Perfectly Postman

Last year, between working, commuting, and raising two young boys, I read 132 books. These books were mostly political, with a little fiction and some miscellaneous non-fiction thrown in.

Nine of the books I read last year were written by Neil Postman; the first, his Amusing Ourselves to Death. My husband had read that for multiple classes in college and correctly guessed I’d love it. Indeed, Postman inspired my interest in history as well as my appreciation for epistemology. Without Postman, my newfound passion for learning wouldn’t likely … exist, honestly.

The bad news about reading all those Postman books last year is how little “new” Postman I have left to read this year. I’d decided to reread some Postman when my eyes landed on Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity, the partial refutation (or so it seems?) of his earlier Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I don’t normally read books on education, but anything by Postman is good for my head and my heart.

And, of course, within the first few pages, I found myself uplifted by the kind of sentiment all too rare these days:

I have tried to make my argument clear, and I should be very interested to know what are its refutations, for that is how conversation begins. Perhaps we do not require a new “movement” after all. Only a good conversation.*

How perfectly Postman! How perfectly what this world needs now!

* Before I began reading this book, I’d made my eponymous blog private. I’d (1) seen that electronically mediated exchanges perpetrate their own kind of virtual reality, inserting grimy windows between people instead of offering clearer views, and (2) discovered that I most crave direct conversation face to face with real people, not with their (and my!) electronic representations. It’s so sweet to be reminded that a kind of conversation can take place after someone’s died, when that someone has uncommon clarity of heart, mind, and word. Unless/until I have that to offer, I find myself happiest to read, reflect, and remain so very glad my husband pointed me toward Postman.


Deeper than the weather

A few weeks ago, a meticulously coiffed older woman rang up my newest order of books. “You always buy the most eclectic books!” she exclaimed, beaming.

Yesterday, I looked at the cover of one of my  newer-still books while the same woman rang up others. “Oh, that’s the image from a podcast I just subscribed to!” I exclaimed at the peculiar image.

The woman glanced at the cover, smiled, and said, “I wouldn’t expect anything ordinary from you!” She quickly added, “I mean that in a good way.”

“That’s how I took it,” I said, returning her smile.

Before I’d even reached the register yesterday, I’d already had a couple of delightful conversations with bookstore folk. One older man was especially, fabulously delighted I’d bought a book called The Rainbow Goblins when my first child was a baby.

Last night, I got the chance to recommend two books to a woman at a Long Beach Progressive Revolution meeting. It was such a joy talking politics, books, and hope!

This morning, I stood in a coffee shop line (for a decaf; none more caf for me, ever) and pulled out of my purse one of yesterday’s books. Another woman in line saw its cover and asked me if I’d mind describing it. She was intrigued by the title and the image of a lone horse galloping through waves.

I told her I’d never usually read this kind of stuff, making a face when I said “this kind.” I said that I’d picked up The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself because it came recommended by someone I admire, and that I was glad I’d bought it. Just reading one page in line, I explained, had eased my heart immensely. It left me feeling better prepared for the day.

She thanked me for sharing and said she needed something just like to ease her heart.

Then, walking into my office building a few minutes later, I shifted my book and coffee to hold a door open for someone just behind me. “You’re my superhero!” he exclaimed. “Always reading so many things while you walk.”

I laughed and said my current book is rejuvenating compared to the depressing material I usually read. He smiled and wished me a good day.

Not too many hours later, I spotted my manager walking back from lunch with a book in his hands. I grinned, delighted to see someone else too caught up in reading to stop reading one second too early.

Once again, I assert that reading isn’t always a lonely thing. Sometimes, in the right time and place, it can be an invitation to connect at a level deeper than the weather.

The Reckoning

Me [tapping a book’s cover]: With all this financial stuff, I have to pause after reading each sentence to make sure I understood it.

My husband, Anthony: Hear that!

Me: If you’d told me a year ago I’d be sitting around reading books entitled things like Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea for leisure, I would not have believed you.

Anthony: I don’t know if it’s for leisure. It’s more like … The Reckoning.

