Reading Out Loud in a Time of Terror
Joseph Roth, Masha Gessen, and Finding Strength in the Words of Others
I only have one single, blurred memory of my mother reading to me as a child. She read Hansel and Gretel to me, inspired by The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by the once-celebrated Bruno Bettelheim. An Austrian-born “psychologist” who was later discredited, Bettelheim claimed that fairy tales help children conceptualize and organize good and evil. In me, though, Hansel and Gretel simply solidified my fear of abandonment. I decided to stay close to my parents whenever we walked in the woods.
With few exceptions, my husband has read out loud to me each night before we go to sleep for the last eight years. Originally, the reading was supposed to calm us after an active day, but in recent weeks—in the post-apocalyptic times of Trump—our ritual has taken on a special dimension. With the election, we have struggled to conceptualize and respond to Trump’s hatred and his path of evil. Where to go from here? The forest appears darker now than it had ever been.
My husband’s first response was to choose gloomier readings. One night in late July, he read Jane Mayer’s “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All.” According to Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter behind The Art of the Deal, the president-elect doesn’t read.
“That’s why he so prefers TV as his first news source—information comes in easily digestible sound bites.” [Schwartz] added, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” During the eighteen months that he observed Trump, Schwartz said, he never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment.
Other journalists have noticed Trump’s apparent lack of interest in reading. In May, Megyn Kelly, of Fox News, asked him to name his favorite book, other than the Bible or “The Art of the Deal.” Trump picked the 1929 novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Evidently suspecting that many years had elapsed since he’d read it, Kelly asked Trump to talk about the most recent book he’d read. “I read passages, I read areas, I’ll read chapters—I don’t have the time,” Trump said.
I could barely listen. If Trump doesn’t read to himself, I think it is safe to assume that he has never read to his wife or children.
My husband was born and raised in Mexico, and English is not the language his mother read to him. I was born and raised in Germany, and English is not my first language, either. I have an accent, and he, miraculously, has none. If you listen closely, though, you’ll hear him roll his Rs a little when he says “three” and “throw” and “thrive.” I love that about him. It’s subtle, and I think no one hears it but me.
When I agonized about Trump’s illiteracy, my husband switched to reading Joseph Roth. A Jewish journalist and novelist best known for his family saga Radetzky March (1932), Roth was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, a place characterized by diverse cultures and languages. As a reporter he traveled through the Soviet Union, Germany, France, Albania, Italy and Poland after WWI. He was an expert at dissecting the details that counted, making you look through the small hole of a kaleidoscope to see the whole fucking world.
Roth was a nomad, a drifter, a traveler, capturing the ghosts and the displacement of the 1930s for German newspapers. He was angry but funny, disillusioned by the world, yet delighted by its absurdities. In “Millionaire for an Hour,” a story in Hotel Years, he lounges in an armchair in the lobby of an expensive hotel anatomizing the ambience around him and his own “millionaire” feelings.
After a while I shift my focus to my brother millionaires (…)
The old millionaires see, are generally unaware of the season. It’s not the state of mercury but the state of the market that matters. The old millionaires sit there in the winter wool coats and padded gloves, and they keep a freshly guillotined cigar clenched so expectantly between their teeth that a waiter leaps by with tails aflutter, in mid-air striking a match on the emery board so as to have it ready when he alights.
In another story, Roth describes a man who returned from the war disfigured.
A man returned from the war in the form of a hinge—invalid with shattered spine—moved almost inexplicably through Kärntner Strasse, selling newspapers. A dog sits on his back.
A clever well-trained dog, riding his own master, making sure he doesn’t lose a single paper. (…)
Once there were sheepdogs who watched herds of sheep, and guard-dogs that guarded houses. Today there are mandogs who watch invalids, mandogs the logical consequence of submissive men.
You know, the kind of writing that you can barely stand to read because it is so beautiful and affects you so deeply that it clenches your heart? That kind of writing.
Roth died an impoverished alcoholic at the age of 44, a few months before the start of WWII. Alienated, stateless and alone, the burden seemed too much to bear.
I sometimes read to my husband, mostly from my own work—the first draft of a story, a paragraph, a thought I am struggling with. I can “hear” what he is thinking while I read. My mind burrows into his, allowing me to scrutinize my own words with his brilliancy. He is a fast and discriminate listener who doesn’t cut me slack.
