Reading Darkness to Find the Light

In times of crisis, what should we read? Should we read books that expose the dark side of humanity, or should we seek instead more uplifting books? Readers (and film-goers) today seem to fall into one or the other category. People are either going for Animal Farm1984, or It Can’t Happen Here, or they are indulging in more feel-good novels like Three Things About Elsie, A Man Called Ove, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I fall in the first category.

I must admit that I am by default somewhat of a pessimist. I am not surprised by evil in the world because I believe that humans are tempted by selfishness. That being said, I have spent the past two years actively trying to be more optimistic. Consequently, I am much less cynical than I used to be. I’m certainly much friendlier.

But I am increasingly drawn to dark fiction and histories that explore atrocities. My current project explores responses to the trial of Louis de Berquin, a 16th century Lutheran executed for heresy. I have scoured Inquisition registers and read treatises in defense of the enslavement of indigenous people (such as Sepúlveda’s), in hopes of “understanding” and recognizing today the arguments people have historically given for violence. There’s nothing new about the rhetoric white supremacists use to defend their xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist beliefs.

I guess I feel a responsibility to put my linguistic and historical skills in the service of social reform. It is important to note that there have always been dissenters, like Bartolomé de las Casas or Erasmus, who challenged dominant perspectives on social issues. Still, studying the rhetoric of unpleasant treatises has made me more sensitive to the language politicians throw around in the public square. Perhaps it is because I am more informed that I am less cynical. When all arguments appear equally dazzling, you don’t know what is true and what is false.

Furthermore, literature has taught me to trust my heart as well as my mind. Over and over again, medieval/Renaissance treatises in defense of violence privileged reason over feeling. Sepúlveda appealed to Aristotle in defense of the enslavement of the indigenous people of the “New World”. When we tell others to suppress their feelings, we are asking them to deny a part of their humanity. The deeper I dig into history, the more I realize how essential pity and mercy are to good, ethical decision-making. I am also reminded that reform is possible. Those treatises didn’t have the last word.

Although I do not know what we should be reading in this period of crisis, I do know from personal experience that reading unpleasant works has made me less, not more, cynical. They have inspired me to take action in order to nip hatred in the bud. Consider that the far-right is populated with some of the most cynical people you’ll ever encounter. Their prejudices and conspiracy theories come from a place of fear. And predictably, they have a poor knowledge of history.


Where Are All the Histories?

I think I know why many book bloggers and vloggers don’t review histories: They’re just too darn long.

Like many bloggers, I am participating in Nonfiction November this month. I made a TBR of all the books I planned on reading in November. The major reason why I filmed the TBR was to gush about my favorite histories. I wanted to encourage more readers to try that genre of nonfiction.

It has occurred to me in the past week that many readers are probably put off by the length and density of most histories. Any history worth its chops is at least 500 pages, and who has the time to read 500 pages of dense nonfiction in a few sittings? I love history, but I am usually reading multiple histories at once. It takes me months to finish a single book because I am reading so many other works at the same time.

As a result of my reading habits, I don’t often mark “Read” on Goodreads for nonfiction. Biographies and 800-page studies are just too long to read in even a couple weeks. Goodreads, book blogs, and booktube are perfect for shorter books (fiction or nonfiction) and maybe long, fast-paced thrillers, but readers using those platforms may be deterred from tackling longer nonfiction because they take so long to read.

There is nothing wrong with reading multiple pieces of nonfiction at the same time, but viewers and followers may get the impression that the content creator isn’t serious about reading nonfiction. Goodreads, blogs, and the like reveal a lot about a person’s reading tastes, but these platforms also have their limitations. A reader’s desire to show how many books she has read in a month may deter her from reading a biography or a large history. On the flip side, a reader could read nothing but nonfiction the entire year and fail to reach her reading goal.

I have more than surpassed my Goodreads reading goal of 50 books this year, and I generally am indifferent to the number of books I read in a month. However, I am currently dipping in and out of quite a few massive histories. I want people to know that I enjoy histories, but I don’t finish many in a year.

Lovers of essays and short stories face a similar issue on book reviewing platforms. Essay and short story collections are the most common books readers dip in and out of. Even if a reader has read nine out of the ten essays in a collection, he can’t mark the collection as “Read” until he has read the tenth essay. I enjoy reading short stories, but I often lack the motivation to read a short story collection in a few sittings.

Maybe, we need to rethink the way we discuss certain kinds of fiction and nonfiction. Instead of waiting until we have completed a study of the Middle Ages, for example, we could write blog posts or make videos about the topics that we have already encountered in the book. This could be a great way to introduce followers to a work, because, unlike fiction, nonfiction is hard to spoil. Besides, it is nearly impossible to review an 800-page history in a 500-word blog post.