You Can Help Save the World by Reading – Seriously

If you've ever wanted to help save the world, we've got good news: You can.

Happily, your task is easier than those undertaken by your valiant literary heroes. You do not have to pursue a sorcerer's stone or find a missing ring.

The only sacrifice you must make is hardly a sacrifice at all, but a simple leisure activity: Pick up a book and read it.

Going Places with Books

Dr. Seuss told us long ago that "reading can take you places you have never been before."

Now, it can also help "flatten the curve," as growing concerns over the COVID-19 epidemic have health officials encouraging people to stay home as much as possible to contain the disease.

How many reasons do you need to stay home and read? George R.R. Martin has 2,000 more, just in case.

"I have lived a thousand lives and I've loved a thousand loves. I've walked on distant worlds and seen the end of time. Because I read."

Reading will socially distance you, while simultaneously educating and entertaining you. If you don't believe us, just ask a bookworm. Often referred to as introverts (read: social distancers), they've been at this for a long time, quietly teaching themselves about the world from the safety of their own homes.

Why Books?

As a statewide organization whose sole purpose is to provide humanities programming, the South Dakota Humanities Council often extols the value of reading. During these uncertain times, we find certainty, once again, in the written word.

While digital entertainment options like Netflix will alleviate your boredom, books will do the same and will also offer opportunities for reflection. Moreover, picking up a book means putting down your phone, a valuable exercise if you are overwhelmed with COVID-19 updates flooding social media feeds and news apps.

For the Harvard Business Review, literary technologist and author Hugh McGuire describes how he recharged his brain by reading.

"Reading books again has given me more time to reflect, to think, and has increased both my focus and the creative mental space to solve work problems. My stress levels are much lower, and energy levels up."

The benefits are myriad, regardless of what you read. However, you should try to choose a book that suits you and the experiences you are having in your life.

Whether you are looking for themes of escape, inspiration, humor, solitude or creativity, you'll find something to read in our list, which contains books new and old, spanning various genres.


Escape

In the vein of Seuss and Martin, we recommend you grab ahold of your easy chair and ride along with these authors who will take you to another place, metaphorically if not physically.

  • "The Last Mrs. Parrish" by Liv Constantine - Now the method many offices are using for "social distancing," telecommunication is how sisters Lynne Constantine and Valerie Constantine (pen name Liv Constantine) co-wrote their "The Last Mrs. Parrish." Co-authoring a book via Skype is an impressive feat in itself, but the sisters' sinister thriller about a social climber's diabolical, leeching pursuit of luxury caught the attention of Reese Witherspoon and became a Reese's Book Club pick; it also made USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists.

  • "Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens - Deserted by her family in a shack adjacent to a lagoon, the mysterious yet resourceful "Swamp Girl" crafts a life for herself while fending off the outside world, which eventually imposes itself onto her in ways that are not always fortuitous. The thriller/mystery element keeps the pages turning as nature writer-turned-novelist Owens' immersive descriptions of sticky swamps and brisk bayou boat rides stop readers from glossing over her prose in their haste to reach the ending.
Ernest Hemingway and Robert McAlmon in Spain.

Ernest Hemingway and Robert McAlmon in Spain. Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" is based on his experiences with McAlmon and other members of the "Lost Generation" expatriate community in Paris in the 20s and 30s. Photo courtesy of Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.


Inspiration

In case you need a lift:

  • "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway, setting the tone for his career as a daring novelist fixated on bringing forth, in shrewd detail, "the way it was," eschews formulaic plot devices in his debut novel, a scenic, character-driven tour of 1920s Paris. His Lost Generation expatriates, a seemingly random cast of postwar Americans with broken dreams, turn over their feelings at cafes, bars, restaurants and a culminating Pamplona bullfight. Readers who analyze the book from a thematic point of view will find perspective and hope in what may seem, at first glance, like a depressing tale.

  • "Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church" by Megan Phelps-Roper - Naturally, we'd like you to read our 2020 One Book South Dakota (and you can do so, with your entire book club, for just $50). However, we chose it for an inspirational reason — namely, the young author's vision for civility in America, which we're promoting across the state. Now residing in Clark, SD, Phelps-Roper is a religious extremist picketer turned author/activist who bravely left her family to stand up for her beliefs. Phelps-Roper's tale of these events, which she describes with articulate yet gripping detail, inspires the kind of courage we could all use in these trying times.


Humor

As they say, laughter is the best medicine.

