A Reading List for Right Now

I’ve been trying to avoid chewing my fingernails with increasing difficulty as the news piles up. It feels like everything coming out of the new administration requires petitions and phone calls to officials and rallies and marches…and it’s exhausting. It’s hard work to sort out the issues that are absolutely essential from the issues that are the result of the Other Party being in charge, which is probably the point of the onslaught of absurdities. It’s hard work to avoid getting swept up in the vicious polarization that makes communication across party lines fruitless, which makes the situation worse. And it’s hard work to bear in mind that political and social change happen in a historical context and over an extended period of time, which means that we have to think strategically, not reactively.

For myself, I think one of the most sanity-preserving tactics in my toolbox is crafting a reading list. My goals in putting this list together are as follows:

  • Gain some perspective by reading about historical situations that have some relevance of similarity
  • Reinforce my ability for empathy by reading about experiences that are different from my own, especially those of people who currently feel threatened
  • Remind myself that it’s okay, and in fact preferable, to Not Panic

This is obviously not a comprehensive list of valuable reading material, so further recommendations are heartily encouraged in the comments. Topics I would especially appreciate recommendations on are effective peaceful resistance and what’s needed to depolarize the nation. Also: please feel free to recommend topics.

For whatever it’s worth, here’s the list of books (in no particular order) I’ve bumped up the reading queue or decided to revisit.

Books to Read While the World Seems Intent On Burning

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is an author I would generally recommend right now. Particularly Step Across This Line, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in addition to Midnight’s Children. I’m reading Midnight’s Children because it looks at early post-colonial India and the birth of Pakistan. The other books I listed also pay attention to the political context of religious conflict in India, and it is a situation we really ought to (have) learn(ed) from. Beyond the thought-provoking value, which is high, I love Rushdie’s writing because his wit sets the example of the essential relationship between rage and compassion.

The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt

Arendt was a German-born Jewish political theorist who escaped Europe during the Holocaust. Her work doesn’t exactly qualify as “fun,” but it seems important right now to think more deeply about how racism plays a role in the rise of totalitarianism in order to effectively fight the repetition of history. Also worth reading by Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem (in order to consider how a person who sees himself as reasonable and decent comes to perpetuate impossible evil) and The Human Condition (for a broader perspective on political action).

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

I read this graphic novel and its sequel for the first time last summer and was immediately struck by the parallels to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (more below). I would consider this absolutely essential reading right now, if nothing else to remind us that (a) prosperous, modern societies can actually be dragged disastrously backwards by bad government to the harm of all and (b) the refugees fleeing from religious persecution and bad governments are JUST LIKE US in all of the ways that matter.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The recommendation to read this has been going around lately, but not quite for the reasons it makes my list. Everyone has been saying, “It could happen to us!” And so it could, I suppose, but the focus of the book is on how the main character and the women around her end up accepting the situation with minimal resistance because they value safety over freedom. It’s a lovely consideration of the psychology of living under a rising tyranny and offers worthwhile insight about what we might watch for in ourselves. For similar reasons, I’ll add David R. Blumenthal’s “The Banality of Good and Evil,” which looks at the Holocaust and psychology experiments in the last century to ask how decent people can become the unresisting instruments of monstrosity.

Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin

Yes, yes. We all think of 1984 every time someone mentions “alternative facts” and “fake news” and the fact that Trump has inherited a worrisome capacity for surveillance. But I think there’s more to be learned from reading about Orwell’s inspiration for 1984: his time as a British military officer in Burma. Reading about it in the context of Myanmar’s modern police state is a powerful experience that lends a prophetic quality to 1984. But looking at Myanmar’s progression in recent years after reading this book, one has to take some hope in the notion that tyrannies fall because they don’t work.

Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

This one was just recommended to me this week, and I’m glad it was. It’s not that easy for me to relate to people who are spewing fearful vitriol, at least in part because my life has been pretty safe and relatively stable, economically speaking. There are, however, pockets of the U.S. where the culture and economic reality is quite different, and even if, no, especially if, I disagree with the politics coming out of those pockets, it seems important to acknowledge that many of the people who are endorsing fearful nationalist attitudes are probably scared and hurting…and they are part of the fabric of our nation that needs to be cared for too.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve had this on my “to read” stack for an embarrassingly long time. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner about gender identity. We’re living in a world where gender identity is still a fraught issue and the rights of transgendered people are not sufficiently protected. The current administration will probably make things worse, so it seems more important than ever to listen hard to the stories of people who are at risk. (On a related note: High five, Boy Scouts of America!)

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Another one on the list of books I’m slightly embarrassed not to have gotten around to years ago, Invisible Man is highly praised for its literary merits. Ellison specifically wanted to avoid writing just another protest about racism, but of course, the way race colors (no pun intended) one’s existence is deeply at the heart of the narrative. I often feel at a loss about how best to make the world more equitable, but one tiny thing I can absolutely do is take more time to listen to the stories of people who are not treated as equal.

Good Poems for Hard Times – Garrison Keillor, ed.

The title pretty much speaks for itself. The intro uses the words “bracing and courageous” to describe the content, and I think it’s just nice to have a ready dose of “bracing and courageous” on hand right now.

The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

I saved this for last because it’s the one I would most encourage you all to read. Looking at statistical data over time, Pinker makes a compelling argument that the world is becoming a safer and more educated place. When we’re dealing with immediate, short-term potential disasters, it’s easy to feel like the world is irreparably on fire, but it’s more likely that we’re in, at most, a little downward blip on a long upward slope. Of course, historical trends are not an excuse for inaction in the face of immediate injustice. Also of course, confirmation bias is something to watch out for. BUT: we can take heart from the historical data and use it to reign in our less productive tendencies to catastrophize.

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