Read More Fiction
To peruse my bookshelf last year was to infer the reading schedule of a man hell-bent on intellectual self-immolation. There were books on the rise of ISIS and the ascent of white nationalism. There were treatises on Trump and doorstop-sized tomes on human folly and violence. There was an exegesis on nuclear weapons proliferation and a thoroughly depressing sociological study entitled The Anatomy of Human Destruction.
But one evening, when I’d finally tired of drifting off to sleep in a state of high dudgeon, I did something I hadn’t done in far too long. I picked up an innocent, transportative work of make-believe.
The book I reached for, apropos of nothing, was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: a sumptuous novel charting the lives and tribulations of four people thrown together in an anonymous city during India’s “Emergency” in 1975. It wasn’t what you might describe as a happy book. (One of the protagonists gets forcefully castrated, while another ends up chucking himself in front of a train — reminders in themselves that things can always get worse.)
But the point is that this exquisitely rendered tale — about ordinary people negotiating a period of turbulence in a time long ago in a country far away — could not have been more alien to my personal here and now.
Science fiction author Ray Bradbury once wrote, “We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth,” and in times like these, it can be a tonic to abscond from reality into the fabricated lives of others. Perhaps avoid too much dystopia — some have started to assume a ring of prophecy.
Enjoy What’s Left of the Natural World
It serves as evidence of just how deep my existential despair runs that it has become all but impossible for me to regard the natural world without spotting some hint of human degradation. No river, it seems, is without its man-made flotsam, no mountain view is without its receding snows. The beauty of each new flower bud tarnished with thoughts of how much earlier they seem to be appearing this year.
And yet, for all that, the natural world we are busy ruining remains the best antidote to the ineluctable crush of the shitty human world.
Go outside on a sunny day and find a spider in the early stages of building a web. Pull up a garden chair and watch as a tiny invertebrate, with a brain the size of a pinhead, weaves a silken miracle before your eyes. Go right up close—she’ll be too busy to mind. Take it all in: the graceful ballet of the legs, the determination of the endeavor, the exquisite geometry of the result.
And comfort yourself with the knowledge that, a million years hence, when whatever scrap of flora and fauna that’s survived our era has reclaimed the planet, some simulacrum of this miracle will persevere, unmolested by human stupidity.
Listen to Old Music
It’s no earth-shattering insight to suggest that an era’s social preoccupations tend to inform its culture. But in my state of perpetual cynicism, I’ve started feeling that our current malaise can be heard in contemporary music, so much of which sounds like it was built by algorithm.
There are the catchy riffs, the earworm melodies, and the cut-glass vocals. But amid it all is a yawning vacancy, as if the soul has been extracted, asphyxiated, and replaced by code.
Here in the UK, there are radio stations with mellifluous names like Smooth, Magic, and Gold, which play medleys of tunes from eras past. Stevie Wonder gives way to Elton John, the Beatles give way to early Bob Dylan. Most of these songs predate my time on the planet, but I still recognize them as the soundtrack to simpler times, when classic things could still cut through the cacophony of contemporary culture and ordinary-looking people other than Ed Sheeran could still get record deals if they had something resonant to say.
Great music speaks to something in our very fiber. When I play these radio stations in my car, my two-year-old son, Ben, sits forward in his car seat, holds out his hands, palms turned inward, and slowly karate-chops the air in time to the music, a look of unbridled glee etching his little face. We could all do with being more like Ben.
In 2018, with society feeling more deeply riven than at any point in generations, this is the most obvious advice of all, but you’re still not paying attention, are you?
You wake up each morning to the electronic beeps wafting out of your smartphone, and before you’ve scraped the sleep from your eyes, the bloody thing is there in front of your face, your personal 21st-century God. Gripped with foreboding, you peruse the timelines, newsfeeds, and morning bulletins. Brexit: Still a disaster. Terrorists: Attacking a mosque somewhere. Donald Trump: Doing some tweets.
It’s almost become axiomatic now, this idea that the internet is the great disruptor at the root of all our problems, causing anxiety levels to spiral and concomitant social unity to rupture. Once seen as the harbinger of a utopian future, the greatest technological innovation of the past 50 years has mutated into a dumpster fire, a showcase of human deficiency that is foreshadowing — some might say accelerating — societal collapse.
Meanwhile, in the latest of several interventions from turncoat digital evangelists, former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya recently admitted that the beast he helped uncage is “ripping apart the social fabric.”
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he added, during a speech at Stanford University. “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”
We really need to bail off this train. Our collective emotional well-being pretty much depends on it. If we could all be persuaded to wean ourselves off Twitter for six days of the week (setting Mondays aside for some post-weekend catharsis), the world may yet be saved!
Build a Bunker
But just in case, I found this handy guide.