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I ran across an article recently that said we should ask each other more often, “What are you reading?” We ask, “What films have you seen?”, “How are the kids?”, or, “Where have you been?” Why not ask a question that goes to literary activities and interests?

Of course, one reason we avoid that question is that we don’t want to put our friend in an awkward position. We’re all busy: mutual perception means we understand books take a lot of time, one commodity no one has. You read books when you’re retired or in school, not when you’re raising a family or working a full-time job. You hardly have time to turn on the tube at night, let alone open a book. Why ask a question that makes a person feel they ought to do something they’re not?

Consider two things. First, people understand that reading may not mean books. That may be what comes to mind first, but we have plenty of other ways to keep our minds refreshed. When we ask, “What are you listening to?”, we could mean music, podcasts, storytellers, serializations, lecturers, and audio tracks for video recordings. A question about reading is similarly broad. Second, you may be surprised how well the long form has survived in our day. Long form takes a lot of shapes these days.

When I was a junior officer in the navy, I took the chance while we were at sea to read some books I might not read in a more distracting environment. Philosophy and poetry come to mind. So one day, as I had breakfast in the wardroom, the executive officer asked me what I was reading. I replied, “Plato’s Phaedo,” because I had been reading that just the evening before. Well that shut the conversation down pretty fast, as he was not expecting that!

I appreciated the friendly question, though, and if I had been on the ball, I might have asked, “How about you?” He might have thought, “I can’t match Plato. What am I going to say?” Or, he might have told me what he was reading un-self consciously, and we could have had a good conversation. I’m not sure one should always refrain from asking questions, merely because you’re afraid the other person may take the query the wrong way. I like that part of midwestern reserve – caution about queries – but people generally appreciate it when you ask them about their interests and activities.

So lately I’ve been reading Barbara Tuchman. A generation ago, lots of people read her books. You don’t hear her mentioned so often in this century. I suppose each generation has its favorite historians, musicians, novelists, and the like. Tuchman exemplified one of those great cultural treasures: a professional historian not bound in the academy. You can do a lot with your craft when you don’t have to think about how other academics will judge your work.

Tuchman came to public attention because Jack Kennedy read The Guns of August around the time he came into the White House. He let people know he had read the book. Tuchman does not deal in object lessons, not explicitly in moral theory, but she’s a wise woman. You cannot read her work without appreciating human foolishness, chicanery, pride, and goodness. In her account of the summer of 1914 in Europe, you understand the phenomenon of accidental war. A lot of people wanted to fight in 1914, but no one wanted the war that actually occurred. Kennedy praised Tuchman for telling that story so well.

So when you ask someone, “What are you reading?”, the individual may hear, “Tell me what makes you feel lucky,” or, “What has your attention right now?” These are the kinds of questions people love to answer.

The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914, is even longer than The Guns of August. I thought, even after I read The Distant Mirror, I can’t manage The Proud Tower, especially since I’m not so interested in all the stuff that happened in Europe during the generation before the Great War. I told myself I don’t like social history as well as I like military, political, and intellectual history. From the little I knew about the book, I saw it as social history about a relatively uninteresting period, about twice as long as most other books I might care to read. Because I read pretty slowly, and time rushes by, I try to choose books carefully.

But there the book sat on my shelf. I must have ordered it out of curiosity a long time ago. The first part, called The Patricians, England: 18951902, is about the British aristocracy in the 1890s. It was engaging enough, but confirmed some of my biases about the book. I learned a lot, but it was a little slow going. The mix of social and political currents in her account of British society gave good balance to her story, but when I finished that part I set the book aside.

Something made me go back to it, to give part two a try. The second part is called The Idea and the Deed, The Anarchists: 18901914. I’ve always been interested in why people so feared those guys  interestingly, almost all anarchists were men. Anarchists were the terrorists of their time, and people responded to them as terrorists. One difference is that anarchists typically went to trial for their crimes then, after which they went to prison or were executed. Now we have suicide missions, which frighten people even more.

Part three is about politics in the United States from 1890 to 1902. Its title is End of a Dream, The United States: 18901902. I’ll save remarks about that for another article. Parallels between America’s aggressive wars against Spain and the Philippines beginning in 1898, and our activities in the world after 9/11 are closer than you might expect. So are reactions to those wars here at home.

Now I have reached part four, “Give Me Combat!” France: 18941899, about the struggle over Alfred Dreyfus in France during the 1890s. Tuchman’s account of the Affair again recalls key currents and conflicts in American politics since 9/11. All of these subjects  Dreyfus, anarchists, American imperialism and anti-imperialism  have been subjects of latent interest for me. At times you don’t know what you like until you encounter it. When you do, you think, “I’m lucky!” That goes for people you meet, natural settings, new social settings, and of course literature.

So when you ask someone, “What are you reading?”, the individual may hear, “Tell me what makes you feel lucky,” or, “What has your attention right now?” These are the kinds of questions people love to answer.

Related books

The Proud Tower

The Guns of August