Let the reader understand; or, Take heed to your(my)selves(self)

Most of the little essays that I write here are responses to something I have read. That normally means one of three things: a book I am reading, or something from the news, or something from the Bible.

As for that first category: I’m never just reading one book. I usually have at least a half dozen going. Some books take me a few hours or read, or days, or weeks. Others take years. I’m pretty sure I’ve got one that’s over a decade now, and not a third done. I’d better pick up the pace!

These days, one or two of the books I’m reading will be audiobooks (so should I say “experiencing?” rather than “reading”?): what I’m listening to when I take a long walk or a long bicycle ride. Right now that’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. And these days the walks are shorter—it’s the weekly bicycle ride that’s longer. But this past Sunday the bicycle ride was short (under two hours), and my phone battery was low, which I took as a sign that it was a good day for a silent ride, which was my invariable practice before I got these Jabra earphones and which I kind of prefer anyway, so there wasn’t any Ta-Nehisi Coates this past Sunday.

And the Coates is not a book you can listen to casually while doing something else that takes any brain focus at all—for example, picking things up around the house and deciding where to put them away. I tried that—didn’t work. I would either start putting things in random places where they didn’t belong, or else be constantly realizing that I had missed the import of the last sentence or two. To listen well to this book, I can be rolling down a country road, leaving it to my autonomic nervous system to keep a thin strip of pavement Between the Ditch and Me, but I can’t be doing complex frontal-lobe cognition, like deciding whether to keep that box the computer came in or put it out for recycling.

Of the various books I’m reading on paper and as ebooks (don’t worry, not going to list them all), the one that’s foregrounded right now is kind of depressing. I’m not going to name it here, though you might know it from things I’ve said elsewhere, or you might guess it from what I’ll say here. It’s nonfiction, and it’s biographical, and it’s sad. The kind of life that, if you’re going to be inspired by it, what you get will be either along the lines of (A) “Well, that explains a lot!” or (B) “Can this get any more depressing!?” or, turning to self-examination, (C) “There but by the grace of God go I” or (D) “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Republican.” (Oops! A slip.)

Of the four, A is the point of reading in the first place—just trying to understand what can possibly have happened to produce this wreck of a person. But “Aha, that explains it” is such a satisfying observation that the tendency is to look for it—finding confirmation of what you have already observed of this person. And then you think: that was the author’s point in writing it as well. These days, any time you point to evidence supporting a hypothesis you had in mind, or even anything that in anyway explains anything else, anyone who has read even three or four Internet articles, or article about articles, will shout, “Aha, confirmation bias!”—ironically enough (though they don’t see it, and frankly it only just now occurred to me) confirming their own hypothesis that everything you say is just confirmation bias. So am I gaining more understanding or just reinforcing what I already thought I knew? Some of both, perhaps. A I think I’m actually learning some things. But purity is hard to achieve.

B is easier. Depressing is just depressing. How great is it to be reading something that is nowhere uplifting, on every page a real downer? But no, it can get more complicated: the reading psyche can seek a bit of relief by tainting the inevitable sense of satisfaction at finding an explanation for what had seemed inexplicable with a tincture, or more than a tincture, of retrospective schadenfreude. Aha! turns into Ha, Ha, Ha! That’s something to watch for. See D below.

C can be easily veer off into a self-righteous pose (see D) but if held to sincerely can, like A, be a positive fruit of reading something like this. What do I see this person doing, or what do I see others doing to this person, that is destructive? And if I pause and put some determination into it, can I find analogs in my own life—things that I do, and especially things that I do to other people? Am I building up the people in my own immediate life-world, or am I inadvertently or even at times deliberately tearing them down in ways analogous to the way character X in this book constantly demeaned, shamed, cheated, and otherwise ignored and eroded the essential humanity of those around him, especially the one who is the subject of this biography?

And D is the worst. Reading about the faults of others can lead me to ignore mine and rejoice in theirs, feeling superior to them and finding satisfaction when they get their comeuppance. Or when you’re looking backward in time so that the schadenfreude is retrospective, I guess that would be cameuppance. As, for example, when one takes pleasure in the story of how the man who now insults and shames everyone else was once the boy who got a bowl of mashed potatoes smashed down on his head by his older brother for being such a prick, and the rest of the family laughed and laughed and laughed. But oh, if the biographer is right about what that moment did to him! If you can recoil in genuine dismay at what was happening in that family at that moment, you may remember something that will make you the one kindly and redeeming presence in what might otherwise become a moment of grave deformation in a life adjacent to your own. But if you’re just taking satisfaction in the fact that you’re not like that—well, I think we all know where the story ends that begins with my quotation in point D.

Reading can be enlightening and edifying. It can also be dangerous and even self-destructive. Let the reader understand.

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