“A dud article from Breitbart reaches more people than all the books we’ve talked about combined,” lamented LA Kauffman, gesturing to the dozens of pulp-and-spine texts recommended to the audience at the morning panel of Sunday’s Brooklyn Book Festival. Kauffman unearthed the slinking undercurrent of the day: What do books matter in the age of fake news and impending fascism?
It was hardly an auspicious opening to the festival’s eleventh annual celebration of the vital literature for which our borough is responsible. Brooklyn has seen a spate of bookstores shutter in recent years, as independent merchants struggle to keep up with the Amazon juggernaut. “What book has impacted you the most?” asked the moderator of “Books as Tools of Resistance.”
“Facebook,” another panelist quipped.
But the book—a tenacious little thing—has survived drastic changes in technology and consumption patterns for millennia. Books may be battered (the “well-loved” signature of an owner passing one off in dilapidated condition), but they’re not beaten. There’s something about the flesh of a book that even the most enticing headline can’t dare to replicate.
The need for books as a source of knowledge was on display in a conversation between Heather McGhee, president of liberal think tank Demos, and Chris Hayes, a Brooklyn native and cable news pundit on MSNBC. Hayes’ latest book, A Colony in a Nation, centers on his contention that Black people in America today live in a police state of surveillance and resource depletion analogous to what colonists endured under British imperialism in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The nebulous notion of order takes precedence over law then as now, Hayes explained. He continued, detailing that politicians harangue about keeping “law and order,” because order is founded upon white fear. Donald Trump won the election because he appealed to white fear relentlessly and unabashedly, but, McGhee noted, white fear has been stoked for decades since Civil Rights, most recently with the rise of arch-conservative media. Hayes offered something of a mea culpa here, noting that all news networks sensationalize violence by Black people and underreport crimes by whites, so the hundreds of thousands of Americans who rely on Fox News today have a very warped sense of reality.
The remedy to a media landscape saturated by white fear? “Turn off the news,” McGhee suggested. But this wasn’t some matronly plea. Last year, a man whom we only know as Garry called into C-SPAN, admitting to McGhee that he was prejudiced, asking how he could be a better American. McGhee’s response to him was the same as it was to her audience in Brooklyn: watch less TV and read more history. She shared with us that she and Garry have since become friends, and that he has taken her advice to heart. He no longer watches Fox News with as much gusto as he once did, and is now a voracious reader of Black history. His favorite author? Cornel West.
But it’s not just in opposition to clickbait and cable news that the book still matters. Here, Kauffman would agree: for her, a book’s imperative in the Trump era is to show the path out of the wilderness that the left has languished in for so long. Hence why she wrote Direct Action, a history of the left since the 1960s that took her 25 years. Likewise, Andrew Boyd, founder of satirical protest group Billionaires for Bush and Kauffman’s co-panelist, recommended Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals for anyone interested in learning how to win power back from the far right. This book by Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a rare work written by a leftist for the left, critiquing Occupy Wall Street for its utopian shortsightedness.
But Boyd’s main point was his threefold theory for books to act as tools of resistance. Some name a problem and spark a movement, like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Others, like Hegemony How-To, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and even The Communist Manifesto, offer “analytic crystallization,” giving activists new tools and frames to uproot intractable problems. Still others act as books of faith, disguising their politics of hope in genres like fantasy; Boyd named Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy as a revitalizing respite.
While the entire festival—a combination of panels, booths, and participants all united in their love for the written word—acted as apologia for literature, the day’s most urgent and appropriate defense of the book’s purpose under an emergent ethnonationalist state came from Naomi Klein. The leftist journalist and rabblerouser knows the power of a few choice words strung together to form a manifesto: her polemics against globalization, disaster capitalism, and climate change have each set an aggressive agenda for the left every decade since the ’90s.
Her latest, No is Not Enough, is a defense of narrative as political weapon: since stories are how we make sense of the world, the resistance cannot survive on dissent alone. Klein would agree with Kauffman that “we’re resisting because we’re losing.” As crucial and courageous as resisting is—especially in light of Trump’s heinous decision to rescind Obama-era protections of undocumented immigrants—it’s a dead end without a path to governance. Being “only anti- is hard to sustain,” she explained, and won’t draw people away from the comfortable racism instilled within them by Republican elites. Instead, Klein sees her project as helping to build a new identity with “a vision of the world post-Trump,” one that’s “captivating and inspiring and incredibly bold.”
Vision and message—two of the most important parts of campaigning, hedging, or honing the unquantifiable charisma of a candidate—can’t be captured in 140 characters. Politicians invariably publish memoirs before announcing a run for office because the book is still the most accessible medium to tell a story. But the fact of a book does not a compelling narrative make. The story Democrats told about the election in 2016, Klein argued, did not resonate with enough voters because it did not posit a vision that spoke to people. This is what Klein means when she says that Trump did not win the election, but Clinton lost it. Neoliberalism, the snake-oil ideology that sells itself as free of ideology, assumes its expertise, its competence, its obvious proficiency to be enough. It eschews argument and persuasion (basic tools of an essayist) for the Orwellian condescension of “there is no alternative.”
Klein’s thesis on narrative power took form in Linda Sarsour, Brooklyn native, leader of the Women’s March, and former head of the New York Arab-American Association. Sarsour admitted that she doesn’t read for strategy, but for community—to feel the pain of other victims and to be shown why she should join the revolution. Citing Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 article “The Case for Reparations,” Sarsour explained how literature connects her own struggle as a Muslim-American woman to the battles fought by minority groups across the States. The best books, she said, not only lead her to feel the pain of her fellow humans, but also empower her to put an end to it. Ever the organizer, Sarsour insisted that books ought to leave readers with a tangible action to accomplish once they put it down.
Reading a book—with however much concentration, as headlines blare at you—isn’t an act of resistance alone. Ignoring fake news, not even correcting it, will loosen Breitbart‘s grip on the white supremacist soul of America. But while there’s nothing inherently radical about reading, the humble book can lead us to radical dreams. When books aren’t a tool for escaping this world but imagining a better one, they ask us if we still believe in the possibility of liberty and justice for all. It seems that the festival’s thousands of attendees still believe.