I try to balance reading fiction and non-fiction, which for a long time gave me the false impression that I am a well-rounded reader. It recently became apparent to me, however, that I have not, in fact, exposed myself to a variety of genres and ideas. This conclusion came to me as I made my way through business journalist Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats, a 2012 examination of the rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else. This book was in such contrast to the non-fiction I typically read — self-help, spirituality and psychology — that it threw into light how narrowly focused my taste in non-fiction is. (Thanks to my girlfriends’ book group, which primarily reads novels and short stories, I am exposed to a wider variety of fiction).
Reading something new definitely had its perks. I learned all sorts of new words and phrases (plutocrat and oligarchs and BRICs and The Middle Kingdom), statistics (the top .01% of earners in the U.S. make an average annual income of 23,846,950, whereas the bottom 90% make an average income of $29,840 — youch!) and concepts (super-wealth used to come primarily from family inheritance/land renting; now… not so much… “In 1916 the richest 1 percent of Americans received only one-fifth of their income from paid work; in 2004, that figure had risen threefold, to 60 percent”) that I’m simply not exposed to in my day-to-day. Even more importantly, I was challenged into new ways of thinking… or, at the least, to question some of my taken-for-granted assumptions.
For an example, I’ve always just assumed that the movement of factory-level jobs out of the United States was a bad thing. I thought, “CEO’s/company owners moved these jobs because the cost of living in so many places is so much lower than in the states, so business owners can pay Indian/Chinese/etc. workers a fraction of the sum they would have to pay American workers. Americans lose jobs and foreign workers are treated like slaves. No one wins but the business owner.” While its true that the business owner is the real “winner” (if you define winner as the person making the most money… which is a whole separate issue) in this scenario, Plutocrats challenged my assumption that the overseas workers are “losing.” Freehand quotes Jim O’Neill, British economist, former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, and author of The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICs and Beyond as saying:
We are in the early years of what is probably one of the biggest shifts of wealth and income disparity ever in history. It irritates me when I hear and read endless distorted stories of how only a few benefit and increase their wealth from the fruits of globalization, to the detriment of the marginalized masses. Globalization may widen inequality within certain national borders, but on a global basis it has been a huge force for good, narrowing inequality among people on an unprecedented scale. Tens of millions of people from the BRICs and beyond are being taken out of poverty by the growth of their economies. While it is easy to focus on the fact that China has created so many billionaires, it should not be forgotten that in the past fifteen or so years, 300 million of more Chinese have been lifted out of poverty…(30)
This isn’t to say that I had some sort of conversion experience as I read Plutocrats and am now convinced that the factory workers in China have a sweet deal. I’m not. But my assumptions were challenged and I was given the opportunity to hear and consider the perspective of someone whose perspective I don’t ordinarily get to hear. And this, after all, is one of the greatest purposes of reading: to educate, to inform, and to make the world bigger than the era and area I inhabit.
While I don’t think that the realization that came to me from reading Plutocrats — that I’m actually not so well-rounded of a reader — will dramatically shift my non-fiction reading habits (after all, I pick up books about psychology and spirituality because I’m drawn to those topics), it does make me think I should step outside of my reading bubble more often than I do. Through reading Plutocrats, I learned a lot about a topic that I knew nearly nothing about (economics), some of my uninformed opinions were questioned, and my mind was opened to some new perspectives. That’s a pretty high return rate for approximately 15 hours of reading.
And here, I’ve written a post that completely ignores the reason I chose to read Plutocrats in the first place. I picked it up in the wake of Trump’s election, when I began grasping at all sorts of things I never looked at twice before, trying to understand people and systems that are so far outside my little world. I’m trying to understand Trump; I’m trying to understand people who voted for Trump; I’m trying to understand the role I inhabit in a radically unjust and murky world of race, religion, economics and education.
It scares me to write about politics — I wonder if I am even entitled to do so, because 1)I am so painfully uninformed, and 2) As a white, middle-class and privileged woman, I perceive myself as part of the problem of oppression, and I wonder how much it helps for someone like me to add my voice to the already overflowing conversation. I don’t want to be just one more yammering voice of dissent adding to the noise, noise, noise noise. And, also, I’m scared of being wrong. When you’re not saying much, you can’t be wrong… but as soon as you voice an opinion, you open yourself up to error and criticism.
But silence also isn’t the answer. And writing a sterilized post about how great it is to learn new things isn’t either. In the wake of a mystifyingly terrible election, I’m sure of what to do: read? write? donate? volunteer? protest? gather? pray? Maybe — probably — all of these things. I’m just beginning where I can.