[This is a two-part blog post. You can read the first part HERE.]
“Yes, but it’s just an English degree. What can you do with that except teach high school?”
“It’s not like you had to work as hard as your sister did in school. Science degrees are way harder than English degrees.”
“Degrees in the humanities are worthless.”
“Oh no, if you were an English teacher you must be judging my grammar!”
“If you want to get a Master’s degree you should do it in something more practical than writing. Do you know how few people are actually successful writers?”
“Books are for prisoners.”
“Wait, you work at the library? I thought all libraries were closed because people just read digital books now.”
“The publication industry is dying. Why do you care so much about writing a book?”
“We don’t need librarians anymore because we have the Internet!”
“I don’t read fiction because it’s a waste of time to read made-up stories.”
“I don’t have the time to read very much now in terms of the books.”
All of these statements are things people have said to me in real life, except for the last one which comes from our esteemed president, whose dislike for and discomfort with books is evident on so many levels.
It’s not like I need my friends and family, not to mention doctors and that runner I talked with once on a race bus, to educate me on the futile uselessness of my interests. The world does that already. I mean…just consider my career. I can work as a librarian only because my husband’s job can support us. If I had to support a family on my own, even working full time, I couldn’t do it on my own as a librarian. This isn’t because I work for a miserly city with unfair pay policies but because society doesn’t deem librarians worthy of a sustainable wage. (As with teachers and social workers and police officers, of course, but everyone knows that. No one pays attention to the librarians.)
That random runner on the race bus was right: publication is a hard industry to be successful in, and the vast majority of people who manage to land an actual, printed book don’t make much money on it. (Six-figure advances make the news, of course, and there are outliers like King or Rowling or Grisham or Patterson, but many, many writers don’t make sustainable wages.) This is partly because society values quickness, a 20-minute video game, a sitcom, a 100-minute movie. Books take time, effort, and concentration to enjoy (which, apparently, only prisoners have).
Or, think of it like this: I bet you could tell me who starred in the last movie you watched, but likely you have no idea of who wrote the movie. You know—the person who created the world of the story. That person rarely gets noticed (except for in the credits), while the actors seem to make the movie.
Books, reading, valuing a well-written sentence or cleverly constructed paragraph, the meanings and use of words, novels, essays, poetry—oh, God, don’t even get me started on the average American adult’s lack of interest in poetry. These things matter deeply to me, but to the world in general they are kind of pointless.
But I think they are essential. Essential.
Especially right now.
I have to tell one more story to make my point. A few weeks before the news erupted with the pandemic, I bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen for more than a year at Costco. He is a trump supporter, but we have always managed to keep our conversations civil and respectful—he has done enough damage, I don’t want to allow him the destruction of friendships on top of it all.
So as this friend shared his opinion of the impeachment trial, I mostly just listened. But when he said “I don’t always agree with the way he handles stuff because his style is pretty outrageous, but I think he’s done great things,” I had to disagree.
I think it does matter how the president acts. Whatever the issue, whatever party you support, the president sets the tone for the country. So the current resident of the white house, with his mania and inanity, his relentless, misspelled tweets, his pandering to dictators, his unintelligence and his unfathomable speaking patterns, his disdain for reading—that influences everyone. “What if he could accomplish the ‘great things’ without acting like he does, though?” I asked my friend. “Wouldn’t the country be better?” [Please note that I did not ask about these supposed “great things” because really…I cannot think of one good thing he’s done in his tenure, but I do know that a friend bringing up things like Supreme Court judges and immigration issues would likely raise my ire higher than I could contain.]
This question gave him a pause. “I haven’t ever thought of it like that,” he said.
I haven’t ever thought of it like that.
Sure: I can tell you when to use every day versus everyday. I can usually think of a little snippet of a poem to go with nearly every situation I find myself in (I don’t often share these, though). I can talk literary theory with the best of them. I can discuss the way the feminist movement influences and is influenced by the sphere of literature. All of those skills and pieces of knowledge I’ve gained over a lifetime of loving and interacting with books, history, art, music, criticism, newspapers, literary magazines, university courses and professors and assignments—all of it is valuable to me.
But what I treasure the most is the ability to think about things in different ways. To know that my perspective is not the only one, my way of being in the world is not the only right choice but just one choice in a myriad of them. When I read something and I think I haven’t ever thought of it like that, I get excited. I ask myself why I haven’t thought in that way, what it says about my thought processes and how this new thought might change me. If I don’t know, I figure it out.
One individual human lifetime is small. So small. We get our years and our places and then we are gone. But with books, we can know larger parts of humanity than just our own. With knowledge we can see how we have changed and how we haven’t, how to do better and just how large our potential is (for both creation and destruction). I know just enough to know that I don’t know very much…you can read your whole life but still have a whole world left to discover. Just this spring, I read Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, where I learned about something I had never heard of, the Tulsa race riots and burning of Black Wall Street. And then our country erupted in protests, and a political rally was scheduled in Oklahoma, and suddenly people were talking about that moment in history. “Why didn’t we learn about that in history class?” people asked.
The why is because of systemic racism, but it is also about you. If you decided to stop learning about history, culture, science, ideas, philosophy and everything else simply because you graduated from high school or college, the problem is now in your hands. If you have decided that your way of looking at things is the best way, or the only way, the problem isn’t with your tenth-grade history teacher, but with your own lack of progress.
So as the United States starts to change (hopefully), what I keep coming back to is how the lack of imagination stifles progress. Reading lets you see that there are many worlds, and that many of them have more potential than the one we have created right now. It teaches you that the world has not always been the way it is now, and that there are many other experiences beside your own.
We are living in a country that is led by a man who is, I believe, corrupt to his very core. There are enough obvious examples, but for me, it boils down to this:
He doesn’t read.
He doesn’t see the value in the written word, be it a novel or a biography or a political treatise or even the daily reports. This means he is incapable of seeing from any other perspective than his own. He is a small man who lacks imagination, and thus knowledge, empathy, and self-awareness.
But it isn’t only the president. It is, as my family and friends and podiatrist and the runner on the bus have told me, deeply held within the nation. Books are a luxury, books are only for people with too much time on their hands, books are a waste of time, books are just stories. Basketball players and actresses and Instagram influencers matter, fluff and noise and nonsense deserve our attention.
Our country is beset by a huge variety of issues and problems, so the solutions will not be simple. But I believe at the very core of each solution lies knowledge, critical thinking, history, imagination, intelligence, empathy. All of the things, in other words, you get from the seemingly-useless humanity degrees. From books.
None of us should ever find ourselves at the end of our searches for knowledge and truth. These help us to see our place in the world, to realize both how small our lives are and how enormous our possibilities become when we understand that one way of seeing things is too narrow.
We must all cultivate the skill of altruism.