Novels. Politics. Do they go hand in hand? I’m really going out on a limb here, but I am going to say yes. As a preface to PART 2 of the talk novelist Marilynne Robinson had with Barack Obama, I love considering how reading and novels can bring people with very different backgrounds together to share and be moved in tandem. Again, that’s what democracy should be doing. WE THE PEOPLE. And we the people vote and elect our representatives. So there is a connection.
To stress that point: Reading to your children makes them good citizens. Reading brings the world to children, right on the page. Picture books quietly reveal to a child that people come in all colors. There’s variety in the world of trucks, zoo animals, dogs, cats AND people. What a wonderful thing. Because when that child enters school at a future age, IT IS NO BIG THING for he or she to meet kids that are different colors. In fact, they don’t even notice. That’s the point. And reading takes it to a higher level when a child reads about the boy on the farm, the boy living in the middle of a war, the girl in the tenement or the girl living on a fishing boat–that’s a world-view, that’s variety. Reading helps children see the choices that life provides. It lifts each and every one of us out of the backyard or off the front porch or out of the elevator of public housing and opens up the world. Reading all sorts of books during childhood (picture books, chapter books) and reading novels as adults does that. So if POTUS asked me, I’d say yes. Reading novels makes us better citizens of the USA and the world.
President Obama asks Robinson: Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen…and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned–I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.
I loved POTUS’s question and answer, and had to chuckle. I don’t think he’s had the time to read the recent research that states that reading does make us more empathetic.(My post on that subject is here.) And Robinson responded, citing the variety of voices in contemporary writing. Robinson: You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….And [now] you don’t get the conversation that would support the literary life. I think that’s one of the things that has made book clubs so popular.
I think on that last point, Robinson meant that statistically we are not on a day to day basis sitting around talking about books. (Unless that’s your business.) She is also saying that book clubs have become very popular because people WANT to talk about books. When I was growing up my mother belonged to a group of about 12 people who selected fiction and non-fiction to read and discuss. I guess I thought that was what everybody’s parents did!
Robinson and POTUS further discussed the difficulty of creating a common conversation that would bind people together. POTUS: Sometimes you get some TV shows that can fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized…
POTUS asked Robinson if her writing sensibility, her involvement in the lives of her characters on the page alters or affects her feelings and attitudes about democracy and every person she interacts with.
ROBINSON: If I’m going to be honest, I think that there are some political candidacies that are much more humane in their implications and consequences than others. I mean, if suddenly poles were to be reversed and what I see as humanistic came up on the other side, there I’d be…when I do book signings…and people come up one by one and talk to me about their lives…how earnest they are, how deeply committed they are to sustaining people they feel close to or responsible for and so on—there they are, the people that you think of as the sustainers of a good society.
And after reading that comment of hers, I would say that these are the people, the characters that inhabit her books. They aren’t perfect, they struggle, but they understand family, connection, goodness and they strive for those things, reflecting what Robinson sees in the people she meets.
And though POTUS didn’t propose the question, Robinson answered it as she spoke. How does the media affect the reading of novels and thus the thinking that is becoming part of our DNA as we click on Facebook and Twitter, as we partake of the endless cable news cycle??
Robinson: …if we could all just turn off media for a week, I think we would come out the other side of it with a different anthropology in effect. I wish we could have a normal politics where I disagree with people, they present their case, we take a vote, and if I lose I say, yes, that’s democracy, I’m on the losing side of a meaningful vote.
If you read Part 1, you know I am repeating here, but her words are important to share. How wonderful if for a time we filled our heads with the lives of characters in novels–characters who fall in love and struggle, but who find answers; characters who learn from their mistakes and go on to understand the antagonist and through that understanding help the antagonist. Maybe empathy would fill us and stay with us during our day to day journey.
Here is an excerpt from Robinson’s latest novel, LILA. Let me know if it touches you, if something springs from your heart as you read. The main character struggles with the idea that anyone could love her. THANKS FOR BEING HERE.
And now here Lila was, sitting in the dark, wishing the crickets weren’t so damn loud, thinking she might tell that old preacher not to come creeping around her place at night. That would put an end to it, all of it. Then she’d know for sure what he thought of her. .. But when folks are down to the one thing that can keep them alive, that one thing can be meanness. It makes you feel like you’re there, you’re doing something. He is such a beautiful old man. All that kindness would be gone out of his face, and she would see something else, not beautiful, not the face he had worn all the years when he had only good people to deal with.