Politics and Prose: Advice and reflections on reading while at USC

Close up of the pages of a novel.
Carson advises that reading is valuable to better comprehend politics and influence political debate. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

I am typically not one to give advice, but seeing as this column will likely be the last thing I will ever write at the Daily Trojan, it feels appropriate to reflect on some of my experiences and share what I’ve learned. 

I realize that, given the name of this column and its theme throughout the semester, some grand treatise on political literature and its significance might’ve been more apt. I’ll touch on that idea before this is over, but it won’t be some grand treatise, and if a USC education is still worth anything, it shouldn’t take my column for you to already recognize the significance for yourself. 

None of the suggestions I will provide are gospel. However, I do feel pretty confident about them, and I’d venture to say that most of them — assuming you don’t follow them already — will make your reading life easier and a bit more enjoyable. 

I’ll begin with a maxim that I only recently began to adhere to, and it’s one that has drastically changed my reading life: Read more than one book at a time. 

If someone had told me that a year ago, I would’ve run, convinced that they had been sent to tempt me into descending into reading ruin. How would I be able to keep multiple narratives and characters straight across several books along with the already voluminous and disparate sets of information and tomes that were already being foisted onto me by my professors?

Well, the answer was and is: quite easily. Even though I’ve only recently begun practicing this reading tenet, it’s drastically improved my reading stamina and, to an extent, the enjoyment I derive from reading. Also, longer reads become far more bearable when they can be broken up by the likes of Tolkien or Carver whenever your primary book of choice begins to feel like more of a chore than a treat. 

I would caution, however, to make sure that two books of the same genre are not read at the same time. I admit, keeping two books of the same genre straight is not the hardest thing to do in the world — after all, classes at USC frequently require you to read and comprehend approximately 1,200 books at a time. Still, splitting genres does make reading just a bit less mentally taxing, and reading two biographies or two novels at a time just sounds tedious and excruciating.

My second bit of advice is to understand that it’s perfectly okay to put a book down. Again, about two years ago, I would’ve assumed that anyone trumpeting could’ve accurately been labeled a schmuck or a reading-lightweight, but my reading habits have changed dramatically in the past year or so, and learning when to put a book down has been the biggest reason for that. 

Previously, I believed that once I had begun a book, it had to be completed, no matter how boring or arduous reading became. Starting a book was like entering into a sacred blood pact or starting a new season of “Love Island” — no matter how difficult things became or how horrifying what took place on screen was, you had to finish what you signed up for. As you might expect, this conviction was remarkably wrong-headed.

Put simply, if you’re not enjoying a book or just don’t really feel like reading it anymore, just call it quits and put the damn thing down. The same goes for “Love Island,” less so for blood pacts. 

Finally, do the reading. 

I’ll admit, I’m borrowing a bit from Ezra Klein here (this was one the final lessons he offered listeners during his final podcast on Vox), but the lesson directly touched on a general feeling of mine that developed toward the end of the fall semester. 

Today, politics is seemingly more democratized than it ever has been in American history. I don’t mean “democratized” in the sense that voting is more accessible than ever — the Republican party appears to be working quite hard to halt and reverse democratization in that arena. I mean “democratized” in the sense that the information, both good and bad, and the means necessary to effectively contribute, participate and influence public political discourse is more accessible than ever. 

As a result, it often feels that slogans, buzzwords, personalities, summaries and summaries of summaries have begun to dictate our political views, rather than merely inform them.

This is why actually doing the reading is so invaluable. The challenges we face are potentially calamitous, and solving them requires a level of nuance that is seldom captured through the common mediums many now understand politics through, such as social media, television and quick explainers, to name a few. 

So, please, if the future of the U.S. and its nearly 330 million residents mean anything to you, pick up a newspaper, magazine or book and actually do the reading.

Stuart Carson is a senior writing about political literature. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Politics and Prose,” ran every other Monday.