The Answers You’re Looking For Are in Books

Stay informed and engaged, but the truth lies outside the feed

Illustration by the author

Turns out an insurrection is a great motivator. After burning out on news about the attempt to disrupt the electoral vote count on January 6, I began using almost all of my free time to read books—specifically, books that could help me understand the vulnerability of America’s institutions.

One of those books provided me with a line that I’ve repeated dozens of times to other people, to myself, to my five-year-old daughter when she looks particularly irritated:

The answers you’re looking for in books.

Books like The Plot Against America, Philip Roth’s alternative-history novel in which Roosevelt loses his third election to American hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh. Or The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz, a haunting book about how Polish intellectuals fell prey to totalitarianism after World War II. Or How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniell Ziblatt, a book that highlights the inherent weaknesses in our system of government and how they can be exploited by bad actors in positions of power. Or Lindsay Chervinsky’s The Cabinet, a book about how George Washington managed the first group of presidential advisors.

I recommend all those books if you’re confused by the state of our union. But the book you should start with is the book that inspired the headline of this post: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. It’s a remarkably useful little manual for living in a country like the present-day United States, and it was especially useful in that period between January 6 and the Inauguration, when we just… didn’t know what would happen.

It consists of 20 lessons, from “Defend institutions” to “Make eye contact and small talk” to “Listen for dangerous words.” It shows you how to see your role in a crippled democracy. How to act. How to be. What you can do to help. Who to trust. Who to not trust at all. Hopeful signs. Signs that things have gone past the point of no return.

Fun read!

So much of Snyder’s book has influenced my thinking, but the lesson I keep coming back to is found in this passage from chapter 9, “Be kind to our language.”:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else… To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading.

The way it’s now crystallized in my brain is:

The answers you’re looking for are in books.

(It’s so stuck in my head that I was surprised just now, when I opened On Tyranny for the first time in a few weeks, that those words do not actually appear in the book.)

I think about it every day. I repeat it to myself. I say it to others.

The answers you’re looking for are in books.

The idea is not original, of course. That’s what books are for: big, lasting ideas that require real commitment from the reader. But it immediately struck me as a crucial reminder that when news is happening faster than any of us can keep up, we shouldn’t only take breaks from media consumption—we should fill those breaks with books.

Gather as much information as you possibly can. Be online. Be on social media. Consume. Engage. That’s our responsibility as citizens of our communities, our country, our world. We must stay informed and aware, in more or less real time.

But that’s not where the answers are. The answers are found slowly. They’re uncovered. The answers are in books like On Tyranny, which I highly recommend.

Editor/Director, Medium//author, Works Well With Others//writing weekly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way//rossmccammon.com

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