Perhaps it is not so much that the news is bad as that it is relentless.
I am a member of the Generation That Has No Name, too old to be a Millennial, too young to be Gen X. For most of my childhood, the most advanced piece of technology in our house was the television, big, bulky, and immobile. That and the daily newspaper we shared with my grandparents, who lived next door, was where we got our news. We had a whole day to digest the newspaper, and the nastier bits were sweetened with recipes, comics, and the ridiculous plights of the people who wrote to Dear Abby. We didn’t get a computer until I was in high school, and I don’t remember having the internet anytime before my senior year. And anyway, you couldn’t be online if someone was using the (landline) phone.
We usually had the 5:00 p.m. news on in the background of the evening rush, and sometimes, if something big was happening, the 6:00 p.m. news as well. But that was all, except in summer when my mom sometimes turned on the noon news for something to do. I was in bed by 11:00 p.m., not yet up at 6:00 a.m. So the news came to me in a manageable way, and we were spared the Comments Section. The worst you could do was call in to the station or write a letter to the editor, and both were beyond the abilities of most trolls.
But now the stream is constant and almost unavoidable and we hear not only the news, which seems BAD BAD BAD, but we hear what everyone, from our nearest and dearest to total strangers, thinks about the news, which is perhaps worse.
I’m not suggesting a return to an imaginary and idealized past, nor am I suggesting that we don’t have a responsibility to engage with our own moment.
What I am suggesting is that the brain, my brain at least, which tends toward anxiety and panic and the slippery slope fallacy anyway, must find a way to cope if it is to survive.
Books are the answer to most things. Some people speak of comfort food. I have comfort books.
Years ago, a colleague in New Jersey told me that after 9/11, she couldn’t read for a long time. Her brain wouldn’t focus, and the emotions reading stirred in her were too much for a mind worn out by tragedy. When she could read again, she turned to the old yellow-jacketed Nancy Drews of her childhood. Around the same time, living far away from home for the first time, I came home from work every day to reread the Anne of Green Gables series, eight books’ worth of places and people who were old friends, any emotional response tempered by long familiarity.
I have always been a cozy mystery fan, and I find myself turning more and more to them lately. Agatha Christie got me early. And I got to wondering, why on earth do I find murder mysteries (of all things) so comforting?
The answer, of course, lies in another book. Fascinated by my own fascination with the cozy mystery, I turned to Lucy Worsley’s literary history The Art of the English Murder. And what do you know? Those cozy mysteries by the Four Queens of Crime (Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh), written in the years between the World Wars that constitute the Golden Age of this kind of book, are designed to comfort. Perhaps they weren’t purposely written that way, at least not at first, but that’s what a traumatized society produced.
Worsley sets the scene:
Their world was rural and well-ordered, with country houses and cottages alike inhabited by readers of the Daily Mail. Into its confines, the writers of the detective novel’s golden age sowed the seeds of passion and violence. But in their tens of thousands of light novels, a detective character entered the scene, cleared away the body, solved the crime, punished the wicked, and neatly tidied up all the loose ends. In the years following the First World War, people wanted leisure reading to numb, not to stimulate, their capacity for experiencing horror. (Introduction)
She quotes Edmund Wilson writing in the New Yorker in 1944:
The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert. (Chapter 19: The Women Between the Wars)
Yikes. That sounds too close for comfort.
Christie herself explained it this way:
A detective story is complete relaxation, an escape from the realism of everyday life. It has, too, the tonic value of a puzzle—it sharpens your wits. (Chapter 19: The Women Between the Wars)
It puts my brain busy at something else, figuring out the puzzle, so that it can’t run in endless loops, like the 24-hour news cycle.
I do some of my comfort reading on paper, but increasingly I do my recreational reading on my Kindle, on my phone, and on my iPad. (I read Worsley’s book on my Kindle, which is why, sorry, no page numbers on the quotes. I have an old Kindle.) The same technology that inundates me with more information than can reasonably be processed also provides me with quiet moments to allow my brain to rest and recover, to store up strength, to pull itself together. It’s all in how it’s used.
What is your comfort reading like?