An opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times really made a deep impression on me as an educator. It was written by Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, and entitled: ‘‘Books Can Take You Places Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Go.” Mattar writes about how books can help us ”stumble upon ourselves in the lives and lands and tongues of others.” He points out how books can take us into the intellectual, cultural, and emotional worlds of other peoples, and at the same time help us realize that we are all at heart secret sharers of the same humanity.
He then writes: ”This is why literature is the greatest argument for the universalist instinct, and this is why literature is intransigent about its liberty. It refuses to be enrolled, regardless of how noble or urgent the project. It cannot be governed or dictated to. It is by instinct interested in conflicting empathies, in men and women who are running into their own hearts, in doubt and contradictions. Which is why, without even intending to, and like a moon to the night, it disrupts the totalitarian narrative.’
Mattar’s article reminded me that the man who helped ghostwrite Trump’s bestseller ”The Art of the Deal,” Tony Schwartz, observed that ”[d]uring the eighteen months that he observed Trump . . . he never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment.” [This quote is from a New Yorker article entitled ‘‘Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All.”]
As we look in alarm at the changes that have been taking place in America over the past two months–the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, the ban on citizens from Islamic countries, the proposed $9 billion cut in the Department of Education budget, the wild accusations of wiretapping by former president Obama despite any shred of evidence, and much much more — we can’t help but see a link between these events and the actions of a man who has never read deeply, who has never thought deeply, and who has never entered into the minds of individuals who have shared his humanity in different cultures, different times, and under different historical conditions.
As an educator, I am shocked by the thought that America is being led by a man ignorant of the wealth of knowledge to be had in reading great books. If he had read van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, would he be so keen to cut government support of the arts? If he had read Frederick Douglas’s autobiography, would he be so cavalier about slashing the education budget? If he had read Iranian author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s novel The Colonel, would he have been so quick to ban citizens from that country? If he had read William L. Shirer’s The Rise of Fall of the Third Reich, would he be so reckless as to throw out broad unfounded accusations about his fellow politicians?
If there is any message in all of this, is it this: read. Read widely. Franz Kafka said: ”[a] book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Encourage your children to read about other times, other places, other cultures, and to think and talk about what they read. I have written elsewhere in this blog (‘‘Ten Ways to Empower Yourself in Trump’s America”) that there are certain things we can do as citizens to confront the bigotry and recklessness of the Trump administration. To this list I must now add: spend less time watching TV and playing video games, and more time reading for pleasure, for enrichment, for improvement, and for the understanding that others of different races, ethnic groups, religions, and cultures, have confronted the same human issues–love, loss, belonging, hope, estrangement, ambition–as ourselves. And in this realization, there is humility to be found, not the arrogance that we see displayed so often in our current bibliophobic U.S. president.