What Are You Reading, Mr President?
Take along a book (1910) camping poster by Magnus Norstad, Library of Congress/Rawpixel (public domain)/

What Are You Reading, Mr President?

Paulina Wilk
time 3 minutes

I love to imagine what would happen if our politicians read books. In what kind of country and mood would I wake up in if I possessed the knowledge that the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of the Sejm – just like other distinguished personalities in this world – had been up since 5am, their minds immersed in a book, before the everyday, mundane matters took over their now fully-awake heads. I imagine how they would attempt, through reading, to anticipate and solve upcoming quandaries and widen the scope of their policymaking, and how every once in a while, while reading, they would contemplate ways in which we humans could be more content, trusting, healthy and well-educated. How great would Poland be, if only its leaders slept less and read more!

There is no need to imagine or imply that our politicians read nothing but fake news dedicated to them. After all, among these jacks-of-all-trades (depending on what job, pardon me, what government department they land), a number of traits is quite commonplace: a terrible standard of language in their public statements (yes, such standards do exist and some of us adhere to them however niche that might seem), an unwillingness to use their imagination (reading enhances the neural networks responsible for imagination), and the lack of that elusive element, known as cleverness, intelligence, wit, esprit

In a country led by avidly reading politicians, public communications would resemble captivating radio plays, rather than broadcasts of humiliation or farce. On seeing those in power, rather than howling in despair, we would stop and ask: “What are you reading at the moment, Mr President? Any good? I can recommend ‘Przekrój’ – it improves vision and digestion!” Perhaps, in such a country, the art of leading the nation would resemble its platonic ideal: the quest to realize the idea of the Good. In such a country, public media would be old-fashioned, but trustworthy; the judiciary, independent but never intimidated; and cashiers and bus drives, less furious and less stressed. They, and others in our shared space, would know that there is someone who cares about us, and so works to expand their wisdom and sensitivity, even after hours. They would know that this someone is not occupying their position simply thanks to a twist of historical fate, unhealthy ambitions, or the power of cynicism or coincidence. They are there because they care about us and see this care as the essence of being in power (and have learned something about it from books).


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If the rulers read books, they would have a lower tendency for duplicity and nonsense, for literature is the balm that stimulates the thirst for knowledge and a fascination with all various truths. Better to read than to go astray. If – besides baking festivals, football games and firework displays – politicians would visit libraries, cafés and literary festivals, they would have a chance to feel that a future does indeed exist. It is shaped by our desires and choices and it is more important – even if more distant and vast – than their term in office. Time will flow without them, and if they do something well, a writer or poet will remember and give them a place in eternity. One verse, a fleeting memory, or perhaps a vast biography that few people will read, but everyone will want to have on their shelf.

Of course, dreams rarely come true. I could say to myself: “Come on! What kind of a world do you think we live in? You’ve read way too many books!” But perhaps now is exactly the time for such wishful thinking. Even an illiterate person can see the difference between a world run by an avidly reading lawyer and an intellectually slow entrepreneur – with all due respect for Polish entrepreneurs who, when it comes to literary issues and concern for the state, beat our politicians hands down. And feet down. After all, they can both read and count.

I am not counting on Polish politicians to take up reading. Instead I believe that, sooner or later, well-read people will enter politics and together we will write a good non-fiction book.


Also read:

How to Save the Earth in the Era of the Anthropocene
Eean Chen
Dreams and Visions

How to Save the Earth in the Era of the Anthropocene

Edwin Bendyk

In her poignant Epoka człowieka. Retoryka i marazm antropocenu [The Human Epoch: The Rhetoric and Apathy of the Anthropocene], Ewa Bińczyk writes: “The Anthropocene desperately needs critical hope and conviction that constructive change is possible.” The philosopher examines the strange condition of mankind that has just reached the peak of its dominance, gaining the power to shape the entire geo- and ecosystem. Yes, we are living in the Anthropocene, the epoch of humans. Instead of rejoicing, however, we must accept that its swift culmination may equal an ecological apocalypse. And although we are well aware of the scenarios describing the approaching catastrophe, we are not able to take action that would protect us from the worst. Bińczyk sums up her work with a complaint: “How wonderful would it be to offer an array of inspiring utopias at the end of this work. Unfortunately, I did not come across any while examining the discourses of the Anthropocene.”

Is the situation truly as bleak as she claims? After all, there is no shortage of proposals for how to better organize the world. While the Kurdish Rojava are experimenting with the system of democratic confederalism, Bolivians and Ecuadorians have revised their constitutions to reflect the principle of buen vivir – ‘good living’ or ‘well living’ – questioning the idea that development should be understood in terms of quantitative expansion. Led by Ada Colau, Barcelona advances the idea of municipalism; grassroots civil movements taking over power in towns and cities, leading to, among other things, the feminization of politics. All such local initiatives can be seen as utopias, or projects that feed on the hope that a better world is possible. More importantly, they are not just literary visions, but rather tangible projects implemented within existing social and political realities.

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