January 16, 2019

Do Books Matter in 2018?

“This July, I hit a low. A how-do-we-keep-fighting-one-more-day low, a scream-silently-into-the-mirror low, a twilight-of-democracy low. Not my first, not my last. I tried to distract myself by retreating to the bubble of literary Twitter, where I started a thread listing some of my favorite overlooked fiction. Others added, until the list was heartbreakingly long. (All these masterpieces, neglected!) Soon, though, someone jumped in with a bit of scolding: “We’re 100 days out from an election,” she wrote. “That’s what we should all be thinking about.”

My self-righteous response was easy like-bait: “I refuse to live in a world where an oppressive regime prevents us from advocating for art,” I wrote, and added some feel-good words about fighting despotism through empathy. Soon, the woman apologized — a writer herself, she’d been despondent lately, she said — and I hold no ill will toward her. She might just as easily, as many have done before her and many continue to do, ask how one could post about books on a day when there’d been a mass shooting, a day when babies were in cages, a day when toddlers were gassed, a day when… well, any other day, really. Her question wasn’t new to me, in part because it’s something I ask myself on a daily basis. Is it really okay to talk about art right now? To leave the real and broken world behind and talk about fictional ones?

It’s a crisis many of us face not only when we promote our work, or someone else’s, but when we sit down to make that work itself. Anyone engaged in thoughtful reading and writing is also engaged in, and likely consumed by, national politics right now. No one I know is unaware that this is a particularly weird time to make art, rather than to spend every moment calling your senators.”

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