Ross Douthat must live in the eye of the hurricane. While the rest of us feel battered by months of bitter negotiation over the fiscal cliff and are bracing for more punishment as the debt ceiling fight brews, the New York Times columnist sees the new year as a sea of tranquility.
In his recent column “How to Read in 2013,” he observes that this is “a year without a midterm election, and a year that’s as far removed as possible from the next presidential race.” Given the vicious, Manichean tone of contemporary politics, this is tantamount to saying, “Hey, we’re only facing a Category 4 storm this year.” Yet, Douthat casts it as a rare opportunity for political junkies to engage in quiet reflection. Is this Hemingway-esque grace under pressure or brazen denial of reality? Who can say? But you have to admire his moxie.
He says readers should take this opportunity to decamp from their partisan echo chambers and explore alternative sources of news and opinion. “If you love National Review’s political coverage,” he writes, “add The New Republic or The Nation to your regular rotation as well. If you think that The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is the last word on current affairs, take out a Weekly Standard subscription and supplement Jeffrey Toobin with Andy Ferguson, Adam Gopnik with Christopher Caldwell.”
This recommendation is sensible to the point of cliché. Open our minds, yes! But his list has so many usual suspects that it could have been cobbled together by Captain Louis from “Casablanca.” This might be wise if the prestigious publications and writers he cites had the cure for what ails us. But, truth be told, they — and, more accurately, the much larger mainstream in which they swim — are part of the problem he is addressing. Their reports may be more insightful than the average story on MSNBC or Fox News, but they rarely surprise us. For the most part, they are partisan, predictable voices that provide neat summaries of how people like themselves should think. If you’re liberal, you won’t find much in The New Yorker to challenge your views; same goes for conservative devotees of The Weekly Standard.
Hence, Douthat does not portray his recommendations as broad and generous sources able to weigh the competing claims of complex evidence to help us draw honest conclusions about how things are. Instead, he presents them as counterweights that might help us achieve some balance. None is perfectly proportioned — they are oil and vinegar; it’s up to us to shake them.
This also ignores a central premise of his column: that we readers like our echo chambers, which is why he must prod us to leave them. It’s not enough to reach out to new sources, we must also be able to give them a fair hearing, instead of sifting them for points of contention that we can use to confirm our existing views.
A more balanced diet of unbalanced mainstream voices is not the cure for what ails us. I wish I could suggest my own list of political writers with such scope (though they may be out there). I wish I could recommend some under-the-radar publications that look at politics with fresh and generous perspectives.
Unfortunately, even in the best of times political writing is geared toward making strong arguments and taking sides — a confrontational, take-no-prisoners approach that has been exacerbated in these not-so-great times. Nowadays, it is a blood sport marked by a poisonous tone which focuses on dismissing and delegitimizing opposing views — hence the cries of “racist,” “moron” and “communist.”
At bottom, the problem Douthat highlights is not political, but spiritual. Our challenge is not figuring out where we should stand on Social Security, but how we can live together in a civil society. What we need are writers who are not just thoughtful and informed but transcendent, able to rise above our mucky fray to help us see the fundamental issues at stake. We need writers who, by their example, urge us to not just learn what’s in our own mind but to understand why people of good will can see the same issue differently. We need writers who recall the first lesson of persuasive writing — to convince the crowd, take an opponent’s strongest arguments seriously. See your opponent’s logic, identify the aspects of it that appeal to you and then explain why you make different choices.
To move toward this goal, we should not wade deeper into the storm, but find a safe harbor. In 2013 we should read less political journalism and more literature. Paradoxically, by reading more works that seem less relevant to what is going on now, we can gain a deeper perspective on current events.
The great issue of literature, like politics, is gaining the self-knowledge that allows us to get along with one another. But where politics aims toward specific solutions, literature explores complexity and ambiguity. Shakespeare endures, in part, because he offers so few answers. His characters are timeless because they face the dilemmas and contradictions of life. William Faulkner suggested this when he said that good writing is about “the problem of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Great books urge us to surrender ourselves to another mind, and, through the writers’ gifts, to inhabit the consciousness of the characters they create. They allow us to transcend ourselves and see the world through another person’s eyes. They teach that most human yet all-too-rare quality whose absence fuels our current ugliness — empathy.
My recommendation may sound a bit airy to the hardboiled political types who just want answers. But this objection fails to take into account the pragmatic nature of the mind. It is a wondrously efficient device that absorbs vast quantities of information (visual, oral, etc.), which it filters and processes to attach meaning to experience.
This is what’s meant by the old saying “we don’t read books, books read us.” Each of us reads the same work slightly differently because we bring different experiences, assumptions and questions to it. In his engaging new memoir, “The End of Your Life Book Club,” Will Schwalbe discusses the books he read with his extraordinary mother as she was suffering from pancreatic cancer. They couldn’t help but read these books through the lens of death.
Similarly, political junkies will read the works of Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad and Roberto Bolano through their own lens. They will see each drawing room scene and contretemps as a metaphor for brass-knuckle showdowns. They will be surprised, for example, to learn how much P.G. Wodehouse — the great comic novelist whose books center on resolving the competing claims of offbeat characters — has to teach them about handling partisan strife.
This reading strategy is no panacea. It has taken us decades to come to this nasty point and may take at least as long for us to move from it. None of us has the power to change the world. But each of us — and this is Douthat’s main point — has the capacity to improve ourselves. Too many of us feed the culture we disdain; like the muckraker in “The Pilgrim’s Progress” we “look no way but downward.” Great books offer us an opportunity to raise our sights and take a wider view of ourselves and all around us.
J. Peder Zane is chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C. He operates the great books website www.TopTenBooks.net.