Unplugged: what I learned by logging off and reading 12 books in a week
My mission: quit social media and spend the time reading the year’s top titles. The results were refreshing – and surprising
On a Sunday in mid-December, I drove towards Nevada City, a former Gold Rush mining camp in the foothills of the Sierras in northern California. I had rented a secluded internet-free cabin – a “tiny house” to be precise – outside town.
My mission: to detox my brain by logging off my social media accounts and trying to read 30 books in a week. To prepare for the trip, I had gone to six independent bookstores to locate copies of the National Book Award longlists for fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
This was a perfect assignment. For journalists on many beats – including mine, which includes the far right and gun policy – it had been a year of escalating violence during which conspiracy theories had moved into the mainstream. By December, I was exhausted and anxious. I craved the most American form of self-care: I wanted to get away with something.
My co-workers had plenty of opinions on my new mission. One of them loudly referred to it as “your vacation” whenever she thought our editor was listening.
How many books? How many days? How had this happened?
“I am very good at reading,” I replied with dignity.
By the time I drove to Nevada City, I was already three days into the experiment, which I had eased into gently: no Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, but still occasional email for work. (I did not Farhad this assignment, in the style of the New York Times columnist who wrote about a Twitter detox while still tweeting daily.)
I was not going to finish all 30 books at any cost, skimming to the right section of the right chapter in order to say one smart thing – in the US, we call this skill a “liberal arts education” – but instead wanted the books’ authors and their protagonists to collide and argue with each other, to give me some different understanding of what had happened in 2018.
I arrived at the tiny house in late afternoon, built a fire, sat down on the couch and opened my first novel: An American Marriage (Tayari Jones), which follows a well-educated, middle-class black couple after the husband, Roy, is wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The novel is not a courtroom procedural. It does not follow Roy’s wife, Celestial, on her brave fight to free her husband. Instead, Celestial, who has been fighting to build a career as an artist, is told that it is her responsibility, as a black woman, to heal her husband from the violence America has inflicted on him.
One of the central questions of the novel is whether Celestial is able do this – and what might happen if she refuses. I was surprised by how radical and uncomfortable it felt to read about a woman who has the power to help someone she loves, but does not immediately dedicate her life to helping. An American Marriage is interested in the implacable logic of violence, the way it spreads like a disease.
When I finished the last page, I looked up. It was night already, and the fire had burned out.
What violence does to us
Suicide, 3D-printed guns, mass incarceration, opioid addiction, class struggle, vulnerable young men spinning out of control: this year’s stack of prize-winning fiction wouldn’t make good beach reading material. But it did provide a very different perspective from the news.
We Americans have a weird reverence for violence. Healing doesn’t get much narrative respect, even though it’s a long, dramatic process, full of tension and reversal. Helping people recover is often women’s work, and it is usually treated as if it were boring. Violence, in contrast, is treated as if it were extremely interesting. Not only in films and novels, but in news coverage, we create step-by-step guides for how an attack unfolded, where exactly the bullets hit. We do this even though violence – largely men’s work – is cheap, sloppy and usually over quickly.
The best of this year’s fiction titles push back against this expectation, finding the drama in healing instead.
This is true of The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai), which opens in 1985, as Yale Tishman and his partner attend a memorial for Nico, the first of the friends in their close-knit Chicago circle to die from Aids. The novel flashes back and forth between the late 1980s and 2015, as Nico’s sister Fiona, who cared for his brother and many of his friends as they died, finally begins to reckon with the grief and trauma she never fully processed – and how much that trauma has hurt her own daughter.
American violence has always been met with tenderness, the novel suggests, but there’s usually only just enough love to keep people stumbling forward, never quite enough for them to heal. “The saddest thing in the world,” as one of the men in The Great Believers puts it, is “not hatred, but the failure of love”.
Generational trauma is also explored in There There (Tommy Orange), a kaleidoscopic novel about self-described “Urban Indians” in Oakland. “The bullets moved on after moving through us, became the promise of what was to come,” Orange writes in a historical prologue pointing out that the massacres and displacement of Native people hasn’t stopped: “Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.”