[fade to the sound of shared chuckles]

Outside the pages

“Hey,” someone near me said.

I looked up from my book. A blonde man in his early 30s, walking with a redheaded woman about his age, had stopped to talk to me.

“I just wanted to say … it’s really good to see someone reading a book, you know? Always with our faces in electronics, these days.”

“It feels good to be reading like this,” I replied. “Something about paper and history.”

We smiled at each other before continuing our separate ways.

“Where’s your book?” a security guard asked me on my way back into my office building on Monday.

“I look weird without it, huh?” He nodded vigorously, and I continued. “I try to set books down for short walks. Much as I love my books, there’s a world outside them, too!”

“Aaaah,” he replied, but I was pretty sure he was still suspicious.

(Had I, perhaps, been body-snatched?!)

“Always reading,” chuckled one of my colleagues when I walked into our break room this morning.

I looked up from my e-reader and smiled. “I’ll never be able to get through them all, but I can try!”

“You remind me of my wife,” he said, “before chemo.”

I looked him in the eye and simply listened. He’s never talked to me about his wife before.

He continued, “Since she started chemo, she hasn’t had the focus to read.”

“Has she listened to any audio books?” I asked. “I just discovered those.”

“They put her to sleep!” he said with another chuckle.

I grinned. “I have the same problem. I hear maybe a quarter of any book …”

“I hope my wife can get back to reading soon,” he said while heading toward the exit. I held up luck-crossed fingers as he continued, “and you keep enjoying yours.”

I could almost hear for both of you as he strolled away.

Some say reading is a solitary act. I disagree.

Books connect readers to the internal worlds of writers. Some lucky days, they can even open conversations connecting readers to people outside the pages, too.


90 seconds isn’t enough

When I was a child, reading was my escape from … everything painful about my life, which is to say, everything. I read a book or two daily.

As an adult, I was lucky if I read one book a month. I had a long commute and work to do, even before I had children and a husband. After building a family, I reached the point where I was lucky to read even one book a year. I forgot books were important, and stopped wearing my “Bibliovore” shirt.

Last year, I picked up a book on politics. Since reading an article here and there wasn’t illuminating anything (meaningfully), I sought a longer read to explain what only seemed inexplicable. Glenn Greenwald’s Liberty and Justice for Some answered a bunch of questions, but left me with many more …

… so I read Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Rebecca Solnit, Chalmers Johnson, Neil Postman, and many single books by other authors. Each cast a little bit more light in what had been darkness.

I didn’t see it as darkness, of course; my eyes had long since acclimated to it.

I’ve tried to speak to many friends about all the things I’m learning from books, and the people who studied and interviewed and learned and fought to write them, but to no avail. They have Huffington Post and Facebook to give them their version of news in digestible formats. What good are un-entertaining books? No good, comes the answer, in silences, stony glares, and few words. We get everything we need in tweet-sized bursts. If it can’t fit that, it’s not worth consuming.

A year ago, that seemed just fine to me. Today, though, I see the difference between fragments of “news” and entire frameworks built from intensive study. The difference isn’t minor; it’s like traveling from one side of the United States to the other, in one case, or like traveling from Los Angeles to a planet ten times further away than Mars, in the other.

Try to explain this to people who don’t read books, and they’ll say you’re elitist, never mind that you grew up in poverty and pain. They’ll say many things that reveal how they have no idea what big readers many early Americans were, nor any questions about why things changed from that once-was.

Books are bad. Facebook is good.

In reading books, I found so much history and coherent information I’d never have found otherwise. This is phenomenal, but also depressing as hell. The pace of change today is accelerating to the point that yesterday’s lessons are virtually irrelevant, but people keep on planning for tomorrow as if yesterday is everything. As if tomorrow (and decades of tomorrows afterward) will be just like what we dreamed yesterday was.

This seeing what-was instead of what-is and what-will-soon-be may be the death of humanity.

If, that is, we don’t get back to reading. Reflecting. Looking at and talking with each other.

The words are out there. The books are out there. But they’ll never be found by folks who won’t commit to reading–or conversing–more than 90 seconds at a time.