10/05/2010 01:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Flannery O'Connor for Congress

As Americans we're partial to disappointment, to being disappointed by ourselves, our families, our chosen representatives i.e. the president, Congress, city councils, school boards, religious leaders, the left, the right, the center, the fringe. It's an American sport, an American pastime. It's an ESPN channel, and so on. And when there's no one alive to blame, we move on to our dead parents, their dead parents, George Washington, our Puritanical DNA, the English, the Romans, the Gauls!

What we're not so good at is holding ourselves accountable for our own predicament -- and being grateful, feeling lucky, appreciating the fact that most of us haven't done much of anything to deserve the good fortune we already enjoy. Sure, most of us reading this now did our homework, finished school, pushed through college, and got a job. And it's true, if we still have a job, most of us are working really hard to keep it. But, really, no monuments need be raised in our names. Most of us don't even vote.

So, how did America become a culture of complaint? I'll tell you: we watch too much television, listen to too much talk radio, and rage against the machine on the Internet and don't read enough good books. There. You're welcome. Go to the library or a bookstore and have a conversation with a book. Be quiet and thoughtful. Think and listen and shut up. And then get up and do something for yourself, your family, your community, your country. No debate required. Enough debate.

Between the pages of a good book you can find the answer to any question. You can have a conversation with Alexander Hamilton about Federalism, with Mark Twain about our tyrannical self-confidence, with Flannery O'Connor about what to do when you meet an escaped convict in the woods, and with Nathanael West about what makes Americans American. And so on. I'm sorry, but If reading books is somehow elitist, well, bring it on.

I've been thinking a lot about our national character lately. With the November elections just weeks away, and being, myself, immersed in writing a literary biography of Nathanael West, I've had America on my mind. West was endlessly fascinated with our national flaws, our hubris, our inability to know ourselves, and yet still he harbored a bottomless compassion for our struggle, our struggling. "Hope springs eternal," he liked to say in letters to friends, or kid, or half-kid. His novels Miss Lonelyhearts, A Cool Million, and The Day of the Locust are full of our heartache, heartbreak, heart. Read them and know thy self, I say.

West published his novels during the whole of the 1930s -- among the worst of times, if not the worst. He wrote alongside a party of proletariats, writers like James Farrell, Michael Gold, and Josephine Herbst. Each of these writers had a political axe to grind, and they did. Each ladled their work with political idealism and made their positions the core of their books. Literary history hasn't been too kind to them for it, either. Too much politics, not enough art, is how the argument goes. This isn't a tragedy or anything, but it explains why so few people know these writers and their work; political history is the first thing we forget, abandon, re-imagine.

But back to my proposal for a new national pastime -- reading books. My point is this. If you're curled up with a history, a biography, a great novel, even a good comic book you're not out in the world filling it with meaningless noise. If you're reading or writing you're not flopped across a recliner watching all that big hair and color blocking on your television. You're missing the parade of talking heads in red blazers and flag lapel pins on Sunday mornings. You're quiet and busy.

So, then, I implore: curl up with someone sensible. Get into a conversation with a man or a woman whose ideas have been tested, exposed, expanded, reduced, edited, challenged and changed and then chiseled into a book. Think long and hard about what you read and then go outside and do something with it. Do it in silence. And when you find yourself agreeing with one of those talking heads, remember, it's like carnival food -- it tastes good, but it isn't good for you. Flannery O'Connor for Congress, Allen Ginsberg for governor, and so on.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.