There There has a vivid sense of place: it is the Oakland of elevated Bart trains and the hulking Coliseum stadium, of East Oakland boys coasting down the street on their bikes and encroaching white hipsters “trying to come off as confident, all the while hiding their entire faces behind big bushy beards”. Orange captures not only how trauma is passed down from one generation to the next, but also the intimate social dynamics – fear, loyalty, grief, the need to show off and the need to pay the bills – that motivate young men to shoot guns.
It was a relief to read stories about gun violence that were messy and daring enough to reject the American demand that all victims be innocent, all survivors righteous, all first responders heroic.
Gun Love (Jennifer Clement), a neon fairytale about a girl raised in a Florida trailer park is full of topical issues: gun trafficking, veterans with PTSD, a megachurch pastor on the make. But, written in the punchy, exaggerated style of a graphic novel, it’s surprisingly enjoyable. The guns in the novel end up talking, murmuring stories of the people they’ve killed. That’s not enough to stop anyone from using them.
What tech does to us
Alone in the woods, I did not ache for my phone, did not yearn to be online. Given the freedom to wander, a stack of novels to read and the explicit permission to ignore the news cycle, I read for hours without stopping. My only real distractions were hunger and cold. My heat came from a small wood-burning stove, and keeping the tiny house at the right temperature, it turned out, required the same kind of constant low-level attention as my Twitter feed. When the fire was out, I missed it. It made me less lonely to hear it in the background: the mutter of the kindling, the sigh as a log caught, the little coughs, then quiet, as it burned down into ash.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, in the context of a perfectly designed reading experience, it was easy to avoid distraction. But too many of the arguments about social media “addiction” pay no attention to context when they should. Many of the ostensibly “addicted” social media users are always working, trapped at our desks or in our cars, eyeing our phones, perpetually on call. Like coffee, the little dopamine hits of a “like” or “fave” are an affordable pleasure in a world of constant work.
There were books that reminded me of the flatness of arguments on social media and how people and their motives are occasionally more complex than they can convey online.
The Friend (Sigrid Nunez) is a magnificently petty and erudite novel about a New York writer who adopts a friend’s dog after the friend kills himself. The dog, an enormous great dane named Apollo, becomes a focus for the narrator’s love and grief. On some levels, Nunez’s novel could be read as a #MeToo critique. The narrator’s friend and mentor – the kind of famous male writer who believed in the pedagogical value of sleeping with his students – had been shaken by his fading sexual appeal and the shock of teaching women who will not let him address them as “dear”. But novels, blessedly, are not Twitter threads, and the narrator’s relationship with her friend’s legacy grows more complex. How delicious, I finally realized, that in a novel dealing with the cultural reckoning over horny and abusive geniuses, the role of the genius is played by a giant dog.
The most illuminating perspective on social media came from one of the non-fiction books: Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War (Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple). By turns wry and earnest, Hisham tells the story of how two of his childhood friends from Raqqa became rebel fighters, and how he became a journalist. (Early in the war, he writes, “I knew about as little as a western analyst”.)
Hisham, who risked his life to file stories while his hometown was ruled by the Islamic State, describes his constant efforts to stay connected, the way his access to the internet was often cut off, monitored or controlled. In a terrifying moment, a soldier demands to examine his phone, and Hisham has a few brief seconds to try to delete WhatsApp, with all his contacts, before he hands it over. The image of his mobile app icons shaking as he tries to quickly delete it is impossible to forget.
Twitter might be more essential to Hisham than most – among other things, it’s how he met Crabapple, an iconoclastic artist and journalist, and his collaborator on Brothers of the Gun – but he’s far from enamored with it. “Borderless, funny and cruel,” he calls it, full of troll armies and “diverse clans who fancied themselves part of the war even as they wrote from suburban American safety”.
When Hisham’s work goes viral after breaking the news on Twitter about US airstrikes on Raqqa, he resists the kind of fame that journalist Twitter wants to give him: “They had expected a Brave Activist – Isis bad! Very bad! – the sort of boy you could feed some freedomspeak and parade on the conference scene.” Hisham knew what happened to those news cycle heroes: “Their fame grew and collapsed, and they disappeared.”
