Books for Living
By Will Schwalbe
The Hatred of Poetry
By Ben Lerner
The panic that arose across the country as the incredible reality of a Trump presidency began to sink in hit the book world with particular force. In his temperament, style and values, the new president seems almost purpose-built to oppose everything Barack Obama has stood for and accomplished. (The only things they appear to have in common are a love of golf and an on again-off again friendship with Hillary Clinton.) In few aspects is the gulf wider than in their respective attitudes to reading. President Obama, of course, was a published memoirist well before he got into politics. The touchstones of his education included T.S. Eliot and Reinhold Niebuhr. His speeches were praised for their literary sensibilities. He conducted a chummy interview with Marilynne Robinson in the pages of the New York Review of Books.
Trump, in contrast, makes a point of emphasizing how little he reads and how much of a waste of time he finds the activity. Despite having put his name to countless ghostwritten books (the most famous of which has since been denounced by the shamefaced ghostwriter), there is no evidence that he has read a book in years, and there is in fact a great deal to suggest that he is physically incapable of focusing his attention long enough to take in more than a paragraph of text. He is the living embodiment of every English teacher’s farfetched cautionary tale and every culture critic’s anti-modernity strawman, an adult whose relationship with the written word has been reduced to half-page bullet-pointed memoranda, cable news chyrons and tweets.
The startling triumph of this anti-literacy bogeyman resulted in a salvo of journalism intended to hurriedly reaffirm the importance of reading and writing. Much of it naturally centered on the outgoing president, whose genuine contributions to literature were inflated to the point of popping. “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped—in his life, convictions and outlook on the world—by reading and writing,” wrote the New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, and although her assertion collapsed upon the slightest scrutiny—prolific author Theodore Roosevelt and scholarly race theorist Woodrow Wilson were both enormously bookish, for instance, and Barnes and Noble’s remainder stacks overflow with Jimmy Carter’s nonfiction—the point was less to champion Obama than to underscore the virtue of literature. Both Lincoln and Obama were good and both were book people; you, the reader, can put two and two together.
Like Lincoln, Kakutani went on, for Obama “words became a way to define himself, and to communicate his ideas and ideals to the world.” It’s unnerving to arrive at a pass where sentences like this one are possible. On one hand the contention is ridiculous on its face—how did the other presidents communicate their ideas, if not with words? Pantomime?—but on the other it’s undoubtedly true that President Trump’s rhetorical strategy is based on mangling language so thoroughly that meaning and truth can’t stand in the way of inflaming his crowds.
In such a climate, simply buying a book can be upheld as an act of resistance. Some media outlets catalogued every title Obama had mentioned or merely purchased during his years in office, a kind of data journalism demonstration of the significance of novels and biographies in even the most exclusive corridors of power. Critics competed to name the literary classic that most accurately predicted the current moment, making sudden bestsellers of George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. (One editorialist used the opportunity to plump for Ivanhoe, proving that lovers of Victorian literature will use any pretext to recommend their favorite books.) The re-emergence of Lewis’s novel has been especially odd. Almost no one contends that the book is well written, enjoyable or even particularly insightful. But it satisfies a craving for topicality and relevance. Reading it seems somehow useful.
The desire for a literature that is primarily practical and improving is hardly new. Tocqueville famously observed that where the arts were concerned, Americans “habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.” But how on earth to meet this requirement when it comes to things like novels and poems? Today we can, a little smugly, trot out the slightly opaque conclusions of scientific studies that purport to demonstrate that the act of reading strengthens empathy, improves one’s ability to understand the minds of others, and alleviates stress. And supplementing these findings is a thriving genre of books that seek to demonstrate the self-help value of reading, of which Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is the latest entry.
Schwalbe’s amiable volume looks at a bunch of books that have meant a great deal to him over the years, from Giovanni’s Room to Reading Lolita in Tehran, and then teases out the various life lessons that each has offered. For instance, his childhood favorite Stuart Little, by E.B. White, inspires this list of “rules to live by”:
Try not to run away but to go in search.
Try to remain polite when possible, as Stuart always does, and to accept what can’t be changed—even though you might mourn what you’re losing, the way Stuart did when he was on the garbage scow headed out to sea.
Try to dress smartly […]
Try to be as brave as Stuart, and as resourceful as he was when he piloted the model boat to victory.
But more than anything: Try to be as cheerful and optimistic as you can be in the face of whatever comes next.
It’s easy to be cynical about these rules, but I think they’re sweet. Stuart Little is a kids’ book, after all, and kids’ books specialize in creating memorable role models like White’s tiny but gallant canoeing mouse. When Schwalbe moves onto more adult fare, his lessons grow shakier. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, he writes, gives “us the tools we need to try to figure out whom we can trust, and whom to keep at electronic arm’s length,” which seems like a charitable way of interpreting a schlocky mega-bestseller which, if it somehow influences readers at all, is likelier to make them more paranoid and conspiratorial. Writing about the Odyssey, he claims that the poem taught him to “embrace mediocrity” because … Odysseus did such a bad job getting home?
Then again, why not? Reading is an intensely personal endeavor, and the more idiosyncratic one’s responses are the more interesting they tend to be. The bigger problem in Books for Living is that many of its morals conform to the conventional, and frankly tiresome, view that the main function of reading is therapeutic—that books are a panacea to the stressful hustle and bustle of contemporary life.
