Red Books, Blue Books, and the Empathy Gap

Amazon is persisting with its Election Heat Map, which on November 5 showed Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama 59 percent to 41 percent based on the purchase of "red" books versus "blue" books (and which at last check has the post-election gap narrowed to 57-43).D.G. Myers, in one of his last posts at Commentary (he was recently fired after sixteen months as its literary blogger but is still writing here), dismisses the books on both sides as perishable, then offers his own listsof acknowledged non-perishablesthe authors of which are all dead, canonically white, and mostly malefrom Platos Republic, Whitmans Leaves of Grass, and Steinbecks Grapes of Wrath on the blue side to Virgils Aeneid, Mores Utopia, and Kafkas The Trial on the red. Why no contemporary writers? Because theyd fall predominantly into the blue category, he says, thanks to leftist domination of humanities faculties and the primacy of self-regard among those in the writing community. Anyone who reads very much contemporary literature knows there are not enough red books for a short reading list, he says, before claiming Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, and Ralph Ellisonall only recently deceased, relatively speakingfor todays red team, along with Tom Wolfe.The Daily Beasts James McGirk also goes in search of serious literary fiction for Republicans. Among the works he proffers are Flannery OConnors short story The Lame Shall Enter First, Louis-Ferdinand Celines Journey to the End of the Night, John Dos Passoss U.S.A. Trilogy (Republicans may enjoy Dos Passos as they watch 12 characters careen through history, each of them eventually wanting to settle down), and James Ellroys American Tabloid.McGirks list shares something with Myerss, namely that most of the writers on it are no longer writing: With the exception of Ellroy, he notes, the authors mentioned are all dead. Yet rather than roll out shibboleths like leftist domination as an explanation for the preponderance of blue books by living authors, McGirk laments the mutation of a once-familiar political party:

The Republican Party is in a moment of crisis, and there is a difference between being conservative and being a member of todays right wing. The right has been radicalized by a ridiculous ideology that would be outrageous if expressed in literature. By comparison the liberal left is in an elegiac mode and mourning for an America that used to at least try to include everyone. The Democrats are perhaps the true conservatives, the nostalgic ones. In the year 2012, Republican writers are not publishing much literary fiction of note, as the right has traded in sentimentality for fantasy, spirituality for fanaticism.

And empathy for apathy, if not cruelty: Pre-election polling consistently revealed the perception of an empathy gap between parties (one only slightly narrowed by Mitt Romneys first debate performance), and even some on the right have in their post-mortems cautiously venturedthat characterizing large portions of the electorate as freeloaders or eventual self-deporters doesnt help win hearts or minds. (You can see reflections of the schism in how Myers apportions blue- and red-lit traits: Blue is a literature of ideals with a strong nose for justice [and] a healthy suspicion of inherited position or class, while red themes include decline, responsibility [and] a commitment to institutions.)Cultivating empathy, however, could be as easy as actually reading any of the books Myers and McGirk identify. As Kevin Dutton, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, notes:

Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement is such that we "mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative," according to [researchers at Washington University]. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses.Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the worldmakes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, "The Dreams of Readers," "more alert to the inner lives of others." We become more empathic.

Old books, new books, it probably doesnt matter. But if Myers is to be believed, then coming up to speed on contemporary representations of the inner lives of others will require red readers to reach across the literary aisle. The elections big winner has shown a willingness to do so: In addition to the contemporary blues (Morrisons Song of Solomon, Robinsons Gilead) on his Facebook favorites list, Barack Obama includes Moby Dick, which Myers puts firmly in the red column.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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