Saturday, April 4, 2009

Fiction to fact, reading to writing

I've commented before about how/when I give myself permission to stop reading a book, but lately it's gotten ridiculous. It seems to me that I've started and given up on six or more books in the last week or two. I even went as far in as 150 pages or so with one and yet ultimately had to admit defeat. Nothing's grabbing me. Nothing's demanding my attention. Nothing's keeping me awake at night, or calling out to me upon morning's first stirrings of consciousness.

Today it occurred to me that maybe the problem's with me. Maybe the reason I can't seem to get engaged in a novel is the fault of the reader and not all these writers. Maybe it's time to turn away from fiction. Once I had the thought I realized it was exactly right, that in fact a turn toward fact is long overdue. In general I read much more fiction than non-fiction, a ratio of perhaps 10 to one. Still, there is that one. For all that I find in fiction, I do also hunger for an occasional bout of straight-on learning such as can only be found in a work of history or biography, paleontology or cosmology. Now is such a time. Such a hunger has been manifesting itself, only I was a bit dense about recognizing the meaning of the pangs.

Once I did, I picked up a book that I've been meaning to read since it came out three years ago--Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America by James Green. And of course it became immediately clear that I couldn't be reading a more timely book. As any good labor activist and all students of labor history--but, sadly, hardly anyone else in this country--knows, it is the events of May 1886 in Chicago, and the struggle for the eight-hour day that gave rise to those events, and the martyrdom of the working-class leaders who were framed and executed afterward that the entire worldwide working class marks every May 1. Yes, May Day, the international workers' holiday, a day off for workers in most countries but of course not here, commemorates the Haymarket.

The Haymarket and all that word encompasses--the strikes, the rallies, the police riots and bloody murders of workers; the martyrdom of Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer; the Red Scare--is timely for another reason. Interwoven with all the rest of this history is the issue of immigrant workers. It was the immigrants of that time, 120-some years ago, who led the struggle. Immigrants were among the most radical workers, including the socialists. It was immigrants who were targeted by the ruling-class offensive that sought to beat back labor and defeat the movement for the eight-hour day.

It all comes together now, as another wave of anti-immigrant demagogy emanates from the capitalists--and another wave of militant immigrant workers fights back. May Day is coming up. There will be big rallies and marches in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and many other cities, as there have been since the massive Day Without An Immigrant May Day actions shut down most of the country in 2006. Now, with millions of workers, immigrant and U.S.-born, out of work and struggling to survive, these actions will be more meaningful than ever.

Perfect time to bone up on this history. Now I can settle down with a good book. One other reason I think I needed to shift from fiction to non is that I'm now fully engaged in working on my new novel. Sentences are running through my head. I hear my characters' voices. This is where my mind goes upon awakening, this is what keeps me awake at bedtime. This, not whatever novel I was trying to read. Which is a very good thing and of course I don't mind at all that it means I have to turn away from fiction reading. It's just for the moment, I know. I read tons of novels while I was writing my first. Reading fiction only helps in the writing of fiction. As I re-enter the work right now, though, it seems that, for what I'm sure will be only a brief interval, there isn't room for both my own imagination and someone else's.

At left: Haymarket Martyrs Memorial in Forest Home Cemetery, Chicago. At the statue's base are August Spies' last words: "The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."