The Effect of Not Reading Books – or Why the DNC Should Stop Asking Me for Money

The Democrats want me to give them money really badly. They say they need it to fight Trump and his cronies. For the last few months they’ve been saying they want to win a special congressional election in Georgia and show well in Kansas and Montana. They’re testing the waters, attempting to declare a referendum against Trump and conservatives in the fight for America. But I can’t give them money. I won’t give them money. Not to fight and not to pretend they have a referendum on the current administration through obscure logic in obscure races in obscure parts of the country.

Trump's Ass NYMAG
NY Magazine

I’d give them money to do a study, though. I want to know the relationship between voting behavior, a sense of moral responsibility for others, and reading behavior. That’s a tough study, I know. But we need to figure this stuff out. Donald Trump is not the problem. Nor is Steve Bannon or Vladimir Putin. The problem is that somehow a huge number of Americans lost their ability to think critically and take responsibility for making a better world. These people have spent the last thirty to forty years not just ignoring the need to understand problems this country faces and do something about them, they’ve also been busy both propagating new versions of themselves and systematically tearing apart the American education system that should supposedly be giving said propagations tools for being thoughtful, caring, and responsible citizens.

I’m wondering if it all may just boil down to reading books that challenge the mind — both fiction and non-fiction — and wanting to read them independently (ie, not assigned for class or book group). I know there are a lot of folks out there who somehow had their love of reading destroyed by English teachers. But I think a lot more of us just stopped reading because society has made it easy to be lazy and even cool to say you don’t read. Besides, who has time for books when there’s video games, fantasy sports, online gambling, internet prowling, porn, binge watching, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and instant messaging in all its guises. Besides, isn’t Facebook a book?

Reading serious long-form work (real books) requires focus and active mental effort that in today’s world can seem a bit weird. I’ve watched people zero in on text message chats and Twitter with a laser focus that every good writer would love to see transferred to their latest book.

But books don’t let the reader interact with other intelligences in the same way that digital communication does. I get that. The thing is, great books provide us with the opportunity to create new worlds in our heads and turn words on a page into real characters and places and times. The mental work you do when you read is essentially a form of activating your imagination and turning it into a dynamic force — sort of like directed dreaming in the waking world. You don’t get that with other forms of diversion like TV, gaming, wandering the internet, and texting.

A lot of Dems are still trying to figure out what Trump’s appeal was back in 2016. Many feel itt’s even more important to figure out why so many of those who voted for him maintain their support in the face of his obvious incompetence and unpresidential persona.

Everything Trumpian seemed impossible to understand as far as I could tell until I started thinking about the question of reading books. We heard during the 2016 campaign that he didn’t have time for books. In a summary of his media input habits called “Trump 101: what he reads and watches,” Mike Allen writing for Axios.com, notes: “He’s not a book guy: In fact, some advisers say they don’t recall seeing him read one or even talking about one beyond his own, The Art of the Deal … he’s not one for long reports or detailed briefings. One page usually suffices. Bullet points are even better. But he does consume — often in huge doses — lots of traditional media.”

Can it all be that simple? Can this just be a case of non-book people loving the guy because he’s just like them? I mean, who in this world has time for books? Life is crazy and insane. Even if you have enough money and a great job, day-to-day living is fast and furious from that first cup of coffee. Why would you take an hour or two out of your busy day to read — especially something like a great American novel or a book about, say, the history of the Ottoman Empire?

That’s just it, isn’t it? Who would take the time? Who can take the time?

Indeed! A lot of us. Some of us might only read one book a year. Some might read one every week. I am a profoundly slow reader. I generally only read about 8-10 novels a year. Last year I only read one (Roberto Bolaño’s thousand-page 2666).

My point is that some of those who don’t read books may feel a strong connection to a president who also doesn’t read books. And they may also hate those of us who do. I can’t deny that I feel sanctimonious and smug about the fact that I read. If you’re reading this right now and you think I’m being kind of an asshole, that’s on me. I know what I’ve put my foot in here with this essay. But I still truly want to know: What is the relationship between voting behavior (including the 40% who did not vote), social responsibility, and reading behavior?

I’ve been working very slowly over the last few weeks reading William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August. I can’t believe we were ever assigned that book in high school. That is some complicated writing! A huge amount of stuff that goes on in that book is only implied. It’s really (really!) hard to figure out what Faulkner’s saying.

William Faulkner, 1954
William Faulkner, 1954 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I keep reading — partly because I know Faulkner did a better job than most any other Euro-heritage American author at going into the heart of racism in the south. But also because reading Faulkner is like running an obstacle course for the language side of the brain and how it connects to the unconscious.

I only manage to get through about three pages of Light in August every afternoon before I fall asleep (there’s nothing like a siesta after reading something complicated). That’s a very small amount of page time, but I can feel the muscles in my brain getting stronger. I can also feel my ability to open up to complex ideas and half-said realities becoming more tuned up and amplified.

