In a democratic society, where every individual opinion counts, [literature’s] incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity, and foolishness—[literature’s] incomparable ability, that is, to make us understand—ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing. Literature in America does fulfill these obligations.
The novelist John Gardner wrote these words in his essay collection On Moral Fiction, and they are absolutely correct. Gardner gets to the heart of the issue: the character and identity of a nation is determined by its connection to its history and the moral values passed through its literature. Now more than ever, we need moral fiction as a healthy antidote to the Bush administration, which has elevated lying and deceit to an art form. Novels offer genuine hope for learning how to handle our daily personal problems—and those political issues of our communities and our country—in a moral and humane way. They can help us to understand the relationship between our inner lives and the outer world, and the balance between thinking, feeling, and acting. They awaken us to the complexities and paradoxes of human life, and to the absurd presumptuousness of moral absolutism. They can give us awareness of place, time, and condition—about ourselves and about others. As our great Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner said, the best literature is far more true than any journalism.
Throughout history, the imaginations of young people have been fired by characters that function as role models. Yet when we look around us today, we find role models who are less than healthy and truths that are far from self-evident. We find troubling and false symbols of success, fantasy, or celebrity. All the while, we are surrounded by a technology of speed and efficiency that neither questions its means nor knows its ends. In the past thirty years, mass-marketing and advertising techniques have created an entirely new moral climate in America. The superficiality, the alienation, the escapism, and the hollowness are a result of a steady bombardment of confusing and deadening messages designed to reduce us to passive consumers. And we have paid a heavy price: a sharp decline in both civic participation and meaningful public discourse. We have become serious about frivolous issues and frivolous about serious ones.
How curious: while people around the world are risking their lives for American democratic ideals, we’re telling pollsters that we’re alienated from our political system. For the past thirty years, the acquisition of more and more material goods has become our highest form of endeavor. Terminal consumerism has become a way of life. However, as novelist John Nichols puts it, “Thirty-six flavors doth not a democracy make.” How has it come to pass that our founding fathers gave us a land of political and economic opportunity, and we have become a nation of political and economic opportunists? As we have come to worship the idols of power, money, and success, we have neglected the core political principles of justice, equality, community, and democracy.
Politics and the Media
The decline in our political culture has occurred in direct proportion to the increase in TV-driven soft news, celebrity scandal-mongering, and superficial political coverage. Every day the electronic media feverishly compete to hype news into entertainment. And when they get a Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, or serial-killer trial—especially if it has a sex angle—they stage extravaganzas that would make Barnum and Bailey blush.
With the attention span of viewers decreasing with each generation, and with the networks and cables competing for a large audience, what counts is who can make the fastest and the most enjoyable images. Faster images may tickle the pleasure centers of viewers and achieve higher ratings and more money for media owners, but they make America stupid. TV news turns democracy into “duh-mocracy.” Television actress Kristen Johnson put it this way: “TV can really suck the brain right out of your body.” And suck the life out of our democracy.
Politics has become a business-game of manipulating symbols and perpetuating myths to conform to the media’s mass-marketing techniques and needs. As with so many other aspects of modern living, the process itself has become kingmaker. The process is politics as entertainment—a curious combination of hype and palliative. We know our dependence on mindless, endless, irrelevant TV commercials—and evening news sound bites—creates the illusion that we are learning something. But we are not.
In the process we lose our freedom to make genuine choices based on coherent, rational ideas. As T.S. Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom in knowledge? Where is the knowledge in information?” We might add, where is the knowledge in a 30-second decontextualized political news sound bite?
Hype has impoverished our political debate. It has undermined the very idea that political discourse can be educational and edifying—or that national public policy can grow out of reflective discussion and shared political values. This McNews approach has undercut our moral values and civic traditions. We have sought simplistic answers to complex problems without even beginning to comprehend the consequences of our loss.
We desperately need a common-sense prescription for change. My practical and modest solution is a four-step remedy for reviving our ailing civic culture.
1 – Pull the plug on television news and stick with serious print media.
2 – Get active in the organizations and political campaigns that support the same issues and causes you do.
3 – Read good socially conscious and political novels.
4 – Organize a political reading group with a social conscience.
The last two steps may seem tangential, but they are indispensable to the cure. A good novel serves as a conscience and a guide to action. It revives passionate and thoughtful political debate, providing in-depth exploration of values and political problems marginalized by the media circus.
Organizing a Book Group
The number of book clubs and reading groups is growing across the country. Individual readers, booksellers, and librarians are organizing new groups and facilitating the introduction of new members into ongoing groups in record numbers. These active readers are following in the American historical tradition of the women’s literary discussion groups of the colonial era, the literary and study clubs of the late 1800s “progressive era,” and the Great Books groups of the mid-1900s.