What tribalism does to us
We talk all the time about fake news. But Americans are facing another, quieter crisis: how do we talk truthfully about who we are as a country, about what we’ve done, and still see a way forward?
Heartland (Sarah Smarsh) is a journalist’s reckoning with her own family history. Smarsh grew up without much money in rural Kansas, as the daughter – and the granddaughter – of teenage mothers. She uses public records and old family letters to track how often the women in her family moved or were forced to move, seeking new jobs, better opportunities, an escape from violent men. Smarsh is very good at showing how the crises of the American economy affected her parents and grandparents, who would never have labeled themselves “white working class”. But her book is most astonishing in how it grapples with the emotional lives of her parents, including how her young mother’s frustration and isolation shaped Smarsh’s own childhood. It is not easy to write with love about how you have been hurt. But Smarsh walks that very fine line, exploring why she fought so hard to break her family’s cycle of teenage motherhood, while still writing with fierce loyalty about the strength and creativity she inherited.
It’s common these days for pundits to make casual references to America’s growing “tribalism”. I had not made much of this trend until I started Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Steve Coll), a book that opens in the days just before 9/11. In his introduction, Coll describes how frustrating it is to hear Americans describe Afghanistan and Pakistan as “lands of ‘warring tribes’ or ‘endless conflicts’”.
“The region’s ‘endless conflicts’ are not innate to its history, forms of social organization, or cultures,” he writes. “They are the outgrowth of specific misrule and violent interventions.” Before the Soviet invasion of 1979, he adds, Afghanistan was peaceful and stable for decades. Its civil wars “have been fueled again and again by outside interference”.
Calling conflicts in Afghanistan a “tribal” problem, in other words, is not simply inaccurate, it’s a lie that places blame for the violence Afghans have suffered on their supposedly backward character while ignoring a complex political conflict whose flames have sometimes been fanned by Washington.
What did it mean that the label of being “tribal”, which Americans had used inaccurately and violently in the Middle East, was now being used by American pundits to explain the anger of their own citizens?
I came back from my week of social media detox surprised at how well the endless quips and Twitter threads had stood up to a week of reading immaculately researched non-fiction and prize-winning prose.
Stepping back from the inane clamor of daily Twitter made it easier to spot what is good and revealing on social media. It is not most of it, and yes, you have to wade through the dreck and babble. But it is there: take historian Kevin Kruse, for example, who translates long books and complex research into quick, easy-to-share Twitter threads. Or the writers who produce genuine insight at the pace of breaking news.
In future, I may take the well-informed lurker approach, and tweet less. I keep hearing Sigrid Nunez’s dry little aside: “If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing takes some away.”
Books read in their entirety over the week: 12
Books read in their entirety in four days at the cabin: 10
Number of the fiction books that end in a mass shooting: 1
Best opening lines: “My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.” (Gun Love, by Jennifer Clement).
Best poem: From Terrance Hayes’s Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, a sonnet about Congresswoman Maxine Waters: I love how your blackness leaves them in the dark. / I love how even your sound-bite leaves a mark.
Most fragrant: Daniel Gumbiner’s debut novel, The Boatbuilder, about a twentysomething dealing with his opioid addiction and learning to build boats on the California coast. This novel is very quiet, clean and smells better than anything I’ve read: wood and varnish, leaves, coffee and salt.
Best writing: The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, by David Quammen, explains crucial advances in the field of molecular phylogenetics, including the discovery of archaea, a whole new category of life. This is Quammen’s 15th book, and he writes like the director of a summer blockbuster: blasts of rich detail, quick cuts, not a second wasted.
The only thing I read twice: The short story that opens Heads of the Colored People (Nafissa Thompson-Spires) is a 14-page deconstruction of the public reaction after a police shooting. Thompson-Spires is writing in opposition to the flat, credulous language of crime reporting, and she also challenges the practiced language and rituals of mourning. She writes with complete control, building a story in the precise shape of her anger. Her sentences intertwine and double back on themselves, and each one stings.
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