For several years I’ve been keeping track of the books I read. In 2020, I did pretty well, kicking it off with an enormous biography of Beethoven, byJan Swafford.
I don’t look for takedowns in biographies; but spare me the hagiography. I’m an American who lived through the second half of the twentieth century; I’m used to flawed real-life heroes.
Thus I didn’t mind learning more about what a flop Ludwig was with women and, as I suspected, that he couldn’t manage money. It was actually amusing to find that, amid penning all the masterpieces, Beethoven found time (& need) to do plenty of hack work, like arranging a hundred-plus Scottish folksongs, just to keep up with those Vienna rents.
My book reading has slowed a lot this year; not sure why overall.
But I know when. In early December, I started David Blight’s excellent biography of Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom.
It won the Pulitzer for biography, and deserved it. Unfortunately, the book’s very excellence has worked against my finishing it.
One factor was Douglass’s own apocalyptic eloquence, which in late 2020 seared across the generations with unmitigated force:
“The land is now to weep and howl amid ten thousand desolations,” he cried early in the war. “Repent, Break Every Yoke, let the Oppressed Go Free for Herein alone is deliverance and safety!”
In isolation, Douglass’s words ought to have been a spur to action, and to some extent they were. Yet their historical context, which Blight fills in with great skill and insight, became chapter by chapter more and more daunting for me: the course of the years which evoked much of Douglass’s most memorable oratory, along with his activism, both spiraled ever downward into the horrors of civil war.
The war produced the seeming landmarks of the Confederate rebellion’s defeat and slavery’s abolition. But the war never really ended. Both of its great accomplishments were soon largely rolled back by counterrevolutionary violence, aided by progressive white exhaustion & indifference, which have so long outlasted Douglass, who died in 1895.
When I had made it into the chapters describing the depths and agony of the war, my days were still turbulent with the seemingly endless aftermath of the 2020 election. Then the resonance and parallels between the text and my days progressively became so stark and oppressive that the effect was not only psychological but also physical.
I mostly read Blight in the predawn darkness, as I have been unable to sleep full nights through most of the past five awful Orange years; and morning after morning, as the sun returned, I had to put the Kindle aside, all but overwhelmed by the collision of past with present.
As 2021 arrived, I paused, thinking perhaps a week’s “vacation” would ease the strain. But of course, before that week was done came January 6th, followed by military occupation, and the cliffhanger countdown to the 20th.
I felt some relief when power was transferred on schedule, leavened by Bernie’s viral mittens and Amanda Gorman’s fine poem. Yet the tension continues, with a succession of threats & outrages which won’t be rehashed here, but which are ongoing.
Soon enough, it became clear that I simply could not follow Douglass and Blight through Lincoln’s murder, into the agonies and bloody failures and reversals of Reconstruction, before I felt more confident that the country today would be able to fend off some kind of a repetition of that blood-soaked marathon nightmare.
No, hope is not gone, the vaccines and survival checks have arrived. But my confidence has not resurfaced yet. Hence Blight’s book “sits” unfinished, in the Kindle ether, while the spirits of both author and subject keep a silent, ominous vigil in a corner of my consciousness.
One of Blight’s many achievements is that he shows deep admiration for his subject without sliding into hagiography. Douglass deserves his fame, but he was hardly a saint, and Blight does not evade such blots as his willingness to cater to common anti-Irish & anti-Catholic prejudices among his mainly WASP white audiences.
These are not trivial: but as I said, I’m used to flawed heroes, and felt no urge to “cancel” Douglass due to his failings, which anyway are not targets of the current outrage fads. (Yet.)
But I have sought diversion from this ordeal by history/prophecy, via doses of an often reliable remedy, in genre fiction. Early last year I found it in Irish noir crime novels, by Adrian McKinty and Ken Bruen. I lapped up more than twenty of their books, like one of their drunks slurps down booze on an extended bender.
But such delectables are rare, and in 2020 I awoke from these binges with the colossal hangover of the election. I haven’t found any comparable diversion yet this year. I’ve struggled through a few tomes that were good, but my tally so far remains much shorter than it was last April. You could say I’m still waiting to turn that fateful page.