Randi Kreiss

Feeling lost? Books are our GPS in the world.


Do you think we haven’t seen the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene before? The story of shamelessly ambitious, undereducated bigots scrambling for traction in government is old. Read “All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren.
Do you think Trump is an unprecedented phenom? See above. See Mussolini. See Pinochet. Except that Trump got lucky, got elected to the highest office in the United States and proceeded to disgrace the presidency during his time in the White House. It has been our national nightmare, but all this has happened before, and in other countries.
Are you agonizing over the rise in racism and the purposeful undermining of truth? Do you despair when you read about book bans, bolder antisemitism and anti-gay, anti-trans and anti-choice initiatives? There’s plenty out there to ring our alarm bells.
However, jingoistic groups have risen to power before. The names and dates change, and the boundaries of civility stretch in different directions, but human nature seems immutable, for better and worse.
Extremist movements have always found fertile ground in America. We are a violent country, forged in revolution, pushing our way west over the land and the bodies of native peoples. We even fought against one another in a war that killed well over 600,000 Northerners and Southerners.

I see two paths to comfort and sanity during this uncertain time. One is having faith that the pendulum will swing back to a middle ground again in America. History tells us that life plays out on a never-ending loop. Nothing is new under the sun, the Bible says.
I think of this when I hear that our political and social and cultural division is “unprecedented.” I think of this when I read that we’ve taken a hard turn and are headed over a cliff, with no way back. My hope is that political chaos will resolve in time if we continue to push back against undemocratic policies.
The other balm is reading, digging into fiction and nonfiction, finding the humanity that binds us all together, even as we disagree and wrestle over national values and policy. We self-educate as we read; we learn tolerance for other ways of life.
Book bans will not stand over time. In the age of information, it is impossible to control what Americans read, unless we tip into a dystopia like North Korea, an unlikely evolution.
Yesterday I read David Remnick’s interview with Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, and educated myself about life for people who are trans or gay or both or don’t fit into a category. I recommend it.
Recently I read “The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel, a fictionalized account of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. Living in our time and reading about fakery and chutzpah and hollowed-out lives is somehow reassuring. We realize that, again, there are no new themes or behaviors, just new names and places.
Have you heard of “All My Puny Sorrows,” by Miriam Toews? Talk about writers as alchemists: She weaves a family story around a centerpiece of sisters, one who desperately wants to die, the other desperately trying to save her from suicide. The characters pull us into a dark story that is oddly humorous and fully human, an affirmation of life in difficult times.
Since our fiction writers are storytellers and soothsayers, they help inform the future. We cannot compromise on full access to literature. That means voting for officials, from the local school board to the presidency, who support freedom and resist censorship.
I reread “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and discovered an entirely different book. Through the prism of our times, Miss Brodie is revealed not as a fun-loving nonconformist but as an emotionally abusive woman, seduced by nationalism and fascism. She apparently lives on in our Congress.
My nonfiction read this month is “We don’t Know Ourselves,” by Fintan O’Toole. Learning about the religious and political flames that nearly consumed Ireland is a cautionary tale. After a while the fighting took on a life of its own; people forgot why they planted bombs in the first place. (See “The Banshees of Inisherin.”)
In “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water,” by Matthieu Aikins, the author tells the story of going back to Afghanistan to find and escort to safety the helper who worked with him during the war, a great story that reminds us of our best selves.
Read these books to know that we have been here before. Catch a glimpse of the road ahead.

Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.