In the hours of reckoning the morning after the 2016 presidential election, I was a tangle of emotions, but mostly I felt despairingly alone. Like millions of Americans, I stumbled around that day suspended in surreal disbelief — still do a good bit of the time, specifically anytime I turn on the news. I remember riding my bike to get my hair cut that morning, pedaling down the streets I have traversed daily for 20 years, past houses where friends, neighbors, and acquaintances live, suddenly feeling like I didn’t belong here anymore.
Who are these people who have always seemed so friendly, who wave to me and other passersby, who love their puppies and tend their gardens, but could still vote for a bullying, lying, misogynist narcissist? Where did my homeland go, the country where I once felt proud to pledge allegiance?
These remain strange and disturbing times, even more so given the fact that nothing shocks us anymore. We watch educated, powerful people justify separating young children from their desperate asylum-seeking families; we not only say ‘screw the planet’ and bag the Paris climate agreement, we screw fellow humans by stepping away from the Human Rights Council. Now our commander-in-chief wants to go all Star Wars with a galactic space force before we’ve figured out how to jettison Scott Pruitt and Stephen Miller back to whatever toxic planet they’ve surely UFO’d in from.
Seventeen months in to this misadministration and I’m exhausted by outrage. I’m all marched out — plus it’s too blasted hot to parade around with posters used as anything other than a big handheld fan. Sure, I know I need to go back to speed-dialing my elected officials, but here’s another idea: summer reading.
That’s my plan, and my suggestion for anyone else feeling like the escalating heat index isn’t solely to blame for being all hot and bothered. Reading is not only an honorable excuse to hunker down in a hammock or air-conditioned quarters, it’s an excellent antidote to the sense of loneliness, confusion, and dislocation that still lurks. To me, reading is grounding; stories are solace. My bookshelves are extensions of my DNA — my scattered stacks of novels and non-fiction, poetry and memoirs tell me who I am. Books and the stories they reveal, the histories they hold, are mileposts and map pins of my inner GPS. Dog-eared pages are breadcrumbs leading me back to myself.
This is why the original map of Christopher Robin’s Hundred Acre Wood is expected to fetch upwards of a half million dollars at auction this summer. Not because it’s fine visual art, but because A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, like other children’s classics, connects us to our early memories and innocent imaginations. That book in particular plants me squarely back on my dad’s lap, smelling whiffs of Old Spice and surgical scrub soap and feeling so sad for poor Eeyore.
Reading is an invitation to stretch the boundaries of our limited experience; it connects us to the observed world, and encourages us to confront differing opinions and alternate viewpoints. And as Eeyore proves, reading can be a profound act of empathy. It softens the heart. Of course the opposite is also true, and this power of literature is why the Nazis burned books and why hate-group diatribes and propaganda are so toxic. A book can be a frigate or a frying pan. Just ask the Wando High School faculty who are feeling the heat after assigning students a National Book Award winner, The Hate U Give, as summer reading. They’ve encountered some hate, or at least some loud objections, from those who say author Angie Thomas paints police in a negative light. So not allowing it to be read and openly discussed offers any incentive or opportunity to shift perspective? Surely Wando students (and CofC students, who are also assigned the book this summer) could make up their own minds about relevant current issues concerning power and vulnerability, justice and threat. Or they could not read and just play Fortnite all summer and see how far that moves the needle on the law enforcement PR-front.
Beyond controversial assignments for high school and college students, and beyond Charleston County Public Library’s carrot-dangling reading competition (“Read.Log.Win.” — go for it, kids!), summer reading can be its own kind of freedom and indulgence. Thrillers and mysteries and the latest by Mary Alice Monroe squeeze in alongside the Kirkus-starred titles and Man Booker nominees that feed my fantasy of being better-read than I actually am. But regardless whether it’s chick-lit or Chekov, reading is more than a pleasurable diversion. It is, I believe, the ultimate act of resistance and defiance. Reading requires a sustained, quiet attention that goes against the grain of our distracted, ADD-addled, immediate gratification culture. It demands a reflective inner dialogue that is a stark contrast to ubiquitous “look at me” social media static.
The fact that Trump is an avowed, proud non-reader says more to me about his vapidity than most anything else. Being a non-reader proclaims the same message as the First Lady’s green jacket, worn on her recent errand to go pet the caged migrant children: “I really don’t care.” When your world revolves around your bottomless ego and pre-adolescent appetites, why bother with what Haruki Murakami or Toni Morrison have to say? When getting your way is the only plot that matters, who cares about Stephen King’s latest thriller or what Rick Bragg’s dear mom rustled up in her cast iron skillet, as exquisitely and colorfully conveyed in his brilliant The Best Cook in the World?
Well, I do. Especially in the summertime, when the living is easy and the books are piled up, and my husband keeps telling me I’d really like Murakami if I’d only give him a try. So I think I finally will. Who knows, maybe I’ll begin to understand why my husband likes his writing so much, and then maybe understand my husband a bit more, too. It ain’t world peace, but it’s a start. Lord knows it’d be nice if we could turn the page.