Back when the dufus was in charge of the country, one of the qualities that made me despair was his lack of interest in books. Anything remotely literary seemed invisible to him (and thus his budgets which attempted to defund libraries and museums). He often said things like “I don't have time for books” and he didn't read things like memos or briefings or of course not newspapers.
Much as I despise starting any blog post with any reference to the orange dictator, this one must begin there because his disparaging view of books—and my disgust and annoyance at a president who doesn’t read—forced me to think about my relationship with books. Specifically fiction, because that is what I read the most. I asked myself the question: Is it really so bad? Does it matter if the leader of the free world doesn’t read, or am I only bothered because books and reading matter so much to me?
Yes: my perspective is skewed toward favoring people who read. This is because I am a life-long reader and have always found solace and happiness in books. But of course I have also learned, over the course of a lifetime, that people are different. People can not love reading and still be good people. (One example: my husband. Another: my youngest son.) However, there is a difference between everyday people and the person who is elected to be the president of the United States. A different skill set is required.
Is being a bibliophile one of them?
And more specifically: fiction. The books he talks about having read are almost never fiction (aside from All Quiet on the Western Front) but "books about China" or whatever he was being grilled on.
Does the president need to love fiction?
I could point you towards dozens of scientific studies about the impact of reading fiction on our brain and our behavior (here is just one) but my reasons are more personal (and so admittedly more subjective).
I believe that fiction can save the world.
Hear me out.
When you are a fiction reader, you are often immersed in a psyche other than your own. Through story you get to experience other human experiences. I will never be an orphan who must move from India to England, or the daughter of a Baptist minister who is dragged to the Congo by her parents or a teenager living in Toronto forced as a teenager to befriend the girl who bullied her in elementary school. But each of these stories have left an impression on me. They've taught me something about what it means to be human in this world, something I could never have learned otherwise in my average, everyday life.
In a sense, the word for this is compassion. But it is something bigger than that. It's not only that I felt awful for the experiences Adah goes through in the Congo. It's that I learned something from her about the way it sometimes seems impossible to put yourself into the world, but sometimes you must anyway. In one way, this validates my life view. In another way, it challenges it. It forces me to be braver than I might be otherwise.
Reading fiction helps you understand that your experiences are not the entire range of human experiences. In fact, there are many billion different things that can happen to a person, far more than any one person can ever understand. And in those experiences is knowledge. Understanding this helps me decenter myself. My reality and wounds, my struggles and successes, are only one out of a myriad possible outcomes of a life.
How would understanding that influence the president? It might help him to understand that the whole world doesn't exist just so that he can exist. The world—the United States—an individual community in one of those states—even just within one house: the president's importance isn't because of who he (will we ever be able to write "he or she"???) is but because of how he can improve humanity. His story is only one of the stories and there is an infinity of other experiences to be had. So maybe it's not really compassion so much as it is humility.
And what if we all had a little bit more fiction-induced humility? Perhaps then we would understand our role on this earth at this time. Our one small life hardly matters, except for the good we can do in small ways. Sometimes "saving the world" just looks like a five-dollar bill given to a homeless person, but if we all knew our importance—both small and yet infinitely powerful within the realm of our smallness—we might all save the world just by acting as individuals.
I am not a gay man, a transgender woman, a Jewish or Muslim or Protestant or atheist person, but reading novels through those lenses has helped me catch a glimpse of what those perspectives are like. I have never been to China, India, Brazil, the Andes, any part of Africa, but I have come to know tiny bits of those places (and many more) through novels. I will never be a biologist or an astronaut, a midwife or a stockbroker, but characters who are have taken up places in my heart. I don't get to walk in Middle Earth or Narnia or on the surface of Mars, but I can create those landscapes in my imagination and then find parallels for them here on earth.
If I have learned that my American, white, middle-class, spiritual-but-not-religious way of looking at the world is not the only way, then I have also learned that my answers aren't the only answers. I have learned that despite differences in age, identity, nationality, race, religion, gender, and all the other markers we think make us who we are, we are all people. We all love, hurt, desire, worry, strive, succeed, fail, start over. We love our families and our friends and our homes and our landscapes. We all want to be loved.
What if the president understood that? What if he had learned that America isn’t the center of the universe, that his wealthy white male perspective is not the “normal” that everyone else deviates from? How much good might he have done to help other countries if he weren’t so obsessed with putting America on top?
What if he learned through fiction the power of imagination? The enormous expanse of possibility once we look beyond ourselves?
What if he learned about beauty and other beautiful things: courage, loss, perseverance, forgiveness...
The fact is, the United States had a president who not only didn’t read, but was illiterate in the true grace and elegance of the world, which isn’t found in gold toilets, glitzy race cars, and enormous fancy properties. He failed to save the world. He failed to save anything, but left only destruction and ugliness behind. Is that only because he doesn’t read fiction? Of course not. But would reading have changed him (and thus the world) for the better? Absolutely.
But the rest of us? The billions of people alive right now? We can read. Fiction, yes. And poetry and essays and histories and political ideas and memoirs and the history of salt if you want. Reading is a form of learning, and the compassion, humility, empathy, imagination, understanding, and a myriad other forms of knowledge we gain from it help us become better people. They will help us each perform a billion different small acts of world improvement that, put together, might just save the world.