Guest Commentary

If we all read more books, the world would be a smarter, more empathetic place

I stopped by Borders on Oracle Road the other day and went in to check out the carnage.

The company recently declared bankruptcy, and the Oracle store is one of eight across Arizona that will be history by the end of April. It was only two days after the announcement, and the line for the cashier snaked to the rear of the store. A sense of frenzied competition hung in the air. It was like scavengers battling over scraps of bloody meat.

I met a lovely woman in line, a pharmaceutical rep by trade, who was torn between the lunacy of standing in this ridiculous queue versus picking up some classic CDs at 20 percent off. She had some Dylan, John Prine and Alison Krauss. We chatted to pass the time.

Of course, the talk turned to Arizona, politics, the economy and how it all tied in to the closing of the bookstore. Conservatives, the Palins, the Becks, the Rushes—they're all just stupid, she said. They don't read, or they read crap, and subsequently, they don't, or won't, or can't think. Looking around, she said, "I wonder how many of these books here are really any good." We were standing next to the horror section.

I was struck by her honesty and candor. A woman ahead of us clenched her jaw and looked grim.

When I was a kid, some fortunate set of circumstances compelled me to learn to be ashamed of my own ignorance. I was told to keep my mouth shut and listen, especially if I didn't know what I was talking about. If I didn't know something, I was expected to look it up or go read a book about it.

The old man liked to throw me around some and use the belt, and it was books that saved my ass. I would retreat to my room and read about hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Grand Canyon. I read about rocks and shells and dinosaurs and horses and early man. In my teens, I was reading George Orwell and Robert Frost and John Muir and even inhaled all three volumes of Solzhenitsyn's massive compendium of sadness and pain, The Gulag Archipelago. A library card was my most precious possession, until I figured out how to divert my lunch money toward purchasing my own books.

I escaped to Tucson in 1979, and the University of Arizona opened up a whole new universe of books. Paul Martin's environmental-education class on Tumamoc Hill led to Thoreau, Leopold, Austin and Nabhan's book on the Papago. Don Thomson's marine-science classes introduced me to Steinbeck and Ricketts' Sea of Cortez, and pretty much all things Mexico. I met Ed Abbey, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez, Chuck Bowden, Jim Harrison and William Kittredge (among others) and hungrily devoured all their work.

Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, philosophy, history, scientific monographs—it didn't matter. I read it all. I was on a quest to find the meaning of life. I didn't find it because, well, there isn't one. But I did learn to love and appreciate the universe—this amazing place where we live, its mysteries, and the whole idea of life itself, that most unique and miraculous of miracles.

Which brings me back to Arizona and stupid people.

Books are the most important human invention. They preserve the minds and thoughts and joys and tragedies of those who came before us. They enable us to learn from and hopefully avoid the mistakes of the past. They make us think. I believe that if conservatives, the Legislature, the governor, the attorney general—hell, if all of us read more books, good books, serious books, thoughtful books, perhaps we would all have more empathy for each other and the critters we share the planet with. We would remember the moral obligation we have to those less fortunate than ourselves. Instead of obsessing about carrying guns into every damn place we please, or worrying about being able to drive as fast as we want, or figuring out how to cheat on our taxes, we would finally understand that all the "freedoms" we love to shout about carry with them serious moral obligations and responsibilities.

Chain-store behemoth Borders killed my favorite locally owned bookstores. Now, with eight Borders stores closing, Arizonans will have eight fewer places selling books that push back against stupidity, superstition and ignorance. How sad.

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