Readings — From the September 2008 issue

The Naughts

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Short of withdrawing to an ashram in the Appalachian Mountains or to a bunker in West Texas, there is little the responsible American citizen can do to avoid contamination except turn off the television and the radio, cancel newspaper subscriptions, shun the movie theater, and meditate each day on the mantras of H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and Ambrose Bierce. But for those of us who must, whether out of perversity or an outmoded sense of civic duty, maintain close contact with the diseased organs of our society, there is another option. We can choose to embark on an immunization program, to strengthen ourselves with a literary vaccine to the never-ending cycle of obscene news and the pandemic of poorly expressed, ill-reasoned, well-publicized opinion.

The medicinal literature I have in mind is not fiction, though fiction can serve in this role as well, but the literature of fact, a variety of narrative journalism (of a provenance far too ancient to be called “new”) that has long sought to place a strong bulwark of wit between the reader and history’s perpetual invitation to despair. Today that protective coating has become a medical necessity. In times such as these, healthy citizenship requires the insertion of a human proxy into the stream of historical happenstance. What we need is an experimental subject, an “I” sufficiently armed with narrative powers both literary and historical, gifts of irony and indirection, and the soothing balms of description and implication, to go forth and find stories that might counteract the unhappy effects of our disorder. What distinguishes such dispatches is what might be called the radical first person: the individual consciousness of the writer becomes paramount. The reader is thereby privy to the writer’s experience and receives direct confirmation of its truth value. What results is not mere consumable opinion, the mystical commodity of mediated capitalism, but the raw material of a considered judgment, whether aesthetic, political, or ethical. In that judgment lies the cure for our affliction.

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