By Robert Kroll
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay was written exclusively for the denizens of the West Village; that is not only because WestView News doesn’t circulate much beyond that boundary, but also because I wouldn’t entrust it much to those living west of the Hudson River, east of the Gowanus Canal, or north of 14th Street.
Being on the precipice of a new year, I welcome another 365 days of the inexorable weather catastrophe, the inexorable political catastrophe, the inexorable health catastrophe, the inexorable financial and economic catastrophes, and the pervasive and omni-present inequality fiasco that exacerbates the others. There are a few other catastrophes and fiascos I could mention (don’t ask for the distinction between those two malefactors), but welcome to them also.
Suffice it to say we will not fully comprehend the enormity of these calamities, short or long-term as they are, by the end of this article, though that is my assignment, which I accept. Believe me, it’s a Herculean task, especially in 700 words or less—bear with me. By the end of this piece you will either be doing your happy dance, the one that celebrates a sudden revelation, or scratching your head in wonder. Never mind the outcome—I get paid the same either way.
We could easily try to meditate or contemplate, or visualize our way out of the calamities. Those are all good methods, easy on the back and all potentially great when you feel the rush of epiphany or discovery. “Eureka, I understand what’s happening.” Moments later, when you realize there’s not a f%$%ing thing you can do with that understanding, you return to meditation, contemplation, or simple navel gazing…
Then we can turn to books. Books sometimes enlighten, explicate, or discuss (if not answer), our questions. There are two broad types of books that have been circulating widely from time immemorial that promise answers: the tell-all (the T-A) and the thumb-sucker (the T-S). There’s also a third type: “Everything you always wanted to know about…” I refuse to deal with this type because the authors never seem to know everything I want to know.
The tell-all, or T-A, is usually the result of anger or grievance and the search for vindication or revenge. The thumb-sucker, or T-S, is the product of stepping back from the fray and doing something we used to call “thinking.” Maybe cogitating is a better term. It’s what a baby is doing when she puts her thumb in her mouth and, for a while at least, stops crying and shuts up. Hence the term “thumb-sucker.” Either type of book can be helpful, but for different reasons.
The T-A can be juicy, spiteful, and full of the kinds of details that only an “insider” can provide. Dozens have been written to try to explain the machinations of the Trump presidency. Machiavelli’s Prince is one which was quite prescient. Others include Michael Cohen’s Disloyal: A Memoir, and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady. The details of these delightful tomes may or may not be true, but they are often tasty, allegorical, salacious, and sexy. Any one of these T-As can be credible, but in inverse proportion to the anger or grievance of its author. When there are many T-As on the same topic, and “factual” agreement among them, their credibility rises in direct proportion to the number of them. Two T-As are twice as credible as one, but that’s a low bar. One hundred T-As that generally agree with each another are a dead cinch to be close to “true.” “True” only has a useful meaning when applied to compass directions; in general, no book on the global weather change or capitalist inequality could truly fit this category and no matter how well thought-out, will never be described as sexy. An insider book on global warming would have to be written by Mr. Carbon, who, as we know, doesn’t exist. And, if he did exist, he wouldn’t be that good a writer.
Inside of every thumb-sucker, T-S, is the product of the author’s thoughts. Although all men are created equal (which applies to all genders), not all humans are very good thinkers. If you are browsing at Barnes & Noble and happen to find a T-S by a good thinker, by all means snap it up; you are not likely to find it again. Such rarities as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Madisonian and Hamiltonian Federalist Papers, Plato’s Republic, and the ultimate T-S, John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty are artifacts from the past. Thankfully, they are all still in print.
But even good ideas are fleeting and may become ephemeral, passing through history without collecting a neurological barnacle. For example, Thomas Snyder’s wonderful short book Twenty Lessons on Tyranny, a hit during the Trump years, will probably be removed from the Amazon top 100 more thought-provoking books, along with Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia as soon as Joseph Biden is sworn into office. Bottom line: keep reading but don’t expect books to provide the answers to life’s persistent questions.
Getting back to where this essay began—the near futility of figuring out what just happened to us and whether we should meditate, contemplate, or read our way out of it. My answer to the extremely optimistic: all three are required but probably not sufficient. For the pessimist, fugetaboutit.
Robert Kroll is a co-op super, Japanese woodworker, ex-lawyer, and extant journalist.