Shall We Read?
When my now nearly thirty year-old son was a toddler, his incessant demand was “Shall we read?” Or, phonetically, “Shall weeeee reeeeeed?!!” His favorite, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is probably why I still cringe at cottontail roadkill. My daughter also acknowledged the family affection for books when, at “Bring Dad to School Day” in third grade, she was asked to introduce me and, in typical Dallas fashion, was also asked to describe what her father “did” since there were so many impressive dads who were doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and investment bankers. The look on her face—an ashen moment of utter terror—revealed the fact that she really had no idea what her father did. She rallied, however, and with rosy cheeks stood upright and proudly proclaimed, “He reads!”
Fortunately, reading literature has survived the onslaught of digital disruption as both electronic and printed books remain in high demand throughout the world. Although social media has sucked too many hours out of our day with substance no more rewarding than the junk mail the Post Office insists on shoving in our box, I suspect those lost hours will gradually be reclaimed once we realize the intellectual calories offered by social media approximates those in junk mail’s close cousin, junk food. Spend as little time with social media as you do your USPS junk mail and you will be better informed and maybe even happier. Junk is, after all, junk.
Read now more than ever! is my prescription for transcending the flood of “truthiness” emanating from the lying peeves who have hijacked our Federal Government. Facts and critical thinking, when properly applied to put forward an argument, or simply weave the threads of an intriguing narrative are, thankfully, flourishing. Publishers still have acquisition editors to weed out much of the crap. As a writer, I know that writing well requires reading well, at a ratio of about fifty pages read for every one written. Currently, I am in reading/research mode for a new book project tentatively titled “American Deliverance” that will attempt to provide a pathway to right the ship of American values, including tools drawn from Stoicism and Buddhism, such that we can move forward—individually and collectively—beyond the banality of stupidity and avarice that has become a Twitter-shower of toxic distraction.
Recently, I have read four books (all 2018 releases) that I recommend here below to, perhaps, add to your own reading list.
- The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham, describes the discriminating courage of predecessor presidents and civic leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, to remind us that throughout American history we have tolerated and survived treachery similar to what is occurring today to, once again, rise to a higher and clearer embrace of American values. (Full disclosure: I know Jon; Jon is a hero of mine as a presidential historian. There exists no person more thoughtful, studied, and fair-minded than Jon Meacham.) Like the standards set forth in the “Sermon on the Mount,” it remains unlikely we will ever achieve perfection in our pursuit of American ideals, but we can (and likely will) recover from our current predicament to form a more healthy and, yes, hopeful future for our children and grandchildren. Meacham’s Soul of America reminds us that decency is more durable than any tweetstorm.
- Our Towns: a 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James and Deborah Fallows, provides proof that, notwithstanding the trolls in Washington D.C., America is doing much better than we might think. This should be required reading for anyone engaged in civic service, especially municipal leaders at all levels. For the rest of us, it’s like a pain-free road trip through both familiar and unfamiliar towns that, coincidentally, share several factors of success even where doom was the odds-on favorite. Jim brings his decades of journalistic prowess to bear on the essential question: What makes American towns American?, while Deb’s scholarship in theoretical linguistics provides insights about our chosen words and phrases that reveal our cultural dispositions. From 2013 through 2016, the Fallows crisscrossed the country in their Cirrus SR22 airplane to study forty-two towns, doing deep-dives with locals to identify what makes America tick. Spoiler alert: Tocqueville was on the right track.
- Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, by Joan Halifax. This is a book for people who care, and who, inevitably, risk tumbling off the edge of their empathetic perch into darkness as they face the challenges of being a good human being in the age of too many bad ones. Halifax is a Buddhist priest and head teacher at the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We share an appreciation for the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn who, together with the Dalai Lama, are the only two Buddhist teachers I have ever been able to comprehend. I can now add Halifax to that list. In a spiritual practice loaded with abstractions, Halifax is able to distill those abstractions into accessible utilities designed to coach well-intentioned public servants and caregivers to survive the traps and pitfalls that altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, engagement and compassion hold for those of us who actually give a damn about this world and those with whom we share it. Unfortunately, good people often suffer depression and anxiety at levels that meet or exceed those for whom they serve. Halifax shows us how to walk up to that edge, stare fear in the face, and prevail.
- God Save Texas: a Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, by Lawrence Wright. Wright and Meacham are fellow Pulitzer Prize winners. Wright won his for The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Meacham for his portrayal of Andrew Jackson. With the exception of a couple of years in the late 1980s, when I resided in Washington D.C., I lived in Texas from 1982 through 2016. I remember when church was something people did before brunch where the Bloody Marys flowed until the Dallas Cowboys kickoff when Shiner Bock beer took over. Big hair, big boobs, big balls and big bucks were fun until they weren’t. In the early 2000s, the weird marriage of Tea Party libertarianism, white Christian rectitude, and pistol-packin’ chauvinism drove Texas into a soup of stupidity and cruelty where it remains submerged today. My affection for Texas—which was considerable—dropped as fast as the rise in its perplexing pride of ignorance. The state’s leadership today are a group of gun-toting, Bible-pounding, pasty-white, bigoted men who believe Alex Jones of Infowars (in Austin) just might be the next messiah. Wright, a liberal lifer where armadillos roam, illustrates Texas’ history of mystifying mesquite-flavored madness that whirls from El Paso to Texarkana to Houston back up to Amarillo and everywhere in-between. And, he shows how the state will likely flip back to its bodacious fun-loving self once this period of righteous conceit (Ted Cruz!) is flushed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Enjoy your summer!