That was the line that popped into my mind recently when a certain high-profile billionaire with presidential leanings started showing up in my Facebook feed. It was one of those wonderfully synchronous moments that happen between life and literature. The description belongs to Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a prosperous real estate agent in the booming town of Zenith, U.S.A.
I had been reading the novel that week and smiled as I realized the two men shared more than an outward appearance; they also seemed to have an equity of spirit. As Babbitt stares out his window at the skyline of the city, “his slack chin lifted in reverence. … He beheld the tower as a temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith passionate, exalted, surpassing common men …” “When Babbitt drove west from his office … he saw a drove of shabby men … he hated them because they were poor, because they made him feel insecure. ‘Damn loafers!’ he complained.” I checked the publishing date on the book: 1922. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.
This isn’t the only time I’ve found my Facebook feed echoed in the pages of a book. Earlier this year, while riots raged in Baltimore over Freddy Gray’s death, I was reading Emile Zola’s Germinal, a book following a poor mining community in France looking for decent working conditions and food for their children. On Facebook, friends captioned pictures of destruction and riots with “What’s wrong with these people?” while in my book, Emile Zola’s bourgeois mine owners watched a hungry, desperate mob approach and sneered, “Get out your smelling salts, the sweat of the people is going by.”
I didn’t need Germinal to reveal the want in the detached response of Facebook friends. But when it came, I had been deeply in my book, hoping for a crust of bread with two thousand French miners, and the smack of privilege stung from two hundred years away. Sitting in front of a cold blue screen blistering with opinions, I wished there was a way to slip a copy of Germinal into everyone’s hands.
I’ve heard it said that we now receive more information (and its accompanying analysis and opinions) in one day than a person in the year 1900 would have received in a lifetime. No wonder we often feel angry, hopeless, despairing. More than ever, we need anchors, something to remind us that what we are facing has been faced before, what we are feeling has been felt before, what we are considering has been considered before.
Books, and the telling of stories, offer such an anchor. Writer and theologian Vigen Guroian says that stories are essential in helping us “draw out” our own moral beliefs and bring clarity to our thinking. Fiction allows us vicarious experience and thus provides a practice ground for us to try out our own responses and frame our own beliefs.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the well-fed billionaire appeared once again online. I scrolled through comments ranging from “This guy is the only one not afraid to tell the truth!” to “What a joke!” and felt my own temperature rising. On my computer, the billionaire’s face was frozen in a scowl, his finger pressed pale and rigid into the podium from which he spoke. My mind returned to my reading and was instantly populated with the characters that swirled through Babbitt’s orbit: the glad-handing Good Citizens’ League; the smug intellectual neighbor; the daughter with “radical ideas;” the college friend so disillusioned with life that he does the unthinkable; the silent, lonely wife … and Babbitt himself, shaken from his surety, clutching at answers, at any smidgen of comfort, unable, in the end, to rise.
For a moment the two merged in my mind and I considered the way a life is lived, what goes unsaid, what happens in the quiet of hotel rooms and bedrooms when others are not present, the people who inhabit a life, the dreams that twist and sharpen unchecked, and I felt something like pity … or maybe empathy … stir. I closed the comment box, went my way, and let them be.
You can find Tonia Peckover at her online journal, study in brown.
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