October 24, 2016

Politics is the worst. Can books bring us together?


imagesThere’s no question that this election has been an unending horror show, draining us of our will to live, or at least to talk to people who hold different (wrong) opinions. But can books help us bridge what feel like unpassable divides? A new study says that, yes, liberals and conservatives might not agree on much, but books can indeed help bring us together.

The linguist Roman Jakobson once contrasted political conventions with literary ones: the problem with political conventions, he said, is that they encourage people to “mindlessly agree” with slogans, which in turn, create unnecessary antagonism between different groups of people.

Literary conventions, on the other hand, where individuals get together to read and talk about books, were different. Unlike slogans and speeches, literature encourages people to discuss their differences in more thoughtful and flexible ways. We might disagree on a number of issues, but literature helps create a space where we can compromise.

Writing in the Guardian last week, Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So, both professors of literature, explained their study. Their sample was the 55 million Goodreads users who have posted reviews. 

We began by identifying readers’ political affiliation by seeing if they had positively rated one or more books from a hand-curated list of highly partisan writing – titles like James Carville’s It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! or Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! on the left and Glenn Beck’s CowardsAnn Coulter’s Demonic, or Pat Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower on the right, to name a few of the 200 titles we used. These are books that are unabashedly written to divide people’s sentiments on the left and right.

Readers who liked “left” books (meaning they rated one higher than three stars) were labeled “liberal readers,” and those who liked “right books” were labeled conservative. After removing these “conservative” and “liberal” books, and then limiting their search to fiction and literature, Piper and So were initially surprised by not being surprised.

The initial results tended to confirm our worst stereotypes. (Readers can explore the full lists here). Conservatives like to read low-brow genre fiction such as novels by John Grisham and Tom Clancy, as well as recent book-to-movie titles, such as The Maze Runner, while liberals enjoy reading more demanding, high-brow novels that win prizes, such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Morrison’s Beloved, as well as European classics like The Outsider by Albert Camus, which are often taught at colleges. These lists support polarizing stereotypes that pit sophisticated readers of “difficult” prose (liberals) against simple-minded readers of formulaic fiction (conservatives).

But a deeper look allowed them to identify what they called “bridge” books— those that appeared equally on the bookshelves of both liberal and conservative readers. They found more than 400, which they believe “point to some kind of shared culture.” These included To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984Game of Thrones and Bridget Jones’s DiaryJane Eyre and World War Z. They’ve listed the top hundred on their website. Piper and So weren’t able to determine anything specific about the books themselves that would speak to their universality, but they did find differences in the way people talked about these books, as opposed to others. Less hateful or negative language was used, and more words like “admit” and “explain.” They write: “In short, what is special about these books is that they make readers who otherwise have strong political dispositions become less tribal. When people read these books, they embrace a more tolerant worldview.”

Worth noting: “It was conservative—not liberal—readers who are most active in producing this space of cultural compromise. When discussing our bridge books, conservatives used more positive emotions than liberals, something that runs counter to the angry white man thesis of conservative voters.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Husna Haq spoke to Virginia Zimmerman, a professor of English at Bucknell University, who was not surprised by the results. “Literature does not provide an escape from the political conflicts of our time so much as it provides an alternative space for trying to work through those conflicts. For instance, readers may have opposing attitudes about how to handle poverty in America, but they are likely to agree that the ‘Hunger Games’ are not a good solution. So, readers discover they share common ground and may even be able to move from a discussion of fictional politics into a more productive and more peaceful discussion of real-world issues.”

While I don’t agree with Piper and So that literature is “the thing that drives Republicans and Democrats apart,” their research does point to literature being one way to bring us together, which is not nothing. Books. Still good.



Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.