“Reading is stupid!…I never read books!…Nobody reads books anymore… I haven’t read a book since first grade.”
Kids say these hurtful things in English class every semester. It breaks my heart. And it’s hard for me to convince my students that reading really is a worthy pursuit. They are a generation of movies and music, not books and poetry. They watch and listen; they do not read and write They don’t believe in the power of the written word – unless the word is in a text or tweet. Then it can be powerful. But by golly, it better be quick — 140 characters or less. Our kids take pride in being fast and ignorant.
And so does the president of these not-so-United States (less than half of our population elected him, after all). He once bragged in an interview with Meghan Kelly that he doesn’t read, he only scans “passages… areas, chapters, [because he doesn’t] have the time” to read an entire book or article.
And to be perfectly fair, our fearsome (not to be confused with fearless) leader may be averse to reading, but he is not averse to words in general. He says about himself, “I’m highly educated. I know words. I have the best words. I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid. Right?” And when he’s talking about himself, I tend to agree.
Now some of you would argue that the president wouldn’t have time to read – that he is telling the truth, for once. That as the world’s arguably most powerful tantrum-thrower (could be North Korea’s Kim Jong Un), he very likely doesn’t have time to read. Hell, with all that tweeting, he doesn’t even have time for intelligence briefings. And, the presidency is a big job. Huge. Tremendous (to use a couple of his favorite words). And that is true. But both President Obama and President George W Bush held the exact same job and were still avid readers. Obama used to publish his summer reading list and W. would participate in friendly, annual reading competitions.
It infuriates me that Trump’s got legions of impressionable young minds idolizing his idiocy and his twitter rants. I know this is so because I hear them sing his praises in my tenth lit classroom every day. (In my AP classroom, however, I’m proud to report the exact opposite :))
So how do I counter that kind of attitude? Because, honestly, why SHOULD we read? What’s the point? How do I put into words the importance of putting words into stories or poems? Why does reading – particularly literature — matter at all?
Now some of us read for escape. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a beach read or a rom-com can be so-very-good for the weary soul. But that’s not the type of literature I teach, nor the type of answer I need to give my students. Because the books I teach aren’t designed for vacations or hammocks. They’re not page-turners or bodice-rippers. They’re temporal, occipital, and parietal lobe-slappers. They rattle you to the core and shake things up a bit. A lot, even. These books demand attention. They demand a lifestyle audit, a reevaluation of tenet and truth. It is literature designed to promote participation in life. It is literature written to educate, to motivate, to activate. It doesn’t form readers’ opinions, it informs their opinions. No, the literature I teach is not escapism. It is activism.
Good literature models life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Most often, the ugly. My AP Lit kids – and my kid sister, too — always ask me why we read such dark and twisty stuff. Why all the hearts of darkness and the second comings and killings of mockingbirds, all the Conrads and Yeats and Lees of the literary world? And I say because they model all the dark, twisty turns that hopefully (with wise choices and some divine intervention) they won’t have to go through. But if they do meet the dark and twisty side of life, that they can better ride out the storm — or even battle and defeat it.
That’s why we read Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Because after reading Macbeth, we are far better able to recognize a tyrant when we see and hear one. Perhaps if enough Americans had read the Scottish Play in high school, we wouldn’t now have MacTrump in the White House. And those of us who have read Shakespeare’s most unappealing tragic hero, are now confidently and not-so-patiently waiting for the rest of his thanes to fly from him (they’ve dropping like flies this week), and we’re waiting for the Woods to come to Dunsinane, (or should I say DUNCEinane), and we’re waiting for a Man not of Woman Born (translation, C-section babe) to purge our nation of this tyrant and restore it to sound and pristine health. (And there are certainly a whole lot more likely candidates than merely MacDuff these days, as C-sections have been on the rise in recent centuries.)
And that’s also why we read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — a cautionary tale against what can happen if faith becomes entangled with politics. If morality dictates law. If women’s rights are threatened and then eradicated. And while it may feel like our nation is a far cry from the control and manipulation of women and their identities and bodies (and a world undone by environmental degradation and pollution) that we see in HT, I am here to say we are not. Since Trump has been in office, the widespread access to contraception, legalization of abortion, and growing female political influence have all fallen under attack. As has the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Parks Service. If these attacks are successful, if our rights begin to topple, then the return to traditional gender roles and subjugation of women cannot be far behind. Nor can widespread environmental disaster. Atwood’s prophetic work reflects the ugly truths of our time. By its very nature, it’s designed to frighten, to warn, and to demand action. It reflects social and political tendencies and demonstrates the horrors that could – let’s say WILL — occur if Trump’s power is allowed to reign unchecked.
And that’s also why we read The Kite Runner – a coming-of-age story about two young boys struggling to belong and to be strong amid crumbling relationships and a crumbling homeland. And it just so happens the story revolves around two Muslim schoolboys in Kabul. But it could just as easily be between two white boys is Atlanta, or two Asian girls in Singapore, or two Latinas in Los Angeles, or two German frauleins in Dieseldorff. The point is, we read this novel to know that we are all fundamentally the same. We all need love and understanding, connection and communion, forgiveness and redemption. This book demonstrates the universality of the human experience. And right now, more than ever, we need to remember humanity.
Yes, the literature I teach is tough. And it’s tender. And it’s smart and searing and aggressive and wise and passionate and compassionate. It’s all of those things. It has to be. It needs to be. And so do our citizens. Not just America’s, but the world’s. We all have to be tougher and smarter than what we’ve been thus far. Because there’s a rough beast in our White House and he’s got a cold, corrupt soul and a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun. And twenty centuries of stony sleep have birthed our worst nightmare.
If Yeats were alive today, the beast slouching toward Bethlehem would be orange and have a comb-over.
(I borrowed heavily from the prophetic poem of the masterful W.B. Yeats this week. Read him. He tingles your spine and torments your soul.)