It has been said of each successive scandal or policy announcement in the Trump era, that if you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention. Certainly, there has been no shortage of outrageous images splashed across the news: children in cages, an American President kowtowing to a hostile foreign power, and a seemingly unending parade of well-known personalities exposed as abusers or deviants.
Perhaps it’s time we realize that consuming more news about the world around us is not the way to improve it (or ourselves), personally or politically.
But the question we need to ask ourselves here is not whether such behaviors (or the cover-ups of such behaviors) are outrageous, but rather why we have become such insatiable consumers of these outrages? What does it cost us?
According to a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association, 95% of American adults follow the news regularly, even though more than half of them say it causes them stress and over two-thirds say they believe the media blows things out of proportion. In contextualizing the survey’s findings, the APA’s chief executive officer, Arthur C. Evans Jr, said, “Understanding that we all still need to be informed about the news, it’s time to make it a priority to be thoughtful about how often and what type of media we consume.”
Perhaps it’s time we realize that consuming more news about the world around us is not the way to improve it (or ourselves), personally or politically. Two thousand years ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “Are you distracted by breaking news? Then take some leisure time to learn something good, and stop bouncing around.”
Our modern notion of leisure has perverted the ancient definition of the word. For the Greeks and Romans, it meant pursuing and engaging with higher things, making space for the contemplation of bigger ideas.
To follow Marcus’ example then, I say: Watch less news. Read more books.
Of course, being informed is important. But is tracking the “specious present,” as the sociologist Robert E. Park once termed the news, really the best way to do that?
Novels. Non-fiction. Memoirs. Biographies. Self-Help and the Classics. Just about anything bound between two covers will teach you something more than the latest headlines — and will do far more in regards to settling your soul.
This is not just the biased opinion of an author and former news junkie. The comparison between the health benefits of reading books and the ill effects of consuming the news is stark.
While research has shown that visually shocking and upsetting news can contribute to anxiety, sleeping trouble, raise cortisol levels and even trigger PTSD symptoms, a University of Sussex study found that just six minutes reading a book can reduce stress levels up to 68%. A study done by former journalist turned positive psychology researcher Michelle Geilan found that watching just a few minutes of negative news in the morning increases the chances of viewers reporting having had a bad day by 27%, while Barnes and Noble just reported soaring sales for books that help people deal with anxiety and find happiness. Life Time Fitness, a gym chain with locations in 27 states, recently decided that tuning their TVs to FOX News and CNN was antithetical to their mission of making people healthier, so they’ve banned the news from the gym.
Sadly, less than three quarters of Americans report having read a book in the last twelve months, while the average American consumes 6.5 hours of television news per week. Some leisure.
Books that delve deeply into the past manage to capture the essence of what is happening right now better than any other medium.
Books, both in terms of the length of the final product and the length of the process that goes into creating them, have an opportunity to explore topics at much greater depth than a newspaper article or a cable news segment. While news of current events is often rendered irrelevant by subsequent current events, books can endure for centuries or millennia. Often, in fact, books that delve deeply into the past manage to capture the essence of what is happening right now better than any other medium.
A reader of Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage would find that between 1971 and 1972, there were some 2500 politically motivated bombings in the United States. In the pages of Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, they’d find an eerily modern jockeying between an ascendant power and a dominant power and the mistakes made by both. Reading Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days, his first-hand account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, would reveal the life and death calculations of nuclear powers, each looking to save face and neither looking to actually blow up the world. In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a reader might relate to the rather ageless angst of the next generation trying to find its meaning and purpose in the world.
In Anne Frank’s diary we hear of the timeless plight of the refugee, we are reminded of the humanity of every individual (and how societies lose sight of this) and we are inspired — even shamed — to see the cheerful perseverance of a child amidst far worse circumstances than ours.
In Stefan Zweig’s biography of Montaigne we get the unique perspective of a man turning away from the chaos of the world to examine the life of a man who turned inward, away from the chaos of the world some 400 years earlier.
In each of these books — none of which are new releases or about new events — we learn something about history, something about the human condition, and, it goes without saying, something about the present moment too. We could say that while breaking news is usually about lowercase t truth — what happened, who did it, who said it — the great books are about capital T Truth — why it happened, what it means, what it says about us.
Part of this has to do with the economics of each medium. News, as a business, has low margins and requires high volume (big viewership, lots of articles) to make up for it. This is why stories are always developing and rarely conclusive, and why the audience is always being prompted to stick with it through the commercial break or click the link to the new story.
Books, even in a world of Amazon dominance and publishing dinosaurs, are not only more profitable for their creators at smaller scale, but authors and readers have a more honest and straightforward exchange of value. I write, you pay. If I don’t deliver, you won’t buy from me again, bookstores will stop carrying my work, and my work will die. If my work does not endure — does not make the transition from a frontlist title to a backlist title that maintains relevance — it’s unlikely I will see much in the way of royalties in return for the years I spent writing.
This obligation is undoubtedly why books suffer less from clickbait or sensationalism than your average media outlet is forced to dabble in to keep the lights on. Even if the Trump presidency has been good to some authors, no publisher would dare say as CBS CEO Leslie Moonves did of our toxic political environment, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Because the classic titles always outsell new releases.
Where news hardens or angers us, a book properly written and read can, in Kafka’s words, break the frozen sea within us.
There is also something to the way books are consumed, often in physical form in a quiet place away from the noise of the world. We flip through a newspaper, we pore over the pages of a good book. We forward articles or videos that provoke us, we press life changing books in the hands of our friends as meaningful gifts.
Where news hardens or angers us, a book properly written and read can, in Kafka’s words, break the frozen sea within us. It can make us feel. It can make us truly understand. Although the studies have not been replicated, it makes sense that novels might increase empathy as a study by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano found. They force us to really see something from someone else’s perspective, to live with a character or an idea for far longer than a tweet or a talking head can ever capture.
While there is plenty to be outraged about in our current world, we should not forget part of this is related to the fact that anger and outrage are the most viral emotions. Should it surprise us then that the news in an attention economy provokes these emotions more than any others?
In 55 B.C., after returning from exile and being forced to withdraw for a time from political life, Cicero wrote of “feasting” on the library of Faustus Sulla near his villa in Cumae. That famed library was no less than Aristotle’s, part of the war booty of Faustus’ father’s sack of Athens. Cicero’s leisure time produced a flood of writing over a 12 year period that included almost all of his surviving works — many of which are shockingly relevant to anyone trying to make sense of today’s complicated world.
The way to solve big problems is to get bigger perspectives, to get away from being reactive or the hopelessness of despair. We need the insights and the empathy and restorative benefits of books more than ever. We need them to awaken within us our shared humanity and the timelessness of the struggle of good against evil. (If you want book recommendations, try this list)
Most of all we need the relief and solace they provide. As Thomas Kempis said, in omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro. Everywhere I have sought peace and not found it, except in a corner with a book.
Let us join him and Cicero and Marcus Aurelius there.