In a season of heated, high-stakes presidential politics, is reading for pleasure beside the point?
The question has occurred to me these past few nights, as I spend my final minutes before bedtime within the pages of New Orleans author Katy Simpson Smith’s lovely 2014 novel, “The Story of Land and Sea.” On the surface, at least, Smith’s story of a Revolutionary-era father has absolutely nothing to do with the current campaign cycle, and that’s its chief charm. The book has been a respite from my day job editing an editorial page – a perch that places me at ground zero of the country’s bitterly partisan divide. I’ve gotten so pleasantly removed from primary politics each night – if only for a few moments – that I look forward to following up “Land and Sea” with Smith’s newly released historical novel, “Free Men.”
Yet I wonder: With so much seemingly at stake in our national life these days, is reading for pleasure nothing more than an indulgent exercise in escapism, something a citizen can ill afford? Shouldn’t I be watching C-SPAN or cable news instead?
But maybe in reading fiction a few moments each night, living vicariously within someone else’s life for awhile, I’m subtly enlarging my well of empathy, getting out of my comfort zone and preconceived notions about the world. And perhaps that’s an especially good thing for any citizen to do right now, as so much of our political gulf seems grounded in the inability to view reality as someone else does.
As the fictional small-town lawyer Atticus Finch reminds us in the recently departed Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you “never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” What Lee subtly suggests – and what is often overlooked – is that Atticus has developed this broad-mindedness at least partly by reading.
As I wrote in a 2008 Monitor oped, Atticus is viewed as a passive character by his daughter Scout because he reads so much. But for Atticus, reading is a vital way to engage the world, not escape from it. “Struggling against a town that despises his principles, Finch routinely reads to widen his worldview and deepen his soul,” I told readers back then. “He is reading, in a very real way, as if his life depends on it.”
If politics is the proverbial art of the possible, then books, by stoking the bright fires of imagination, can enlarge our sense of what is possible. It’s why people read books not only in spite of hard times but because of them, as we learn in the bestselling 2008 novel, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” It’s about how the British residents of a Nazi-occupied island find the resolve to endure – and prevail – by forming a book club, of all things.
Far-fetched? Perhaps not so much. Last week, combing the shelves of my local used book shop, I came across a lovely edition of essays by the 17th-century man of letters Francis Bacon. Only after taking it home did I realize that my copy had been published in 1942 – a time of profound worry and anxiety on the world stage.
I hope that Bacon was a bridge of sorts for the book’s first owner, taking him from the mean world of the present to the brighter world of what could be. And I hope that this book and all the others on my nightstand will do the same for me this season, as I tune out the white noise of the campaign trail each evening, then open a book, and rest within the calming presence of a voice that speaks to me without shouting.
– Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”