So, if you’re interested in a stimulating, pleasurable and democracy-building literary exercise, why not organize a reading group yourself? Here are some basic guidelines.
The Logistics: Who and How
Look for six to ten people who are thoughtful, interesting, and curious. If they already enjoy reading, so much the better. A group needs people who can articulate their ideas and who are good listeners. Those who are enthusiastic, sensitive, and have a sense of humor are a real plus to any discussion. Start with your friends, relatives, and acquaintances who enjoy reading. Ask them to make suggestions. Branch out to those at work and your social, professional, or neighborhood organizations. Put up a sign in your local bookstore or advertise in a community newspaper.
Although groups may be homogenous, such as those composed of women—which are a majority of existing groups— some of the most successful groups are quite diverse. They have men and women, a variety of cultural backgrounds, and a wide range of ages. While some groups shy away from structure, most groups do have rules. You might consider adopting guidelines that address issues related to attendance and tardiness, the presence of children and animals, and methods for accepting new members and choosing appropriate books.
Most groups also have facilitators. The facilitator is often the group member who suggested the book, but it could be any participant or a professional leader hired by the group. One good way to find a facilitator is to make inquiries or put up an ad at your local university, community college, or high school. A good facilitator encourages active participation and listening, and ensures that each member is listened to and respected. He or she influences the ambience by making members comfortable in voicing unpopular opinions. By keeping the discussion on track and making sure no one dominates, the facilitator provides the background for a successful discussion. The goal for facilitation is to encourage the flow of discussion as subtly as possible, in the style of a free-flowing, informed, spirited direction, while assisting the group to move from one topic to another in a timely manner.
There is no formula for assuring lively and insightful discussion, but each member of the group might think about the following issues while reading the book:
- What do you think is the central theme?
- What are the underlying themes?
- Did the author raise any emotional conflicts you may have had… or resolve any?
- Did the author challenge any political, economic, social, or cultural beliefs that you may have held with regard to race, sex, gender, class, or ethnicity?
Finding appropriate books can be challenging. Many reading groups adopt an annual reading list, while others select books a month or two in advance. Suggestions come from the group’s members, their friends, librarians, and booksellers.
One process for book selection that works well is to designate one person each month to bring a selection of books and introduce them to the group. Anyone who has read the books can veto them. The group then narrows the selection down to three and votes.
As a reading group participant, you will find yourself involved in a perpetual search for stimulating books. So I’ve provided a balanced list of thirty-five novels by contemporary authors that I believe will enliven the mind and nourish the soul. The novels I recommend are a healthy antidote to living in Entertainment Nation – and reflect that the best in our character is carried in our literature.
We depend on our fiction for metaphoric news of who we are, or who we think we ought to be. The writers of today’s political and social realism are doing no less than reminding us of our true, traditional American values – the hope, the promises, and the dreams. When we read these novels, we learn about who we are as individuals and as a nation. They inform us, as no other medium does, about the state of our national politics and character—of the difference between what we say we are and how we actually behave. They offer us crucial insights into the moral, social, and emotional conflicts that are taking place in communities across America. We need such exploration today more than ever.
Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina (Dutton). An unsparing, passionate, and gritty work about a young girl growing up in poverty. Resonates with integrity and empathy.
Lisa Alther, Original Sins (Knopf). Set in the South, this intelligent and absorbing story details the challenges, dreams, and follies of the 1960s. Transcends the differences between races in an insightful and generous manner.
Russell Banks, Continental Drift (Ballantine). An absorbing story about a frost-belt family that moves to Florida to find the good life. Instead, they find a nightmare.
Charles Baxter, Shadow Play (Norton). The assistant city manager of a small, depressed town in Michigan sees his life fall apart when the chemical plant he lured to town turns out to be an environmental disaster.
Saul Bellow, Herzog (Penguin). Keen insights into what it takes to maintain one’s individuality and civility while corporations dominate our culture and politics, and critical thinking gives way to the demands of social conformism and consumerism.
Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack (Harvest). Remarkable and graceful. Explores the life of an aging Appalachian farmer amid America’s changing values.
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (Knopf). A poignant coming-of-age novel, with unforgettable characters, set in the Latino section of Chicago.
E.L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel (Plume). The most important political novel about the Cold War, the arms race, red-baiting, and McCarthyism.
