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Not So Easy Reading

I am still working my way through the New Yorker’s September 12th issue, which like most everything published this last month, is largely about 9/11, and no easy read. Given the state of the American economy, the possible implosion of the EuroZone, the poisonous political discourse, two terrible wars still ongoing, assorted natural disasters here and abroad, it’s hard not to feel a little, well, down.

Here’s a representative sampling. In his article “Coming Apart,” http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/09/12/110912fa_fact_packer, George Packer writes: “In previous decades, sneak attacks, stock market crashes, and other great crises became hinges on which American history swung in dramatically new directions. But events on the same scale…no longer have the power: moneyed interests may have become too entrenched, elites too self seeking, institutions too feeble, and the public too polarized and passive for the country to be shocked into fundamental change.”

Ouch.

For me, like most folks who love the written word, one of the joys of reading is escapism. None of that here, but even such dismal fare is not without its rewards. Indeed, just as a good piece of writing can keep the real world at bay, so too can it bring it into provocative, all-too-proximate focus. (Escapism and engagement, are I guess, two sides of the same literary coin.) Packer’s article sent my head to my hands and my heart to my feet, but it was still thoughtful, effective, well-argued, and a pleasure to read. Regardless of whether you agree with Packer’s particular arguments about the past decade, Cassandras of every ideological stripe abound, and the best of them deliver their bad news breathtakingly well. As I’m sure many of you would agree, writing about bleak subjects is hard. Even setting aside the human inclination to shoot the messenger, leading readers over unpleasant terrain is risky. It’s easy to sound shrill, sentimental, paranoid, preachy or hysterical. I’m curious to see how Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum handle this in THAT USED TO BE US, a book about America’s decline, which I will read from under my bed. Just in case the sky is falling. Apropos of the Chicken Little school of publishing, Adam Gopnik has a very entertaining review of a spate of “declinist” books titled “Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat” including the Friedman, which cheered me up. A little.

How about you? Would you (broadly) categorize your recent reading as escapism or engagement?

4 Responses to Not So Easy Reading

  1. AudryT says:

    Engagement, mostly. There’s so much going on in the world, and I want to keep up with it. Also, I’ve found much of the escapism I’ve tried recently too fluffy. Conditions are frustrating and depressing, and I suspect that what I’d prefer to read in fiction right now is stories in which character overcome serious, believable odds, rather than easily triumphing over straw men.

  2. A little of both, maybe? As far as fiction goes, I like my mind to be engaged in thinking about the human condition, social issues, etc., even while it’s being transported to a different world (or version of our world). As for non-fiction, I’m usually reading to educate myself, so I would count that as engagement (and maybe a little escapism if it’s something that really gets my imagination going, like extrasolar planets).

  3. Amy Lewis says:

    I find that there can be a moment where Escapism turns to Transcendance. Inside the Escapist narrative, the reader is offered choices that may not necessarily be available outside of it, in the real world, or under the bed. And the echoes of those choices remain (Standing up to Tyranny, Finding Love, A Soul Redeemed). And it is these echoes of choices, of transcendant realities that can allow us to engage. But often, the problems of the world are so vast, and my hands so small, that the only thing I feel empowered to do is to create the world I want to live in, instead of the one there is. And I do this by engaging with narrative, by reading and writing.

  4. TryThis Again says:

    Hmmm…The Sisters Grimm; Rilke’s Book of Hours / Love Poems to God (translation); We Need to Talk About Kevin; my old trusty Edna St. Vincent Millay Collected Poems (SO in need of a scrupulous editor, to highlight Millay’s tougher/cynical/lyrical (cynical-lyrical?) side, for modern readership); The Deerslayer (an unbelievably offensive page turner); Benjamin Franklin’s bio (shocking in some parts, Franklin a racist, I did not know that). Also, old cookbooks, does that count as escapism?

    Also, love art books with tons of “reproductions” in them – coffeetable books – maybe with all the digitization going on, there will be a paradoxical return to gigantic coffeetable books, all that heft and size and “gorgeous” photography seeming fresh again…

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