You’ve watched the conventions and all the coverage Jon Stewart has to offer. You’ve gotten to know (and if you’re me, greatly dislike) Sarah Palin. You’ve heard the word “change” so many times by both parties, it now ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. Now it’s time to…read some books?
You bet! To echo my earlier summer reading list, let me offer some Fall Election Reads.
First up, Selected Essays by George Orwell. “Orwellian” is a word that gets bandied around quite a bit these days. As Orwell himself noted, the more a word is (ab)used, the less its meaning becomes clear. What does “Orwellian” even mean? It turns out it depends on the context. Just look at this tortured Wikipedia entry, if you don’t believe me. But a good rule of thumb is that it means the opposite of what George Orwell would have actually advocated. Orwell was against totalitarian rule and the surveillance state, but when a government program is called “Orwellian,” we mean a program that embodies creeping totalitarianism and paranoia. Orwell railed again and again against vague, euphemistic language (particularly when it was used to dance around the indefensible), but when we call usage “Orwellian,” this is precisely what we mean.
Now we enter the most (sorry, George) “Orwellian” season of all — the quadrennial United States Presidential elections. George Orwell would probably hate the fact that he is cited again and again every time an election comes around. The British author — most famous on these shores for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm – hated clichés and despised tired language and empty sloganeering. His ghost must put up with it, however, for Orwell’s dissections of politics and language are still as sharp and illuminating today as they were during his own lifetime, and it will take a machete to cut through the thick kudzu of abused phraseology that has grown over our national dialogue.
If you don’t feel like shelling out the full 35 clams for the collection, many of Orwell’s essays are in the public domain and available online. Of particular interest is Politics and the English Language, which chronicles the ways words and phrases are used to accomplish political ends with equal doses of humor and precision. Reading the essay will change the way you think about writing, reading, and politics, and it’s only eight pages long. In addition, try to check out Why I Write, about the intersection of politics and language in his own efforts to advance the cause of Democratic Socialism, and Reflections of Ghandi, in which he explores some uncomfortable questions about Ghandi’s status as a “saint.”
Orwell famously chronicled his own reportage of and participation in the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia, which brings us to our next book, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. This novel — in which Hemingway’s fictional stand-in Robert Jordan fights against Franco with a band of Guerilla fighters — might not, at first, seem like the must-read political book of the year. It has the peculiar distinction, however, of being both John McCain and Barack Obama’s favorite book, thus showing that politics and art rarely intersect in predictable ways. It boggles the mind, for example, that McCain would love a book about heroic Socialists fighting alongside Communists to bring down a Fascist, but he does.
It is most likely the thematic exploration of duty, honor, and causes greater than the self that made the book seem like a safe choice to both Senators. Obama also added The Tragedies of Shakespeare and the novel Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, both of which I highly recommend. Song of Solomon is a compelling, magic, realist odyssey through Twentieth Century Black Identity. It’s equal parts a coming of age story and a beautifully written quo vadis for America. If Oprah’s Book Club couldn’t convince you to read it, hopefully Barack and I can.
Many people get intimidated by Shakespeare, due in large part to the Elizabethan Language and iambic verse. I have studied Shakespeare at multiple points in my life, acted in and directed his plays, and I still find him hard to read on occasion. Let me give you, then, my expert advice on how to read Shakespeare without being intimidated or bored. First, buy a Folger Shakespeare Edition of whichever play you want to read. They cost less than $10.00 and include helpful plot summaries at the start of every scene, as well as important vocabulary words on opposite pages from where they appear. Next, read it out loud to yourself in a funny and dramatic British accent. Do this even for the serious parts. Don’t stop reading to look up a word unless you have to. You’ll find the plays much more enjoyable and much more understandable if you do this. Any of the major tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello) are probably a good place to start.
No matter what, McCain and Obama’s booklists will not meet with the derision that faced George W. Bush’s pick of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but since the book by Eric Carle is a loveable children’s classic, it’s always worth picking up again.
If you want to be a party pooper and insist on focusing on the “issues,” there are dozens upon dozens of books out there addressing the many challenges facing America. Focusing in on the U.S. Occupation of Iraq for a moment, figuring out where we go from here depends on us figuring out how the situation went so very very wrong in the first place. Two books, Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life In The Emerald City give two different but complimentary vantage points on the mess we’ve made in the Middle East. The first is a memoir by a former Provincial Governor during the early days of the occupation. As Stewart struggles with competing groups all searching for greater power and an end to his presence in their country, we get to see the occupation’s inevitable failure through his eyes. Imperial Life in the Emerald City, written by the Washington Post‘s former Baghdad Bureau Chief, culls together documents, interviews, and first-hand experience on the ground to tell a story that would be high farce, were it not dark tragedy.
I am suspicious of claims that somehow Obama’s election has moved us into the “post-racial” era, but certainly something has shifted.
How should we talk about race? When is it appropriate to call an action “racist”? What is the difference between “white resentment” and “racism,” or is there one? How should we address the structural problems facing people of color today? All of these questions and more are tackled in the provocative book The Race Card by Richard Thompson Ford. This book is challenging in the best possible way. You won’t agree with everything Ford says, but his writing and thinking are so precise and compelling, you’ll be forced to clarify your own reasoning in reading it.
Finally, there is my favorite living essayist, David Foster Wallace. Pick up a copy of his latest collection, Consider the Lobster, currently out in handy paperback. You should get this book for two reasons. First, it contains a nearly hundred-page-long profile of John McCain from the 2000 Presidential race that tries to reconcile Wallace’s admiration for the man with his serious dislike for his policies. Along with the McCain profile, you’ll get great essays on pornography, tennis, watching 9/11 happen in the Midwest, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky. Coming full circle, you’ll also find the brilliant, beautiful, laugh-out-loud-funny essay, Authority and American Usage Or Politics and the English Language is Redundant. This piece — purportedly a review of a dictionary — weaves together themes of language, politics, power, race, class, and vocabulary to expose the “seamy underbelly” of US language in order to reveal “ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale.” As political campaigns employ language and image to blur and obscure important issues, Authority… is a lightning bolt showing the world in stark high-contrast relief.
Isaac Butler writes for his blog, Parabasis, and mostly reads while taking the subway.