Sunday, August 27, 2006

The More Books You Read

“The more books you read, the more stupid you become.”
Mao Zedong

I got this quote from the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which one of my book discussion groups just met to discuss yesterday. (If your book discussion group is trying to figure out what to read next, I’d highly recommend it. We had a terrific discussion. Not extraordinarily well-written, but the kind of book that provides endless topics for conversation.) I never thought I’d find myself in the position of agreeing with something Chairman Mao had to say, but I think he'd admire my clever ability to take this quote out of context, something he and others of his ilk are so fond of doing. In so doing, I have to say I agree whole-heartedly. As a matter of fact, I’d add to it, “The more books you read, and the more movies you watch, the more stupid you become.”

I’ll start with Wild Swans. Although, I don’t tend to think of myself as being super brilliant, I also don’t go around on a daily basis thinking of myself as being woefully stupid and ignorant. This book had me convinced I need to start engaging in the latter (my own denunciation and self-criticism similar to what so many of the characters in the book had to endure), so here we go: despite taking world culture classes in junior high and high school during which I supposedly learned something about China, I know absolutely nothing about the place. Nothing. Zilch. (Well, except for what I picked up from watching characters in things like Bugs Bunny cartoons as a child.) As a matter of fact, not only do I know nothing about China, but I really don’t know much about Communism, either. General Mao was right. In the few weeks it took me to read this book, I’ve become much more stupid than I was before I read it. I’m feeling the urge to go out and do massive amounts of research on China, find more books like this, read Chinese literature (I’ve already got my copy of A Dream of Red Mansions, along with a collection of excerpted material from classic Chinese literature). And while I’m at it, I want to learn more about Russia and compare the two.

In fact, this whole year has been a great lesson in my own stupidity. Until I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed, I had no idea what a racket the house-cleaning business is, and although I had some inkling as to how horrific Wal-Mart is, I didn’t know to what extent, especially as concerns their employees. I’ve always been somewhat aware of the fact that, despite what many, extraordinarily-wealthy, never-really-had-to-struggle people in this country will tell you, no you can’t just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and live the American dream. However, I didn’t really know exactly why that was, and now I have a teeny, tiny little piece of why, but nowhere near all the information I’d like to have to really understand that. Molly Hughes’s A London Child of the 1870s taught me how very, very little I know about the extreme injustices apparently visited upon children in that era, even children of the upper classes, just because they happened to be born female. I want to go out and find out more about this, if I can. Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness left me with close to a million questions, I’m sure, about Mennonites in Canada, as well as about Mennonites in general. Again, my ignorance and stupidity are astounding. I’d feel like a complete idiot asking some of these questions.

And then, there are movies. Bob and I have been watching a lot of DVDs lately, “catching up,” and one we just saw was Good Night and Good Luck. Look for something I’ve always just sort of had a one-sentence description of, and that something would be McCarthyism. Ironic, isn’t it, that Mao has led me to the realization that until I saw this movie, I really didn’t care too much about the fact that I knew nothing about our own “Red Scare?” I’m fascinated by the brain, read quite a lot of books and articles about it, and have been pretty confident that this is one area in which I might know a little more than the average person does. Then we rented Momento. Forget it. I was wrong. The brain and how our memory works and what happens to people who completely lose their short-term memory capabilities is a complete mystery to me. Guess I need to do some more reading.

So, where does it all end? How can I possibly come to fill in all these gaps? If I read more books and watch more movies, will I soon find myself starring in Dumbest and Dumbester? Maybe I need to put The Little Red Book at the top of my TBR list. Quite obviously, it was the one book that could be read without making a person feel like a moron.


litlove said...

As ever, Emily, brilliant and funny. My ignorance overwhelms me, often, and about all kinds of things. I do remember, though, conducting an admissions interview with another colleague for a poor 18-year-old who had read Wild Swans and was longing to tell us about it, but could not for the life of her remember which revolution it was about when my colleague pressed her. The memory still awakens an ache of compassion for her.

Rebecca H. said...

Great post -- the reader's curse! The more we read, the more there is to read ... well, what can we do? Nothing -- just get back to the books.

Heather said...

Amazing to be agreeing with a dictator - I so want to read this book after reading your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

It's disturbing, isn't it, how much there is to know about, well, everything. I really liked Wild Swans, which was such an effective piece of history-telling. (For one thing, I'd never realized how hateful corruption is, and what sorts of things people will put up with to get rid of it.) And it made me want to know more about China, especially present-day China. Maybe that's one marker of a fine book -- it opens a window.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, Emily. I had a very similar experience while reading The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. I couldn't believe how much I DIDN'T know about WWII. It's a fine line, with both books and movies, to learn from them and realize our ignorance, and becoming overwhelmed. Sounds like you are balancing that line very nicely - looking forward to hearing more!

Emily Barton said...

Well, thank you, everyone. As always, I am so happy to find I'm not alone (amazing what baring one's soul will do). Litlove, my heart breaks for the poor young woman who couldn't remember which revolution it was (sounds so like me in an interviewing situation. I'm likely to forget where I was born).

Eva said...

Well you know that after leaving that comment on my post, I had to go read what you'd written about Wild Swans. And you are so clever, it must hurt sometimes!

Emily Barton said...

Eva, yes, (ouch!) when I get blank stares from people who haven't got a clue what my "clever" mind is trying to relate to them. Doesn't happen, of course, with all my blogging friends, since they are all even more clever.