By Michael Harris
On the day Donald J. Trump ascended to the presidency of the United States I hunched over my laptop to read my Twitter feed. I read it compulsively, and for hours, addicted to the stream of outrage I found there. It felt useful to be part of that righteous crowd of voices. And, thanks to the filter bubble I live inside, the lamentations mostly echoed my own lefty politics. But I’d be a liar if I didn’t also say it was also exhilarating. Some part of me, I’m sure, took pleasure from the unfolding chaos. All those dire avowals were dashed out on my mind like so many dots of Tabasco sauce.
Later, when Press Secretary Sean Spicer awkwardly lied about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, I went to Twitter again—angry, yes, but also a little gleeful. And again, for hours, I indulged in reading hundreds (thousands?) of angry witticisms and scraps of outrage. This got even worse when President Trump signed an executive order banning entry to America for people from “terror-prone” countries. I scrolled, my spine hooked like a question mark with no particular question. I scrolled and said, “Isn’t it awful?”
In this, I wasn’t alone. More than 75 million election-related tweets were sent on Election Day—more than double the buzz of 2012’s election day. Later, as Trump’s administration gagged the social media accounts of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, my news feed overflowed with what-it-all-means shouting. And meanwhile, Facebook—now a source of news for the majority of American adults—grew so toxic that many users began backing away, overcome by news-nausea. Susan Brubaker Knapp, of Mooresville, N.C., seemed to capture the national sentiment when she told NPR, “I unfriended nearly everyone… I am building my own wall now.”
Then, one morning, as I read about a diabetic Syrian grandmother arrested at an airport (in a 140-character report), I suddenly shut my laptop. Something had fallen over in my head. I went to the bookshelf, pulled down a copy of Ralph Ellison’s book, Invisible Man. I started to read, struggled, looked nervously at my phone, started again. The week before I’d watched the Barack Obama biopic Barry on Netflix; in it, a young Obama totes a copy of Invisible Man around with him—the guys on the basketball court nickname him “Invisible.”
Ellison’s book was published in 1952. My copy is 581 pages. Because that nagging sense of outrage wasn’t going away, it was hard to take the time to read it, to fall deep into what Marcel Proust called “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” I was addicted to a less fruitful miracle, the one unfolding every second on my screens.
It feels almost wasteful, now, to read a book. Wasteful when I know my Twitter feed is piling up with fresh outrages that I should be consuming. But I’m starting to remind myself that it’s equally important to go deep—to read a long testament to outrage, and not just the pithy ones.
Early on in Invisible Man, Ellison writes, “there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.” I felt ashamed when I read that line. For wasn’t that what I’d become? Staring, bent at my laptop or phone or tablet and murmuring “Isn’t it awful? Isn’t it awful?”
Yes, it is awful. But it’s not the kind of awful you can fix by refreshing your Twitter feed every thirty seconds. It’s the kind of awful—the deep, stuck, cancerous kind of awful—that demands of us: go and think in silence. Come and hear what’s going on, yes (of course you should) but then go and be quiet with that knowledge for at least some of your day.
We need thinkers. Angry thinkers, sure. But also thinkers who have patience enough to puzzle out the problems beneath the sensation, the titillation, that fuels our culture of online outrage.
I’ve come to believe that the best kind of thinker is formed not through the rapacious harvesting of micro-furies but through the practice of deep and solitary reading. In the course of some research, I visited the office of cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley, at the University of Toronto, to ask him about the value of solitary reading (Oatley has devoted his academic life to understanding the reading mind). He told me that when we read novels in the old, solitary, style, “We can become people who we are not. A metaphorical process occurs. One’s self becomes Elizabeth Bennet or Anna Karenina… We can live more lives than our own.”
Empathy. That’s what it was. Reading could be an arena for the exercise of empathy. Every time we step away from the chattering crowd and lose ourselves instead in the solitary experience of reading a reasoned, thoughtful narrative, we develop our talent for empathy. We get a little better at trying on someone else’s shoes. Readers who know how to sit alone in a sustained way, readers who know the magic trick of dissolving into another person’s selfhood, are beginning to look like wizards, though—or dinosaurs.
Sleepwalkers are dangerous, said Mr. Ellison. But daydreamers are not. I put all my hope, now, in those among the young who are capable of both raucous online engagement and detached, solitary preparation. Such chimeras do exist and I imagine they’re the sort of young person who will be inspired at the Obama Presidential Center being built in Chicago’s Jackson Park.
To indulge in online outrage alone provides what doctors call “symptomatic healing” —it doesn’t fix anything at the root. To such efforts we must add the deep, empathic learning that solitary reading provides. The long-term accumulation of serious argument and heart-felt stories. We need so much more than symptomatic healing. I hope for a new generation of trained, heavyweight thinkers—people who have built up an arsenal of complex and solid philosophies which they can bring to bear in the public forums of the future. In the meantime, if President Obama would care to start a book club, I think the world is ready.
Michael Harris is the author of The End of Absence, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction and was longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, the Chautauqua Prize, and the BC National Award for Canadian Non-fiction. His forthcoming book, SOLITUDE: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, will be available from St. Martin's Press in April. He lives in Vancouver.