Escapism. It's a word often used to describe both the motivation for and effect of reading. For me, though, escapism always seemed a cheap and incomplete way to characterize the interplay between a good book and an able reader — but then, we seem to occupy an ever-more Orwellian world in which things are described, by collective edict, as the opposite of what they actually are. This is not a "post-factual" society, but rather a dangerously ironic one. Take social media, for a most obvious example, which offers the illusion of connection while supplanting the more nourishing forms of human community — that's escapism, folks. Reading a book, on the other hand, by which you can develop a stronger understanding of the world, and moreover a stronger sense of your immutable connection to it, is escapism's opposite.
I first learned this as a grade schooler in the early '80s. It was a scary time for a kid who paid attention to — and perhaps had an exaggerated sense of the immediate personal danger from — world events. One of the earliest memories my brain saw fit to preserve is of Mount St. Helens burying 200 square miles of wilderness in brimstone. After that there's the Reagan assassination attempt, AIDS, the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, famine in Ethiopia, the hole in the ozone layer, the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl, and on and on.
Running concurrently with this conga line of horrors is another set of abiding memories: that of the books I read at the time. Like a lot of nerdy kids, I was heavily into science fiction and horror, with some dark realism thrown in for ballast. I devoured the entire bibliographies of Stephen King, Orwell, Asimov, Tolkien and Huxley. Note that these authors (yes, including King) did not write breezy yarns meant to distract from the fear and upheaval of human business — on the contrary, most of their work engages with that fear and upheaval directly, if through metaphor or parable. This goes without saying for "Animal Farm" and "1984," "Brave New World" and "Island," but is also inarguably true of, say, "The Stand" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Even my comic strip of choice, "Bloom County," was regularly engaged with the politics of the time (in fact, "Bloom County" was the sole reason I have any idea who Caspar Weinberger, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Ed Meese were).
The things I read were not escapism, but rather an intimate way to make sense, through narrative, of the seemingly random and capricious world around me. There was comfort in dystopia, in seeing the violence and nonsense and grim absurdity of daily life confirmed between the covers of my favorite books. I sought entertainment, of course, and to satisfy my curiosity about existence beyond the New England town of my upbringing, but my primary motivation in reading was to find solace, not rescue. Understanding, not escape.
Fast-forward 30-odd years, and hey: brave new world, indeed! The ground hasn't opened up and swallowed us whole — aside from a few sinkholes in Florida, anyway — but we have flung ourselves into the great glistening gob of Donald Trump, who has to be the odds-on favorite for worst president ever (sorry, Millard Fillmore). Not since my childhood have I been so troubled — which is to say, troubled to the point of physical illness — with the state of things. The day after the election was like waking into a nightmare of backward-facing nationalism and "Star Wars" villains and dumb intrigue, all set to a soundtrack of jackboots clomping somewhere in the near distance.
One might assume that, as a man in his early 40s, I now possess both a sophistication and a broadened perspective that my childhood self lacked, and therefore am better equipped to cope with such eventualities. But that quickly proved to not be the case. I went through my days silent and despondent, blinking rapidly as though always having just emerged from darkness. I was unable to write (aside from an angry essay coughed up like a hairball in the days after the election), or even form thoughts that amounted to more than an incoherent jumble of anger and disbelief. The more I tried to engage with the staccato of news articles and think pieces and Facebook posts, the more likely it seemed that I might spontaneously combust at any moment. Because why not? The world had suddenly been emptied of all reason, and anything, no matter how improbable just a few days prior, seemed eminently possible now.
But then, after flailing around for a while, I decided to ignore the whole tawdry debacle and try reading a book instead. I picked up "The Sellout," the novel by Paul Beatty recently bedecked with Booker Prize laurels. I got into bed and cracked it open and found myself transported from the world of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter to a world in which a black man reinstitutes segregation in his hometown and owns his best friend (who happened to be Buckwheat's understudy on "Little Rascals") as a slave. In the wake of Trump's inauguration, when liberal pieties are being thrown around like life vests, Beatty pokes holes, hilariously, in every last one. It's easy to imagine, after reading this, that Beatty was the only person in the country not surprised by Trump's victory. And though he's written a spectacularly bleak novel, I sank into his prose each night as one eases into a warm bath, because in the same way that reading is not escapism, solace is not contractually obligated to be upbeat. In fact, the message of Beatty's novel can probably be summed up in half a line: "sometimes it's the nihilism that makes life worth living." And if it's Beatty's contention that this has always been true for black Americans, it now seems true for anyone who until recently had hopes of living in a sane and moderately dignified country.
Encouraged by the caustic balm of "The Sellout," I continued avoiding the news, fake and otherwise, and moved on to Bruce Springsteen's recent autobiography, "Born to Run." At first blush, you might think these two books would offer entirely different reading experiences, and in a superficial way, they do. But there's a common vein running through them, and it's a vein that runs through all of Springsteen's music as well: that of class in America. Anyone who's paid attention to the history of this country — and both Beatty and Springsteen have — can tell you that the pre-eminence (and rigidity) of class runs in direct proportion to how fond we are of pretending we live in a pure meritocracy. This makes for dry and dour contemplation when read as news. But couched in the story of Springsteen's life, class becomes a human experience shared with the reader, as when Springsteen buys his first home as a rock star, and the poor kid in him has to take a deep breath before convincing himself to walk through the front door.
Finally, I turned to the forthcoming "All Our Wrong Todays" by Elan Mastai. The novel's bumbling but affable protagonist, Tom Barren, travels through time in a fit of pique and in the process destroys the future he knows, a utopian version of 2016 that resembles all the sunniest techno-prognostications of the 1950s. What he ends up stuck with instead, poor soul, is our 2016 (although, notably, Donald Trump is not commander in chief). One might expect a pat and shopworn narrative argument that happiness and perfection are not synonymous, but Mastai's novel, for all its whimsy, is much smarter and more rigorous than that. It earns the case it makes for the messiness, heartbreak and imperfections of our world, and in doing so helped reconnect me to my fellow humans, whom, at the moment, I find inscrutable and frightening in equal measure.
Many would ask, in this late, distracted age, what importance books can possibly have. What relevance can the ponderous medium of Cervantes and Dickens possess at a time when empires rise and fall on 140 characters or fewer? My answer: In a world gone mad and bovine in equal measure, books — those dusty anachronisms — may in fact be the only thing that can save us.
Ron Currie's new novel, "The One-Eyed Man," will be published by Viking in March.