On Oct. 15, the two presidential candidates held simultaneous town hall meetings. It was an event characteristic of the division and isolation infecting 2020.

For ten frustrating minutes, I toggled between the two unchallenged monologues, learning nothing about either candidate or about the issues they were addressing in varying tones of agitation.

Then I changed the channel.

For the next hour, I watched a live stream of writer Marilynne Robinson read from her new novel “Jack” then talk in her measured, bemused voice about love and teaching and race and grace. Although the Q&A turned, unavoidably, to politics, the tone of the conversation was a stark contrast to the bluster and blather and combativeness that has become necessary—thanks to one unprecedentedly combative candidate—for politicians to adopt.

“But fear was very much — is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.”

Marilynne Robinson, during a 2015 conversation with President Barack Obama

I enjoyed hearing Marilynne Robinson speak her mind. I learned something solid from her reading. (And I was inspired to re-read her novel “Home” to remember Jack’s story.) It was like being back in class.

I took three seminars from Marilynne Robinson at Iowa: one on the Old Testament, one on Greek Tragedy, and one on William Faulkner. These are big topics, distant topics (Faulkner and his Southern imagination being more foreign to me, actually, than the stories in Genesis or the poetry of Solomon). At first glance, they have nothing to do with the current state of the world. On second thought, though: what better way to be perpetually ready for anything than to dive into formative stories?

Tuesday is Election Day, but many of us have already voted. One of the presidential candidates is notoriously poorly-read. I’m not sure about the other one. I won’t be casting my vote for president—or for any of the other, more local races—based on candidates’ reading lists. But I am convinced that reading widely, deeply, and thoughtfully shapes a leader’s character for the better.

The U.S. president I admire most from my lifetime, Barack Obama, makes a point of reading. It’s not surprising that he and Marilynne Robinson were friends during his presidency and are still.

I plan to vote on Tuesday, in person. Like many other people, I harbor feelings of dread about the future of America, no matter the outcome of this presidential contest or any number of local races.

In my worst moments, I just want the noise to stop. Then I remind myself to engage—in the only way I know how, which is quietly and thoughtfully. Social media doesn’t come naturally to me. And I remember how Marilynne Robinson’s books, which are quiet and profoundly thoughtful, have captured a vast audience in this age of noise—including a president.

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