Michael Dorris, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (Warner). Compassionate and psychologically complex, this novel spans three generations of Native American women in the Pacific Northwest – on and off the reservation – who share a fierce independence and a love of family.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Vintage). A powerful classic about race, individuality, and identity. A southern black man moves to New York and learns the many ways whites are unable to see him.
Gretel Ehrlich, Heart Mountain (Penguin). Explores the experience of Japanese Americans exiled to a World War II relocation camp in Wyoming and their relationship with local ranchers.
Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster (Algonquin). An exhilarating and endearing tale of an eleven-year-old orphan who calls herself “old Ellen,” and who moves from one woebegone situation to another with spirit and determination.
Ursula Hegi, Stones from the River (Scribner). In a typical small town, the ordinary and secret lives of people and their relationship to politics disclose the quandaries and conflicts that allowed the greatest crime of the 20th century.
Ernest Hebert, The Dogs of March (New England Press). Brilliant, sensitive, and funny. Captures what it was like to be unemployed in the 1980s. Set in New England, it’s the American dream gone belly-up.
Linda Hogan, Mean Spirit (Ivy). A magical and compelling story about whites robbing the Osage Indian tribe of their oil wealth in Oklahoma.
John Irving, The Cider House Rules (Bantam). A fine writer brings his incisive storytelling gifts to fruition with this excellent novel about choice, class, and Yankee common sense.
William Kennedy, Ironweed (Penguin). A Pulitzer Prize winner’s shrewd study of the diceyness of fate. This modern Dante’s Inferno about life on skid row is especially poignant as homelessness continues to cast a shadow across our land.
Susan Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees (Penguin). A stunning and lush story of race and gender set in South Carolina. In the struggle between bigotry and love, the latter wins out.
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams (Harper Perennial). A wonderful tale of multiculturalism in Arizona. Explores themes of authenticity, community, integrity, and truth.
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (Vintage). A brilliant portrayal of the Chinese American experience. Kingston’s account of growing up Asian and poor adds a cultural richness to the landscape.
Alan Lightman, The Diagnosis (Vintage). A Kafkaesque tale that questions America’s compulsive love affair with modern technology, efficiency, speed, money and “making it.”
Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Bantam). This enduring masterpiece, set in small-town Georgia, is a compassionate study of how people confront the problems of poverty, race, class, and gender – and how they handle the conflicts of the human condition.
Toni Morrison, Beloved (Plume). Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, this is a powerful story of the legacy of slavery. The central theme, the relationship between slave and master, illuminates the tragic complications underlying our historical experience.
Faye Ng, Bone (Harper Perennial). In a clear and emotionally powerful novel, Ng takes us into the heart and inner secrets of a family in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War (Ballantine). Reveals how the economic and political “shell game” is being run on ordinary Americans. Part of the author’s New Mexico trilogy, it is a contemporary Grapes of Wrath, leavened with Mark Twain’s down-home humor.
Ruth L. Ozeki, My Year of Meats (Penguin). A feisty Japanese American filmmaker takes on the beef industry, chemical corporations, and commercial advertising. Muckraking, witty and provocative.
Jayne Anne Phillips, Machine Dreams (Dutton). A chronicle of middle-American family life, from the Depression to Vietnam, about identity, shifting values, and the ironies of a rapidly changing America.
Phillip Roth, American Pastoral (Vintage). An unsparing story of the political excesses of the 1960s. How youthful idealism led to romantic, out-of-control, anti-liberal activism, which in turn laid the groundwork for the reactionary policies of Nixon and Reagan.
Richard Russo, Empire Falls (Vintage). A passionate and rich examination of the working-class heart of small-town America, and the consequences of inequitable distribution of wealth in a deindustrialized society.
E. Annie Proulx, Postcards (Collier). Winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award. A remarkable story of the struggle of New England farmers to confront the loss of home and place in economic hard times.
May Sarton, Kinds of Love (Norton). Three generations celebrate the American bicentennial in a small New Hampshire town. About truth, honesty, integrity – all those traditional virtues that have become unfashionable.
Danzy Senna, Caucasia (Riverhead). Birdie Lee’s black father flees in the seventies, and her white, activist mother is forced to take the girl underground, where Birdie copes with adolescence and the complexities of her racial identity.
Jane Smiley, Moo (Random House). The financial, academic, sexual, and political scandals of a Midwest university are laid bare in this satire of higher education.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin). This classic novel of farmers forced to move West during the Great Depression electrified the nation and reminded us of our historical commitment to compassion, opportunity, and social justice.
Alice Walker, Meridian (Fawcett). A powerful novel about civil rights activism in the South of the 1960s. Warm, generous, and complex, it challenges each of us to examine what it is to become a decent, responsible, and honorable person.