Earlier today, while I was sitting at dinner, I read the first third or so of a book that my workplace’s book club is reading. I had a general idea, based on the language that was used in our introductory discussion about the book, what kind of volume it would be and it generally exceeded even my modest expectations for having something to say about it. It will likely be a bit of time, at least, before I get around to reviewing it, but there were some aspects of the book that struck me as worth talking about more or less in the moment, so in the interests of avoiding spoilers of various kinds, I will discuss what it is that struck me as so striking about the book without naming the author, the book, or any other information like that.
When I started reading the book, there was a statement early on that particularly offended me. Truth be told, a great deal of the book offended me, but what really hit me was the comments that the author made blaming some sort of heroic individualism on the motivation of people by fear that apparently prolonged the suffering that people faced during Covid while preaching acceptance and authenticity and vulnerability–none of which have been shown to the people who have been suffering from the mismanagement of Covid by the sort of people who are the intended audience of this book. But rather than simply get mad at the author for being a clueless numbskull, which would be easy enough to do, it struck me that the author was not writing for the ordinary reader facing the apparatus of an uncaring and unfriendly corporate and political and cultural world, but rather to try to prevent the people who are running and staffing such bureaucracies and systems from suffering burnout as a result of their own difficulties.
Let us remember, and never forget, that elites never suffer the same sort of difficulties that they inflict upon others. They write laws and exempt themselves from the law or from its enforcement. They claim that the seas will rise and that everyone will be flooded while continuing to buy and build island and coastal mansions, thus demonstrating they do not fear what they want and push others to fear. They tell others to wear masks and try to make them afraid of contagion but do not wear the masks themselves when they party and hobnob among themselves. The way one gains credibility is not to order things, but rather to set an example. If you tell others that cars are destructive for the environment but are driven around in limos and fly on private jets, you have no credibility to tell anyone else to sacrifice to make the world a better place because you are unwilling to do so yourself.
This book is not really written for the top-level elites, but rather for the people whose efforts are necessary to keep society’s vital institutions running. Such people need encouragement–burn-out and compassion fatigue are real, and such people’s efforts at keeping institutions going are what keeps our word from being an even worse disaster than it is. It is therefore instructive to see that the author sought to encourage such people by promoting more New Age Buddhism and pop psychology and technobabble about peak performance and made-up terms that contradict the author’s point if one engages with them with anything remotely approaching skepticism. But if I were trying to give some encouragement and wise advice to those struggling in language that I would use, a lot of the points would be the same, the language would be very different, the reasoning would be different, but the general idea would be very similar about acceptance of reality, encouragement of an attitude of humility, and working with others.
What is it that we can learn even from bad books? When people write or speak, they do so for reasons. They are intending on speaking to an audience–that audience may not include us–and they seek to write in a way that their intended audience will understand and probably assent to on at least some level. It is always therefore worthwhile to see what sort of reasoning is used, what sort of evidence is appealed to, what sort of language is used, in order to appeal to a given audience, because from the sorts of appeals and evidence and language that is used, we can construct a pretty worthwhile picture of what is going on with the people that the author is trying to appeal to. Even when–especially when–we are not a part of this audience, we can learn something about the context of a given work even from bad books.