Before I could read, I memorized words on the page. According to my parents, I could recite “Martha Speaks” from memory. Word for word, I even knew when to turn the pages. I impressed my parents’ friends with my perceived talents. My parents never told my secret.
My childhood was shaped by books. Our house is, quite literally, full of books. Every wall space is either bookshelves or my dad’s art. Overflow books sit in stacks along the staircase, on the dressers and desks and tables. For a brief period, my mother even read out loud to me while she drove. She still read to me every night until I learned to read — and even after. Long after she stopped reading aloud to me, we still read our own books in companionable silence whenever I’m home.
This week, I visited my grandparents in northern Wisconsin. At their cabin on a lake, there’s no internet or television and very limited cellphone service. I wrote my recent articles for the Daily Planet on the dock and submitted them from the Minocqua Public Library and a laundromat in Woodruff. In my free time, I read “War and Peace.”
Without internet, I was disconnected from the chaos of the world. North of Madison, even the paper edition of the New York Times is only available on Sundays. Apparently, it’s not economically viable to sell every day up there.
My grandparents buy the Wall Street Journal every day, which meant that I received my news from a different source than usual. It’s something that I would recommend everyone tries more often. People need different perspectives and new voices.
In the world of Twitter, breaking news updates and push notifications, only reading the news once a day — and on paper — felt like a luxury. Instead of being constantly inundated, I could choose when to catch up on the world and when to read about battles, love affairs and Napoleon’s failed conquest of Russia instead.
Sunday afternoon, I took a break from “War and Peace” to enjoy the once-weekly appearance of the New York Times. In the Sunday Review, Ross Douthat published a piece honoring Toni Morrison called “The Last Great American Novelist.” Douthat wonders if the internet has ruined people’s ability to consume novels, and if Morrison’s death marks the end of the Great American Novelist. Novels could survive movies and television, but the iPhone and the internet are too mighty, Douthat suggests. How absurd.
Before her death, Toni Morrison may have been the greatest living American novelist. She was truly exceptional, but I certainly do not think she will be the last.
Social media and constant news feeds compete for people’s attention, but Douthat is being too fatalistic. He writes, “You cannot jump in and out of serious novel reading, and a book doesn’t claim your gaze the way the movies and television do.”
I beg to differ. My most recent endeavor: Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is not light reading. It’s taken me the better part of a year to get through. I even took a six-month hiatus between January and July. One might call that “jumping in and out of serious novel reading.”
Still, after six months, I could remember the web of plot lines and character narratives. If I forgot something, I could always go back and read it again. I may not remember whether the Russians defenses were strongest at the left flank or the right flank at the Battle of Borodino, but I think that’s OK.
And that’s of the beauty of books: Once the words are printed, they stay the same. You can put down a book to walk your dog. You can leave it at a bus station, or lose it when you’re packing but hours or days or years later, you can always “jump” back in. Weeks-old news is rarely worth reading. Dante’s been dead for centuries, and the “Inferno” is as relevant today as it was when he first recited it.
I probably can’t remember half of the news stories I read in a day, but I could tell you all of the books that I’ve read in the past year. Epic stories stay with you.
Today, more than ever, people need novels. The news is depressing. Women and minorities are losing fundamental human rights. Children are being separated from their parents, environmental protections are disappearing, climate change is drastically worsening, and our president could start war with North Korea at any moment. When the world seems to be imploding from all sides, books can be a salvation.
And I think people will continue to turn to books. Reading allows you to escape the world in a way that you cannot on your phone — which remains connected to everything through messages and applications. Yes, there are serious concerns that the internet is decreasing attention spans. Yes, book sales, especially at independent bookstores, are declining. But that’s no reason to lose hope.
The road ahead is long. There are political battles to be fought and fundamental rights to defend, but I hope people remember to take the time to read. “War and Peace” tells the tale of a great emperor who was ultimately defeated by a seemingly weak and fragmented opponent. A classic tale of hubris. David and Goliath. Lessons that are essential for today’s world.
This summer in Telluride, I spent many early mornings reading on the deck before work. Even if it was only 10 pages while I drank coffee, it was something. I’m not an exception, either. All of my friends read. We have shared book lists and book clubs and shared copies of books from secondhand stores. My generation grew up with the internet, but I have faith we won’t be the generation that killed the novel.
So, here’s to future generations of readers, and future Great American Novelists. Let’s make sure there are more women on that list, too.