Amazon recently released statistics on which cities are the most well-read and, lo and behold, Washington DC was near the top! This isn’t surprising, I guess; everywhere you go, from the Metro to coffee shops, you see people reading. The problem is that they’re all reading, like, the same four books. Oh look, here’s an intern reading the Obama memoir; here’s a guy carrying around a copy of “Ghost Wars” so girls will think he works at the CIA; here’s someone who doesn’t seem to realize they should be embarrassed reading a George Pelecanos book in public. DC is reading – that’s good – it just needs to read better books. And so, with an eye towards some of our fine city’s unique characteristics, is a list of books every District citizen should read.
The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer
Eric Hoffer was a blue collar laborer who, after losing and regaining his sight, vowed to read everything he could, in case he went blind again. He never did, but he ended up becoming a “longshoreman philosopher,” writing accessible philosophical tracts made up of aphoristic little paragraphs, after the style of Nietzsche. His first and most famous book was “The True Believer,” in which he elucidated the roots of mass movements. Published in the Sixties, it was quickly adopted as intellectual justification for the anti-communist movement, but Hoffer’s subject matter wasn’t really political; it was a study of conformism. (His later works, after the government threw money at him a la their secret funding of Abstract Expressionists, were more overtly political; as a guy who’d worked for crap wages his whole life, he knew which side of his bread was buttered.) “The True Believer” is super easy to read (the paragraph-length aphorisms make it perfect for the Metro), but on each page there’s at least one line that will make you sit back, slap your forehead, and say “whoa” out loud. (“Unlimited opportunities can be as potent a cause of frustration as a paucity or lack of opportunities,” for example.) Also, if you’re one of those people who hangs out with people who all look, dress, and talk exactly like you, this book will (hopefully) deeply unsettle you.
DC might be becoming a modern, 21st century city, but it’s still a place where, confoundingly, two 23 year olds can announce their intentions to get married and not be immediately pelted with abuse. Sure, people get married in other cities too (sort of), but in DC it’s like everything after 1960 never happened. The problem, as I see it, is that everyone thinks they’re going to be the first couple that beats the odds. Sure, all their married friends are bored and miserable but, the thinking goes, that’s because of those friends’ peculiar failings and shortcomings, not because the institution of marriage is totally bankrupt and misconceived! Yeah, no. This book does a great job of illustrating why it’s marriage itself that’s the source of all the problems, not the people in the marriage. I suppose you could cheat and watch the movie version instead. (You get some bonus melancholy with the movie because I’m pretty sure that it was sometime during this shoot when Leonardo DiCaprio went from “handsome guy” to “squinty ham-neck who looks like he manages a Vitamin Shoppe.” Lesson’s the same, too; everything has a shelf life.)
All you DC “networkers” should read (I should say, “reread”) this book, and then immediately stop doing everything it tells you to do. The problem is that business administration majors and vaguely Aspergian cubicle cheeseballs have been memorizing this book for like half a century, so all of its downhome folksy little lifehacks have saturated our culture. They’ve become cliches; we can see them coming from a mile away, and when we can see something coming, it’s not just boring, it’s insulting. It’s like when you’re watching an action movie, and the bad guy kills the main character’s family in the first twenty minutes. I’m like, “I don’t even have to watch the rest of this, I know he’s going to end up dropping him out of a helicopter at the end.” Same with those Carnegie stand-bys of “Talk about your own mistakes before pointing out theirs” and “Make them think it was their idea.” Holy fudge, I can’t count how many times I’ve had hapless bosses try to use these Douche Jedi mind-tricks on me. The first one is patronizing, and the second just never ever works. (“Hm, you don’t think everyone should have to stay in the office until 7pm? So what you’re saying is, we should require everyone to come in two hours early?” “NO THAT’S NOT WHAT I SAID AT ALL.”) They should retitle this book, “How To Lose The Respect Of Your Coworkers And Employees.” But you still need to read it (reread) and then stop doing what it tells you to do.
A meandering epic about a band of mercenaries who are paid by the American and then the Mexican government to clear Apaches from the land, and who are later hunted down by those selfsame governments, all of it rendered in beautiful and, at times, nearly impenetrable Old Testament-like prose, “Blood Meridian” is basically America’s origin story. In a city with a lot of patriots who would have you believe that history basically just water under the bridge, it’s important to keep in mind that in a lot of ways, this country was built on slaughter and theft, just as our various government functionaries and administrators could always use a reminder that a government’s primary authority stems from a monopoly on violence. But even aside from all those weighty themes, this book is an insanely absorbing read, with moments of deadpan humor and unforgettable details. (Making gunpowder out of piss and bat guano, the killer wearing a backwards wedding dress, “I wouldn’t keep a horse as no pet,” et cetera.)