Books Can Take You Places Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Go
Hisham Matar writes in the NY Times:
Whenever I was encouraged by my elders to pick up a book, I was often told, “Read so as to know the world.” And it is true; books have invited me into different countries, states of mind, social conditions and historical epochs; they have offered me a place at the most unusual gatherings.
I have had access to private rooms, overheard exquisite conversations and been able to observe subtle changes in another person’s inner life. Books have shown me horror and beauty. All this is true.
But the most magical moments in reading occur not when I encounter something unknown but when I happen upon myself, when I read a sentence that perfectly describes something I have known or felt all along. I am reminded then that I am really no different from anyone else.
Perhaps that is the secret motive behind every library: to stumble upon ourselves in the lives and lands and tongues of others. And the more foreign the setting, the more poignant the event seems. For a strange thing occurs then: A distance widens and then it is crossed.
How many times, and in ways that did not seem to require my consent, have I suddenly and in my own bed found myself to be Russian or French or Japanese? How many times have I been a peasant or an aristocrat? How many times have I been a woman? I have been free and without liberty, gay, disabled, old, loved and loathed.
All great art allows us this: a glimpse across the limits of our self. These occurrences aren’t merely amusing or disorientating or interesting experiments in “virtual reality.” They are moments of genuine expansion. They are at the heart of our humanity. Our future depends on them. We couldn’t have gotten here without them.
Just as a river leads to the sea — and from Jane Austen’s vernacular social order to William Faulkner’s American South, from Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo to Tayeb Salih’s village in Sudan — the particular in great literature has always flowed to the universal.
That is perhaps what the author of the iconic novel “The House of Hunger,” the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, meant when he said, “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race,” then he had no use for you. What he was resisting was narrow provincialism, the sort of identitarianism that has invaded our academies and public discourse, and which sees individual life as, first and foremost, representative of a racial, religious or cultural category.
Mr. Marechera was instead promoting a courageous universalism that is at the heart of how literature works and, I believe, central to our resistance to the narrow visions of right-wing populists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage.
Nothing we read can import new or foreign feelings that we don’t, in one form or another, already possess. “Every reader,” as Marcel Proust writes in “Time Regained,” “is actually the reader of himself.” Books can’t install unknown feelings or passions into us. What they can do is develop our emotional, psychological and intellectual life, and, by doing so, show us how and to what extent we are connected.
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. What it reveals about our human nature is central to the conversation today. . .