Today on an airplane I was reading “The Meaning of Freedom,” a collection of speeches by prison abolitionist Angela Davis. The cover features Davis standing along a wall topped with barbed wire. The young woman sitting beside me asked, “Are you studying for school or just a history buff?” While Davis certainly intends to raise historical consciousness, she does not write within the discipline of history, and nothing on the cover of the book suggests it is a work of history. The current page I was reading, however, was about the PATRIOT Act, so I guess she noticed that and assumed such a topic was of only historical interest. I said, “No, I’m just reading because there’s a lot to learn.”
I pondered her question for a moment, which seemed to suggest that unless the book was required reading for a degree or I were one of those guys who got off accumulating useless historical trivia, it made no sense to read a non-fiction book on an airplane when I could, like a normal person, watch movies on the screen so conveniently fixed to the seat-back six inches in front of my face, or play games on my phone, or read a bestselling novel.
Her question triggered my nagging sense that there is something profoundly wrong about me, similar to how I feel when I walk up a few flights of stairs rather than take the elevator and discover the doors from the stairwell are locked, when my phone tries to autocorrect words like “delegitimization” and “essentialism,” or when I write posts on Facebook that I expect to be thought-provoking to my friends but am met with radio silence.
I thought about what else I might say to justify my aberrant behavior, something perhaps about how much injustice is perpetuated by ignorance, how important I think it is to learn and prompt others to learn about the way of the world. But I quickly concluded she was right. It is nonsense. There is little to nothing good I can accomplish. I should do myself and my fellow passengers a favor and shut the book, plug in a pair of headphones, turn the volume high enough for my neighbors to hear, cackle in amusement at exploitation comedy, and stop making everyone around me feel so uncomfortable.