The process of reading aloud is much slower and louder than when you read to yourself. This makes certain texts hard to bear. On a recent vacation, my husband started reading Jon Ronson’s The Elephant in the Room. Normally, I would have enjoyed the short book, but that night I felt queasy and my legs were twitchy and itchy. Ronson’s confrontations with right-wing nuts seemed to exacerbate my nausea. I started to run a bit of a fever. Because of the idiocy of Ronson’s characters, the dialog is short, abrupt and vapid, highlighting the abuse of ignorance for power. Engagement with the ignorant and inherently evil just doesn’t seem possible. Ronson tries to have a conversation, to establish some sort of intimacy between reporter and subject, but fails.
“I’m here because I believe Trump is a modern-day Moses and he’s been anointed by God,” said Steven to a passing reporter.
“Those are big words,”[Ronson] said. “Do you enjoy living in Tampa?”
“It’s a tough town,” he said.
“Tough in what way?” [Ronson] asked.
“It’s one of the towns where it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” he said.
“You mean it’s hard to get a break?” [Ronson] asked.
He looked embarrassed. Then he changed the subject. “Aren’t you the guy from that Alex Jones video?” he said.
Trying to capture the moment, my husband read fast. I felt like I had to throw up. Could he please read something different? Ronson wasn’t the right fit for tonight. My husband switched to a dry art historical text on 12th-century art and architecture, I excused myself and ran to the bathroom. (It turns out I am allergic to mussels.) All night I dreamed of being chased.
If we can’t directly engage with those who cannot distinguish fact from fiction, what do you read in times like these? “Do you want me to read to you a story about hypnosis or about a town in Italy that’s plagued by mysterious fires?” My husband asked me one recent night. “FIRE!” I yelled, burying my head in the pillows, trying to stay with my breath and his voice.
In the middle of dinner, Antonino Pezzino discovered that his house was on fire. It was late December 2003, and Pezzino was at his home in Canneto di Caronia, a one-street town in the north of Sicily. The source was a fuse box, engulfed by flames so intense that they swallowed the heavy curtains that hung nearby.
I couldn’t get myself to listen to the story; it didn’t seem to apply. It felt useless. Instead I started to focus on how the way he reads has changed over the years. He used to speak louder and faster; he is now more with the words, more with me. This offers reassurance to someone like me, who always worries about death. He is alive and well, or he wouldn’t be reading to me. Once he stops reading to me, I will die, too.
Then, after Trump was elected president, my husband read Masha Gessen’s article-cum-manifest “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” to me. Gessen, a journalist, a lesbian, a Jew, has lived in autocracies most of her life. She can tell you a thing or two about anti-intellectualism and alienation, about how to stand up for yourself and others. Having spent much of her career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Gessen knows, for example, that Obama’s and Clinton’s efforts to normalize Trump “concealed the omission of a call to action.” “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead,” Clinton said in her concession speech. “We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country,” Obama said. We owe him nothing. And we will certainly not root for his success. His success in what exactly? Deporting millions of immigrants? Grabbing women by their genitals? Registering Muslims?
One of the falsehoods in the Clinton speech was the implied equivalency between civil resistance and insurgency. This is an autocrat’s favorite con, the explanation for the violent suppression of peaceful protests the world over.
In short, Gessen’s “rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect” go like this:
Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.
Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
Rule #4: Be outraged.
Rule #5: Don’t make compromises.
During the day, my husband and I took part in protests. But at night we worried, how long one can hold up an existence based solely on fear and opposition before dying from hate and hopelessness? At what point would I let denial take over? We were in pain.
Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope is an embrace of the unknown” doesn’t discourage alertness and outrage; but she puts emphasis on the opportunities the unspeakable situation has created.
Our opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.
It is clear that Solnit doesn’t mean “hope” in the sense of Obama’s lightweight “the sun will rise the next morning.” For immigrants, Muslims, and other vulnerable people, I don’t really think it rose that day. For me it didn’t. I understand, though, light or dark, we have to do something. We have to flex our muscles and brains and work for the privilege of hope.
Remember when you were little and your parents sent you to the dark basement to get a bottle of wine? And you would talk every step you took out loud to scare away ghosts and give robbers the chance to escape? Children were murdered in basements! “I’m now turning on the lights. I’m walking down the stairs, I’m opening the pantry…” Hearing your own voice emboldened you.
These are dark days. The nights before we go to sleep my husband reads out loud to me.
For thirty minutes, we are in a position of tiny intimate power. On our warm island we don’t feel quite as helpless and paralyzed. My husband speaks the words of smart people loud and clear. I feel emboldened and safe. The existence of literature reassures me that I am not alone. Writers and artists and intellectuals are here. We are strong, we are smart, we are capable.