Recent days have seen the rabble raging across much of the Middle-East in response to the anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims. Given this, it’s all too easy to paint the Muslim world in broad strokes of intolerance. Of course, such an approach is overly simplistic, and therefore falls far short of the truth, which is that most Muslims are ordinary peace-loving people. Or, as popular wisdom teaches, don’t let a few bad apples spoil the bunch.
Thinking about all this, I realized that a number of the works explored by the Crandall Public Library Monday Evening Book Discussion Group might be seen as texts for tolerance. We are speaking of written works that illuminate the unfamiliar, and in so doing, have the power to chase the bogeyman of bigotry from the dark recesses of our minds. I believe that this is what a certain sightless visionary had in mind when she professed:
The highest result of education is tolerance.–Helen Keller
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is a fine example of prose’s potential to foster understanding and empathy. It does a picture-perfect job of painting a nuanced tale of the Iranian people during a particularly dark era. As I wrote in an earlier post:
Some words are worth a thousand pictures. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is filled with such words. Words like revolutionaries and war, dreams and prophets. But it’s a graphic novel, so we can’t forget the pictures. They’re black-and-white, bleak and spare. It’s a cautionary comicscape, seemingly meant to convey a sense of the darkness of oppression.
Satrapi’s work is powerful stuff for sure; Persepolis was a landmark book for many American readers because so few had ever been invited to understand and sympathize with any Iranian character. She’s since published several books that are all meant to bridge gaps. Most obviously she wants to illustrate the relationships and differences between men and women, and those between Iranians and her Western readers, but she also tries to bridge more personal gaps, reconciling family histories and her own youthful experiences with the present day.
Of course, good books usually demand some form of conflict, and Ms. Satrapi is not the only author the group has examined who has held a mirror up to a nation to produce edifying fare in the name of tolerance. Dave Eggers, who is perhaps best known for his novel A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, is also to be commended for his work in this vein.
I first became acquainted with Dave Eggers in a laundromat of all places. Always on the prowl for something to read, and with plenty of time to kill while the wash did its thing, I discovered a copy of Egger’s Might magazine, buried in a stack of cast-off reading material. Upon closer examination, I was especially taken with Donnell Alexander’s essay Cool Like Me: Are Black People Cooler than White People? The piece was later reprinted in the Utne Reader, and if you’d like, you can check it out here.
In any case, I offer it for your perusal, because much like Egger’s Zeitoun, it offers a journey into what may be strange and unfamiliar territory, with all the tolerance inducing benefits inherent to such a vicarious voyage. As Mark Twain once observed, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” And for me, that’s always been at the heart of the magic of the written word. That is, its ability to allow an opportunity to metaphorically march many miles in another person’s shoes, travelling towards the light of greater understanding. I hope that you’ll find the journey as eye-opening as I have. It seems as if author Timothy Egan sees it the same way:
“Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina. . . . Eggers’ tone is pitch-perfect—suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America? . . . It’s the stuff of great narrative nonfiction. . . . Fifty years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”
In closing, many thanks to Anne “Always Awesome” Nelson who coauthored and edited this post. Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the works detailed here, and/or any recommendations that you might have in terms of other texts for tolerance…