Schwalbe commemorates a 1937 treatise by the Chinese scholar Lin Yutang called The Art of Living, which argues for “the value of solitude and contemplation” and promotes the excellent-sounding “art of lying in bed.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s The Gift of the Sea teaches him “how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life.” Melville’s Bartleby stands out for him as a peculiar model of resistance against social peer pressure. (“If I quit Facebook for even a few days, I feel as though I owe the world an explanation and usually give one,” Schwalbe writes in admiration of Bartleby’s radical passivity.) Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room reminds him to appreciate the wonder of his everyday surroundings. Although he’s not religious, he turns to John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud to deliver him to a prayer-like state: “quiet, attentive, focused.” And our old friend 1984, whose apotropaic magic can apparently be wielded against any cultural or political crisis, teaches him the importance of unplugging his devices:
How often do I hear silence? Between the buds in my ears when I’m out and the screens that are on when I’m in, the answer is simple: hardly ever. I miss it. It’s hard to remember what it sounds like and all the possibilities it allows.
Maybe that’s the real tyranny of the smartphones and all the little screens everywhere. They help us rob ourselves of silence.
A little pro forma whinging about the despotism of social media might be understandable, but the cumulative effect is to turn reading into a type of first-world self-care, like Bikram Yoga and healing facials. Schwalbe isn’t describing books for living but books for the breaks in living, to help us recharge and refocus on the real business of the day. That’s perfectly fine, of course—readers come in all kinds—but from Schwalbe it seems disingenuous. If he is the passionate book person he claims to be, he knows that literature doesn’t usually package itself in clarifying messages. It confounds and disturbs as much as it elucidates and comforts. Schwalbe wants reading to reinforce a kind of unthreatening secular spirituality that will appeal to busy bridge-and-tunnel commuters, and that necessarily places checks on his honesty. We’re not going to find a chapter on a book that made him feel unbearably confused and depressed, even though such an experience is universal among serious readers. The first principle of art is not to be helpful but to be true. Schwalbe pitches the charms of reading by promising that books can change lives, but even if that’s the case, what makes him so sure that everyone will like the changes when they happen?
This is the difficulty that poet, novelist and essayist Ben Lerner amplifies in The Hatred of Poetry, published in excerpt in the London Review of Books and expanded last summer into a standalone volume. Lerner’s book is an extremely shrewd dissection of the outsider status of poets in modern society. If it’s difficult to sell the virtues of reading prose based on utility, it’s nearly impossible to convince people that they should spend their precious time on poems. In response to the longstanding neglect, critics attack the state of poetry for its failures to remain consequential while simultaneously glamorizing the art form’s unfulfilled potential. Lerner writes, “I have come to believe that a large part of the appeal of the defense of the genre is that it is itself a kind of virtual poetry—it allows you to describe the virtues of poetry without having to write poems that have succumbed to the bitterness of the actual.” The result is a stalemate in which everyone loves poetry in theory and hates it in practice.
Will Schwalbe’s upbeat idea in Books for Living is that the things we learn from books help us to connect with others and, more idealistically, bring about a culture of shared values. Lerner’s ingenious conceit is that when it comes to poetry, we only bond over how much it pisses us off: “What if the closest we can come to hearing the ‘planet-like music of poetry’”—a phrase from Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry”—“is to hear the ugliest earthly music and experience the distance between them?” One of the most enjoyable passages in the book is his analysis of William MacGonagall’s legendarily dreadful “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” which begins, “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! / Alas! I am very sorry to say / That ninety lives have been taken away.” Even people who know nothing of poetry know that this is awful stuff, and that suggests that there exists a collective notion, however vague, of what good poetry is supposed to be. Lerner’s point is that we glimpse the good by encountering the bad.
In this roundabout way, he, too, is offering a defense of the genre, and particularly of its spiky, experimental branches. The avant-garde is typically criticized for being subjective and inaccessible, for failing to speak to a wider audience. Lerner argues that, if you give these poems a try, the opposite is true: The avant-garde represents the collective ideal by pointing up the many inevitable ways that poets will fail it—its dissonance, its fractures, its obscurities and its other exaggerated flaws bring about poems that, “when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.”
But though Lerner is more forthright than Schwalbe about the bitterness and disappointment that inevitably attends literature, his book is rooted in a similarly hopeful vision of connection and commonality. The conception of unifying hatreds has an added resonance in light of last year’s presidential election, in which victory was fuelled by extraordinary reserves of public disdain. Lerner’s generous argument is that hatred is a form of frustrated love, and that the vestiges of that love can be salvaged from its ruins. But the hatreds that propelled Donald Trump’s rise to power had no complex shadow meaning. They were pure, euphoric explosions of contempt. They represented an emotional release that was complete in itself and that produced its own uncomplicated pleasures.
It couldn’t have escaped Lerner’s notice that President Trump turned to verse to help foment that hatred. A staple of his campaign rallies was his recitation of the lyrics to a song called “The Snake,” in which, in a crude and racist allegory for aiding Syrian refugees, a beautiful woman helps an injured snake:
Now she clutched him to her bosom.
“You’re so beautiful,” she cried.
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you would have died.”
She stroked his pretty skin again and then she kissed and held him tight.
Instead of saying, “thank you,” that snake gave her a vicious bite.
Many would probably agree that, as a poem, this is pretty bad. But such a consensus is beside the point. The people who heard it at the rallies loved it. Trump loved it too, because it was so useful to his purposes. With the exception of Trump’s tweets, it was one of the year’s most forceful examples of a piece of writing that brought large numbers of people together and helped to achieve a tangible outcome. If that’s what relevance and topicality lead to, maybe writers would be better off devoting themselves to the hard work of telling the truth, even if nobody, these days, has time to read it.
Sam Sacks was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Commentary, and the New Yorker. He writes the weekly Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal.