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.”
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?