A frequent question among friends and among writers in particular is, What are you reading? RedRoom asks the question of its members with the results popping up in the far right column of each author's page. To my mind, it's the best question to ask a writer because it goes straight to what is interesting him or her at the present moment. I'm less inclined to ask a person about a favorite book or books as this has always struck me as akin to asking a person to name the best experience of their life (was it that week in Istanbul or sex in your neighbor's pool?) when in fact it is the accumulation and comparison of both books and experience that conditions and makes possible all subsequent reading and experience. Being an all-too-dutiful participant in the few activities I muster myself to participate in, I duly filled out the form here and listed Wharton's House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country in answer to the question. This was accurate enough as I was about to finish the former, which I think is a masterpiece, and was about to start the latter, which I read forty pages of before accidently leaving it in a Post Office in mid-town during the holidays (the forty pages were good).
The point of my post, however, is not to update or elaborate on my current reading, though that is something I envision doing in this space in the months to come. Rather, here on the eve of the Iowa Caucuses, it's to make a confession about that question, What are you reading? You see, at the moment, between Wharton novels and a manuscript I'm reading for a possible blurb, the feverishly concentrated end-of-the-day, before dinner, after dinner, before bed reading that the rare book pulls me into is devoted solely to political news in whatever form I can get it--newspapers, blogs, news-aggregators, even, God forbid, the Drudge Report. For years, I've considered my heavy consumption of this stuff to be the logical behavior of a concerned and informed citizen but lately I've had to acknowledge that the manner in which I follow politics is far more like a sports fan's relationship to their favorite team than any supposedly judicious shifting through of the policy positions (I don't vote in Iowa or New Hampshire and I already know who I'll vote for in New York in February 5th--a date that makes New Yorkers and the residents of a lot of other usually forgotten primary states more relevant to the nominating process than ever before). No, what I like is the horse race, the endless polls, the strategy memos, the campaign gossip, just as the devoted fan wants, to the mystification of those around him, to watch hours of commentary, speculation, and gossip about their favorite players. To be honest, at times like this, and I'm sure next fall in the general, it can become a consuming activity. Useless and consuming.
It would take an essay and more thought for me to unpack all I think that's at work in the phenomena of the political junkie--the people who seem to love watching the process unfold, even in its often dystopian idiocy--but if I'm honest with myself, I know that one reason I can't stop checking the poll numbers is that I'm a hopeless Romantic. Despite all the evidence that no election of an American president will bring about the kinds of systemic political and social changes I spend my time telling myself and others we need, I persist somehow in the belief that if we can just get the right man or woman in the Oval Office, the country will drive up out of the ditch the current idiots have driven us into and thus, in a sense, I won't have to pay attention any more because they'll be doing their job. I pay attention in the hopes I won't have to pay attention later, odd as that sounds. It's a Romantic view because it subscribes to the belief that one exemplary human being will somehow show the way forward and by their person alone be the change I desire. It is in many ways a childish view, one I think I share with a great many of my fellow citizens, here in this bizarrely naive country of ours. Come next October, I'll likely volunteer for whoever the Democrats have nominated as I did in '04 for Kerry down in Florida, but other than a few weeks every four years, I'm nothing but an on-looker and small time contributor. I'd love to say I'm hoping to finish my novel by September in order to work full time on a campaign (and I just might), but the truth is one of the main reasons I have to finish it by then is that unless it's shaping up as a Democratic blow-out I won't be able to sit at my desk without wanting to wander over to the internet and see if there's been another tracking poll released from Ohio or Pennsylvania.
But then I'm a Romantic as a writer too and from the safety of my apartment, I allow myself to cultivate the silly hope that politics will give me the narrative satisfaction it's so difficult to achieve on the page. In twenty-four hours this will mean nothing and in a year even less, but tonight I can't resist the urge to at least make something of all my reading. So here's my prediction: Edwards by three in Iowa. And even here, I suspect hope is getting ahead of fact. But I'd never writer another paragraph if I didn't let that happen every day, so why worry?