I thought it was interesting that Fareed Zakaria, who hosts a show on CNN, invited three writers to talk about how to understand the history of Haiti. Tracy Kidder is the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, and Madison Smartt Bell has written a trilogy set in Haiti: All Souls' Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone that the Builder Refused. I will probably start All Souls' Rising soon, since it was on my list of books to read anyway. I would rather read novels (mixed in with well-written nonfiction) as a way of understanding a time, a place, a historical context, that to read only newspaper or magazine reports. The non-stop coverage of the devastation reminds me of Katrina -- it is excruciating to watch. I know I could turn it off, but that would feel heartless, and besides, my husband has been glued to the television since the beginning of the coverage.
I certainly plan to donate money, and I even had a brief fantasy of going to Haiti myself (for what-- no medical skills, sickened by the sight of blood). But I can donate, I can inform myself, I can feel and acknowledge the shared humanity and the sorrow of the Haitian people.
I suppose that reading heightens my sense of a shared humanity with people of other places, other centuries, other lives. It is my natural impulse to try to know more, understand more. I don't believe that contemporary news outlets necessarily help me to know or understand. Too often, news coverage of any issue becomes politicized and divided along easily predictable lines. How useless the comments of Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson -- and they received far more attention than they deserved. Hatred has too great a place in our discourse these days.
I would rather sit down with a novel by Edwidge Danticat (Krik? Krak!; The Farming of Bones; Breath, Eyes, Memory; The Dew Breaker) than watch a re-hashing of the latest contentious nastiness propagated by the "nattering nabobs of negativism." Of course reading a novel takes time. Understanding takes time. Our society would rather have our information and knowledge come like fast food-- easily chewed and swallowed, and of questionable value for the consumer.