I’m sure that some people will be very concerned by the title of this post, so I’ll start with a disclaimer: I don’t think that Americans (or people of any nation, for that matter) should fail to vote or be involved in civic life.
Enough said. Here’s why I think we should take much of the energy we’re currently pouring into talking about, thinking about, arguing about, worrying about, freaking out about, and getting angry about the election and use it to read good literature instead.
Literature shows how everything is connected, but nothing is inevitable. Humans are very concerned about cause and effect; we like to predict what’s coming. So we get caught up in how this or that candidate could influence the course of history and the end of the world is coming! and we forget about all the unpredictable things that are also going to happen and the power we have to make free choices. Great stories show cause and effect while also portraying our ultimate freedom from fate (example: Les Miserables). Greek tragedies may be the exception to this, but at least they explore issues of fate in a more thoughtful way than current political discussions do.
Literature teaches us compassion. Even if a book, poem, or play doesn’t deal explicitly with this theme (example of one that does: To Kill a Mockingbird), great literature portrays human beings in three dimensions, showing us the intricacies of their circumstances and motivations. Literature is about love; there is no room in it for rhetoric or heavy-handed condemnation. Just read the last scene of The Grapes of Wrath if you’re doubting me here.
Literature is cathartic. I recently heard a poet claim to hate a certain political figure (not one of the current presidential candidates, interestingly). I think this person had a lot of rage, frustration, and insecurity about his own life, but that was too overwhelming to deal with so he balled up his emotions and used the violent word hate as a repository for them. He’d have done better to get back to reading poetry, such as “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, which expresses frustration and rage in an honest, nuanced way. Or he could have let a hate-able character like Uriah Heep be the target of his feelings. In literature, we can safely discharge our weapons without hurting anyone. Then we can return to the real world and speak kindly of the candidates and voters whom we oppose, rather than call them idiots and bigots and people who are destroying America.
Literature inspires change. By its very nature as a form of art, literature demonstrates imagination and creativity. It encourages us to toy with possibilities, ask “What if?” and envision things that don’t exist. In addition to this, literature operates on the assumption that reality is meaningful, or should be. At the darkest times of my life, literature has reminded me that something better could still be possible and has encouraged me to go seek it. Literature brings many other life-giving qualities to the table: humor (P. G. Wodehouse), appreciation of detail (Virginia Woolf), the pursuit of beauty (all poets ever), playfulness (Louisa May Alcott), precision (Henry James), spontaneity (Jack Kerouac, of course), courage (J. R. R. Tolkien). These are the attitudes needed to respond constructively to the issues arising from this election.
So pick up a novel (or a pen to write your own). You’ll be doing your country, and yourself, a service.