Why we “read books”

Matthew Teutsch
5 min readJul 14, 2022

During our trip to Washington D.C. a few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Timothy Snyder and Nora Krug’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The book is part history book, as the “lessons from the twentieth century” indicates, a part guide to how to work to preserve democracy when confronted with fascism or totalitarianism. Multiple things stand out to me with this book; however, today I want to focus on lesson nine, “Be kind to our language.”

This lesson stands out because it makes me, in many ways, think about myself. Snyder’s introduction to this section contains a few main points. He writes that we need to “[a]void pronouncing the phrases everyone else does.” Instead, we must construct our “own way of speaking,” even if that construction is to help us understand what everyone else is saying. Here, I think about the “soundbite” news cycle we have and the aimless chants of political rallies. These things, with their lightening speed, move in and out of our field of view, and we react to them one way or another.

To highlight this fast-moving speed, Krug depicts multiple men wrestling in a ring. They are entangled with one another, and we cannot determine, at times, where one man ends and another begins. Visually, we see a jumbled mass, indistinguishable as individuals and presented as one big entity. Snyder writes, “Politicians in our times feed their clichés to television, where even those who wish to disagree repeat them. Television reports to challenge political language by conveying images, but the succession from one frame to another can hinder a sense of resolution.” Instead of “resolution,” we get quick-hitting sound with images, and when something new breaks into the cycle, we move on to the next thing.

As we watch this, or scroll through it on our screens, we was some sort of resolution. A woman, with a belt around her waist and hands behind her back, watches the men wrestling in the ring. She stands there, gazing on at the mass of humanity, and the her depiction looks, sort of, as if she is confined and transfixed to the space. Having her hands behind her back creates this feeling, and Snyder’s words add to this feeling. He writes, “The effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli.” We don’t necessarily become numb, but…

Matthew Teutsch

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.