The same gymnastics happened to me when I read Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus last year. Bolaño manages in 2666 to paint the full realm of modern fear on a huge canvass that includes modern Mexico, literary obsession, German involvement in WWII, the war between genders, and sports reporting as a form of detective work (and so much more). We all have multiple forms of fear rolling around beneath our conscious realities.

2666 is at least in part a story about hundreds of brutal murders of women in Mexico. We all experience that same story every night when we watch the news, or every morning when we boot onto our favorite “news” sites online. (By the way, just for the record, as long as so few critical thinkers are left in America, I’ve decided that pretty much all the news you read or listen to is fake whether you like it or not. I don’t mean to speak ill here of the many awesome journalists I know and love, but when the audience is so quick to judge and hate — on all sides — it’s very clear that the closer to truth you write, the less people are going to get what you’re trying to communicate).

If you don’t read books regularly — and by books I mean serious novels and detailed, thoughtful non-fiction — your brain is going to be just as fat and flaccid as a certain amateur golfer’s rear end that we see too much of these days.

There was an interesting segment on 60 Minutes last Sunday called “Brain Hacking,” about how internet, gaming, and phone app designers are engineering their products to get you addicted to them, to lock onto your attention and not let go. In some ways it was an eye opening critique of our modern virtual world and why we are all so screen addicted. (Watch the piece by clicking the link listed at the end of this essay).

But in truth, every bit of popular culture for the last few centuries has been working to capture your eyeballs, your taste buds, your face, your fingers, and your genitals. The less you think and the more you get excited, the more money the creators make. Marilyn Monroe WC Fields Kim Kardasian Caitlynn Jenner Michael Jordan Stoya Madden 2017 Beyonce DraftKings Tony Soprano Charlie Chaplin NFL Fast Food All Beer Candy Crush Star Wars Super Bowl Cleavage American Idol Fan Duel Game of Thrones iPhone Droid Viagra Trump.

The list is astounding (and totally undeserving of punctuation). Our minds are perfect dumps for everything interesting today that so easily gets buried by what’s interesting tomorrow — flushable cognition is now the basis of our global economy.

Maybe there’s some as yet unexamined electro-chemical problem that gets set up between the human eye and the electrode display screen. Maybe radio waves from our phones and our WiFi systems really are scrambling our brains and our ability to feel empathy and responsibility for others. Maybe it’s true that some of us are genetically predisposed to stumble around worried about morality, while others are more concerned about following rules and maintaining a definable social order. Hell, maybe some of us really are the good guys and others, very sadly, the bad guys. I don’t know what’s wrong with us. I do know, though, that we used to be a lot less screwed up as a nation.

The America I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s would not have elected Donald Trump as a president. Back in those days people still read a lot. And they talked about authors, too: Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Wouk, James Baldwin, Colleen McCullough, Leon Uris, John Updike, Annie Dillard, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, etc, etc. Those hallowed scribes weren’t exactly heroes or stars. They were more modern day gadflies. They pushed all of us to think about who we are and who we want to be. They presented us with books that were simultaneously pathos-drive accounts of cognitive dissonance and beacons for utopian hope. They posed open-ended questions about the meaning of life and the morality of the modern world. And they didn’t give us answers or make things easy. They were all about questions and problems and depicting the human struggle as something real and important and messy. We liked that. We rose to the challenge. We knew it was our lot and destiny to meet those writers and their words head on. Reading books was always, somehow, a big part of continuously making America great, trying to create a better world for our children and our grandchildren. Most of us, even those who didn’t read, knew it all started with books and ideas and the stories we were telling ourselves in words.

Kurt Vonnegut, probably thinking about the future of America

So, DNC, set up the study. Send me a proposal. I will review it with like-minded others. Most of us are not rich (actually, since I have survived raising three kids to adulthood over the last 25 years or so, I’m in debt way above my eyeballs). But I can definitely see figuring out a way to come up with a little cash to support new knowledge in the world. I’d even be willing to help set up a Kick-Starter page for that kind of research.

If independent reading has any connection to voting behavior, we’ll learn something important. Anyone who’s gotten this far in this essay probably has a good idea of what I’m talking about.

But, DNC and your stalwart patrons, please stop asking me for money so you can fight Trump and the alt-right. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 56 years of books, it’s that fighting doesn’t work out very well in the end. Offering a vision for a better world can. Providing new knowledge does. Comedy does. Music and dance do. Encouraging bold change does. Supporting poets and writers certainly does. Getting out in front of the status quo does, too. But fighting is just not going to win you anything. We’ve already seen what that does. If you don’t get what I’m saying here, go read a good book or two. You’ll figure it out. I have faith in that. Start with Faulkner or maybe Annie Dillard…

…or go back and read some Vonnegut. My God! What would Kurt Vonnegut think of us now?


Check out: “Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience” at brainpickings.org.

“Brain Hacking: Hooked on Your Phone? Anderson Cooper can relate” (60 Minutes, 4/9/17)

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