  • "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson - What began as a longform article for Rolling Stone became the career-defining book for Hunter S. Thompson, a "gonzo" journalist known for hammering out exaggerated tales on his old typewriter while chasing down the meaning of the American Dream. Played by Johnny Depp in the movie version, Thompson is both hilarious and profound in his "Fear and Loathing" musings. Particularly applicable amidst the pandemic concerns: "Every now and then you run up on one of those days when everything's in vain ... a stone bummer from start to finish; and if you know what's good for you, on days like these you sort of hunker down in a safe corner and watch." Thompson himself was known to hunker down in his isolated Woody Creek, Colo. ranch — when he wasn't battling Richard Nixon in Washington or speeding to Las Vegas in a convertible with a trunk full of illicit drugs and "his attorney."

  • "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller – Built on dry wit that establishes the title (and subsequent landmark American catchphrase), "Catch 22" miraculously maintains its sense of humor while capturing the zeitgeist of the U.S. military during World War II. Heller's 10 years of writing labor resulted in a masterpiece of American literature — and hilarious, mind-bending, circular conversations like this:

    They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.
    "No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.
    "Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.
    "They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."
    "And what difference does that make?"

    As the ridiculous scenarios pile up, you may wonder if there is a deeper meaning to them. There is.
Peter Heller, author of

Peter Heller, author of "The Dog Stars," speaks at the 2014 South Dakota Festival of Books in Sioux Falls.


Solitude

While drawing real comparisons between the fictional plots below and the current pandemic would be folly (it is called fiction for a reason), these books offer insight into humans' reactions to forced solitude and isolation. Shared experiences are comforting.

  • "The Dog Stars" by Peter Heller - A past Festival of Books author (no relation to Joseph), Peter Heller tells his post-apocalyptic tale from the perspective of a pilot whose only friends are a dog and a lone gunman. We hope your household is less bleak. Anyway, Heller, also a noted outdoors writer, presents a picturesque yet grim reality, where nature is still pretty but nobody is around to enjoy it.

  • "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams –  As an author, you know you did something right if two words bring a smile of immediate recognition to your readers: "Don't Panic." Surrounded by extra-planetary beings after earth is destroyed, poor Arthur Dent has difficulty following this prominent rule of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Having now dealt with a pandemic during which people did exactly what the guide advises against — to panic, in the form of irrational toilet paper hoarding and other ill-advised behaviors — you may laugh at, and identify with, the misadventures of Dent, who endures unusual types of humiliation that add insult to the injury of being the last man from earth.

  • "The Woman in the Window" by A.J. Finn - "A.J. Finn," aka controversial author Dan Mallory, debuted as an author with a "Gone Girl"-type thriller featuring a protagonist who has been quarantined — by herself. Imprisoned by agoraphobia, she battles demons inside and outside of her head, watching neighbors through the window and generally overthinking things. Whatever your opinion of Mallory/Finn, who was accused of fabricating his personal history in a profile by The New Yorker, his original and gripping thriller is difficult to put down.
Thoreau's Cove, Lake Walden, Concord, Mass.

From The New York Public Library, a photo of Thoreau's Cove, Lake Walden, Concord, Mass. Thoreau famously isolated himself at Lake Walden for more than two years, which eventually resulted in the classic book "Walden." 

Creativity

Throughout history, countless artists, scientists, writers, musicians have isolated themselves to succeed in their crafts. For some, the accompanying solitude is required for reflection and maximum brainpower. However, the definition of solitude ("the state or situation of being alone," according to Webster's) has evolved: to be alone in this day and age, you must put away your phone and computer.

As social distancing becomes more prevalent, you could take advantage of increased isolation to craft a creative project. Unplug yourself from the world to achieve solitude during your isolation and schedule uninterrupted blocks of creative time during which you are nowhere near your phone.

In his quest to read more, McGuire (quoted earlier) enacted three rules: "1. I get home from work, I put away my laptop (and iPhone); 2. After dinner during the week, I don't watch Netflix or TV, or mess around on the Internet.; 3. No glowing screens in the bedroom (Kindle is OK, though)."

There are numerous guides to help you distance yourself from devices for creative work, such as "Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport.

Solitude has additional benefits. Not just a cure-all for creatives, solitude is one half of a healthy lifestyle, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal. We must keep our head in the one, and our hands in the other. The conditions are met, if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy."

We could all use more solitude. Here is perhaps the ultimate example of what can be accomplished.

  • "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau - Henry David Thoreau's solitude experiment resulted in one of the best-known non-fiction books in American history. "Walden" consists of consolidated lessons from Thoreau's two-year isolation in a cabin near Walden Pond on land owned by Emerson.

    "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

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