Reading and writing: just a means of escape from the anxiety-inducing present?

The first job I ever had in the Montreal region was at a company called Bath Fitter, aka Bain Magique, up beyond Laval in a town called Saint Eustache. As I listened to the explanation of the pension benefits that I was entitled to, a repeat of conversations I’d had with prior employers in Edmonton, it dawned on me: I’ve never cared about this conversation, I still don’t care, and I actually feel it’s OK to not care, because I have very little faith that, by the time my retirement rolls around, the world that we know – mortgages, insurance plans, “financial security” etc. – will exist. If everything devolves into Mad Max anarchy, or oppressive fascism, this HR conversation, viewed in retrospect, is going to seem pretty absurd.



Since then I’ve realized that you can try and be ready for the future, or you can try and feign a sort of nonchalant or even nihilistic slouching posture as regards the future, and both are sort of a gamble. What if you tried really hard to get your act together and it turned out that the future dispossessed you of all your best-laid plans? But the other gamble is the more life-positive one: to say, maybe the future will be OK, and maybe I’ll be able to hold onto my own, and moreover, maybe I owe it to the people I care about to actually try and be a responsible person.

Now it’s time to double-down on this gamble–and more. We should all keep our own lives intact, and if we’re called to, try and help out or vote in ways that will minimize or defend against the harms planned toward those who are markedly less fortunate. Maybe we can even do some good while we’re around.

Because when your southern neighbours elect a Trump, you get this uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that the so-called adults have collectively decided that everything should burn. I don’t mean that there has been any equalization in the prospects of the kind of suffering that’s likely in store–those who have always been robbed and disenfranchised by our system look like they’ll yet again be the primary targets of the racist regime in Washington. But if at one time you had OK-to-good prospects, you might be starting to think perhaps those advantages are going to be pretty short-lived. If you were to take a bet, and you were to put a meaningful sum of money on the line to the following question, you’d probably feel more likely of a return with option two: Will the material world as you know it get better–or worse?

Last week, the Globe and Mail published its usual year-end “best books” list. Here’s what author Pasha Malla wrote after his personal “best-of” pick:

I came in the door intending to write about books at the end of a year that, for most conscientious people, really sucked, and troubled the relevance of such “elitist” practices as reading and writing, not to mention writing about reading and writing, not to mention rudimentary human thought. And while the cycle is familiar enough – moral degradation, existential crisis, bolstered belief in the “things that matter” – I’m offering these suggestions with a heavy heart. Because, these days, every time I point my face into a book, it seems less to enrich or educate or even mollify myself, but simply to avoid looking at the world outside. Globe and Mail.

I see his point, and sometimes, a friend of mine will say something like this on Facebook, not to provoke, but to seriously question the merit of – let’s call it literature – in an era when the stakes in the real world seem so overwhelmingly high. Why would I put another crack in the spine of my beloved Crime and Punishment or Woodcutters, or check out the latest prize-winning CanLit author, when Indigenous people are having their territories poisoned and promised with future poisoning, when half of Syria is in ruins, when there are more refugees in the world than at any time since World War II, and – I won’t go on.

Why read a book?

OK then. We could continue this thread.

Why watch a Netflix show?

Why watch a movie?

Why see a gallery exhibit?

Why type this?

Why anything?

I believe authors and poets replenish hope, which the cynicism of the present all too often grinds down. Authors create invisible channels from their words to everyone engaging with them, and through these channels pass truths and sincere expressions of emotion — beautiful gifts at a time when liars, frauds and murderers are taking centre stage.

If civilization is going dark, let’s keep on some pilot lights. Maybe at times like these, that’s what literature is supposed to assert.

I read and write for mental hygiene. It’s one of the best ways of dealing with — not escaping — reality. In 2016, I was lucky to read some of the most affecting books I’ve ever encountered in my life. Here are a few:

I read Martin John by Anakana Schofield. I was amazed by Schofield’s dizzying prose pyrotechnics as she successfully inhabited the mind of a sex offender and his mother.

I read Open City by Teju Cole, and had my very notion of what a novel can be turned on its head. Can you totally subvert a reader’s expectation of a book in the final quarter and make him second-guess everything that he just witnessed? Yes, you can.

I read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. I don’t know of any author who has written about suicide in such a disarmingly direct and forthright fashion.

And I am currently finishing book four of the Neopolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante – for me, one of the best parts of 2016 and fully deserving of the worldwide hype.

If we don’t nourish our minds and bodies for the future, chances are, we’ll be ill-prepared to embrace that future with any kind of lucidity or courage. The most unbearable thing would be losing the desire to even turn the page and find out what happens next. Through literature, we commit to being responsible to ourselves and to each other.

“The truth about stories is, that’s all we are,” Thomas King once said. Take away the stories — the literature — and there’s not much left.