, please continue to support them.)

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