My reading habits, in terms of genres, follow a pattern. First I go on a crime fiction spree and read detective novels until my brain starts mixing up the storylines. I switch over to classic literature and read a Steinbeck or a Twain, maybe a Cather or Stegner. I then move to nature essays, and good nature writing reminds me that I enjoy nonfiction as much as I enjoy novels. This leads me to philosophy, and when philosophy overwhelms me, which it always does, I go back to popular crime fiction.
Recently, however, a new category of writing has been added to the rotation. I’m not even sure what to call it, but it is essays about democracy and freedom. I read Noam Chomsky for the first time. I bought on impulse a Gary Hart book that was sitting on the checkout counter at my local bookstore. I reread my own essays about Dewey’s Democracy and Education. The best of the lot was a compiled collection of E. B. White essays simply titled On Democracy.*
It is unsettling that I feel an urge to read such books. I fear current political extremism both left and right (mostly right), and I am looking for something to convince me the United States will get through this genuine threat. I don’t remember ever being so bothered by politics. I didn’t think anything on a national or international scale could worry me more than climate change, but I was wrong. My search for a reason to be optimistic has not been successful. The best I have come up with is that this is nothing new. Dewey and White wrote stuff eighty years ago that could have been written yesterday. Gary Hart, whose book is largely historical, goes back even further and describes the founding fathers worrying about the same threats to democracy that I worry about now. I keep looking for someone to tell me, “This too will pass,” but so far no one has.
On the bright side, reading On Democracy has reminded me of the beautiful simple prose of E. B. White. With the 2022 election only a day away, I am back to reading crime novels (maybe as a way of burying my head in the sand). When I move on from my present fiction phase and turn again to nonfiction, I might put The Letters of E. B. White or The Essays of E. B. White on my reading list.
* The specific book titles are Chomsky’s Failed States, Gary Hart’s The American Republic Can Save American Democracy, E. B. White On Democracy edited by his granddaughter Martha White, and my own Rediscovering Dewey.