12 December 2009

Politics and Fiction: the Possibility of Learning?

Bird Loomis, prof at the University of Kansas, wrote again about his serious, professional reading. Not that serious, professional reading can't be enjoyable. (See how easy it is to add your ideas here.)

"For the second time I'm teaching my course on Literature and Politics, of which I asked for suggested readings a couple of years ago. (Suggestions still welcome!) But my focus today is to write a bit about one book - A Dangerous Friend -- by one of my favorite authors, Ward Just [left]. Just writes intimately about politics in various venues, most notably D.C. and around Chicago. But he was a war correspondent in Vietnam (a good one, a contemporary of David Halberstam) for several years, and has lived a lot in Europe.

"In A Dangerous Friend he writes about Vietnam in 1965, near the start of the major troop build up. Americans were still hopeful, albeit naively, in their approach to the 'effort' to do some good in this nation we could scarcely locate on a map.

"As usual, Just brings broad political, policy, and moral issues down to the personal level Moreover, writing a decade ago about an older conflict, Just offers a news lens through which to examine our 2009 (and ongoing) involvement in Afghanistan. This seems one marker for effective fiction - a plot line and a set of characters that transcend time and place. (Think Shakespeare)

"What makes A Dangerous Friend such a compelling read in 2009 is that it's a 1999 book that looks back to 1965 in Vietnam, when there were still many American optimists (naifs?) who had concluded that we could build a Western-style democracy in a small, rural Asian nation. What was most thought-provoking for me here, beyond Just's narrative, is that I've read this book three times - in 1999, in 2007, and now in 2009. The contexts of U.S. military involvement have been quite distinctive in those three periods; strangely enough, I think ADF packs more of a punch in this third reading, as we commit more troops to Afghanistan, than it did in my two previous ones.

"In the past, I've talked a bit about rereading books, but often just for pleasure. But here there is some instrumental value to revisiting a book. Might it even be worthwhile to give a copy of ADF to some policy makers. One never knows."

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