October 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s & Updates on What to Expect from Here


It took some time to figure out what our next group assignment should be.

On the one hand, I wanted to lean in to the election-year “PERSON X VERSUS DEMOCRACY” messaging that pervades our collective consciousness. On the other, I wanted to run — far, far away from it. I don’t know about you, but I tend to make better decisions after I learn from my fear rather than avoiding it. So, in the spirit of that acknowledgement, this month I’d like us to read one or both of the following:

1) Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century masterpiece, Democracy in America. Find a translation that works for you. Mine is from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and edited by J.P. Mayer (1969). If this is also your version, do yourself a favor and read the Forwards for an interesting bit of historical context — for then, and sadly, for now.


2) Tim Marshall’s A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols (July 2016). This book was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, just prior to our last presidential election. That we are reading it this month is absolutely by design. I trust this is not lost on you. And I hope you find more than one way to think about things a little differently before we have the responsibility of voting again.

Then, about the second half of this post’s title: where we go from here.

No, I don’t mean the country — though believe me when I say that this is very much on my mind and heart — I mean this group. It has been a huge honor to lead our small collection of readers through the first six months of a little book club I launched at the height of a pandemic. I intend to keep our momentum going. But, as with any responsible leader, I must also recognize when things don’t serve us well anymore, and make plans to adapt. So let’s talk structure, shall we?

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the structure of this little group isn’t serving all of us as well as it could. While I’d like to leave ample room for folks to have and continue conversations, both on- and offline, I am not convinced that we need my guided responses at the end of each month. Unless someone has another idea, what I’d like to propose is this:

  1. In the first week of each month, I will still post our books and themes for the month ahead. So, we are in the first week of October now, and I have just shared our October reads in this post. Hopefully that part is self-evident.
  2. In the last week, I will post my much-abridged responses and/or questions as comments to that original post, probably from my other blog account, liftingthevale. This will replace the separate response posts I had been sharing, for several reasons. First, because I grow tired of hearing myself speak (that was never the intention here, and I already know what my own thoughts are); second, because separate responses clutter up the category and tags (web site management is also crucial for what I do); and third, they make it harder to be in true conversation with dedicated readers like you, who are currently asked to respond in a democratic, but messily non-centralized fashion. This can be much improved. I am hopeful the changes I propose will encourage greater, still democratic, engagement for all us.

Again, if someone has another idea for how to make this work, I’m all ears. Can I ask a small favor, though? Let’s deliver feedback about the structure of this group as comments below. It’s good practice for the end of the month anyway, when we’ll meet again to discuss our thoughts on the reads we’ve just picked up. That way, we can make a use-informed decision about how it works (or doesn’t) for the months ahead. Sound like a plan? Great! I’ll see y’all back here in the last week of October. Much love — and bravery — until then. Lord knows we need it.

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4 thoughts on “October 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s & Updates on What to Expect from Here

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  2. Friends, a mid-month reflection to share with you. Others who follow me on social media may have already seen it, but I’d encourage us all to spend a minute reflecting on it once again.

    I don’t know who needs to hear this, but … violence isn’t the answer. Just in general, in life, in the world.

    To be PERFECTLY clear, anti-government, self-appointed “militias” of all kinds need to do more than “stand down.” And peaceful protests designed to wake the country up to grossly out-of-control systemic racism (and classism, but that’s another fight for another day) do not need to include violent, dangerous behaviors, either.

    NO ONE should be stoking the fires of violence anywhere, ever. We have BIG work to do, and perpetrating and then dealing with the ramifications of violence only takes VALUABLE time away from that … no matter HOW you identify. That’s right, I’m talking to ALL of you, America. As always.

    Here’s the thing: it’s VERY possible to be an active, vocal, and yes even ANGRY advocate for change WITHOUT resorting to these tactics. I see people in my orbit doing this every day and I applaud you all. And a lot of you really, really disagree, and from where I sit, that’s just proof this system doesn’t need to be “overthrown,” we don’t need “liberating,” we just need to learn to HEAR each other better… and then act accordingly.

    Violent work isn’t productive (it changes nothing), it isn’t in anyone’s best interest (destroyed lives and livelihoods are a threat to us ALL), and further to the point… we ALREADY HAVE systems that safely allow people who are unhappy with their politicians to, I don’t know, VOTE THEM OUT. We don’t need kidnapping plots to get that job done. We don’t need to be “liberated” if this is how it’s gonna come.

    Folks. This is America. What kind of country do we want to hand our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren? A country at all?

    VOTE. Dear God, VOTE.


  3. Reading Group,

    Let’s tackle these books one at a time, shall we?

    Relative to Tim Marshall’s “A Flag Worth Dying For,” here are the concepts I found myself most drawn to, given the world in which we live. What were yours?

    (1) In the early chapters of Marshall’s book, he doubts whether flags are always a unifying force. He offers that sometimes they communicate “too much” (pg. 2) and that it’s “an almost impossible task” for flags to fully “unite a population” or “encapsulate a nation” (pg. 5). This is because, Marshall believes, “flags can have multiple meanings” and that as a result, “proving intent” for those who choose to fly or otherwise use them may not be possible, either (pg. 23).

    In your personal view, what are flags meant to say or do? Secondly, with the knowledge that they might mean (or do) something different to (or for) others, where is the line between flags as symbols of unity and belonging … and flags as symbols of exclusion or division? Who gets to draw that line and who benefits from or gets to maintain it?

    (2) On page 69, in the middle of a discussion about why the EU’s flag was given 12 stars in 1955, Marshall mentions several conspiracy theories that have come to dominate surrounding discussions. He goes on to lament how the “Internet age” and “Internet warriors” have demonstrated time and again “not being weighed down by facts.”

    Unfortunately, this is now a familiar refrain across many levels of society. What examples of post-truth culture are you aware of? Relatedly, how do we distinguish between unpopular opinion and clear falsehood in a world where the definition of “fact” and “truth” are so in flux? Are “facts” and “truth” the same thing, and/or should they be? Who decides, benefits from, and maintains these definitions?

    (3) Near the end of the book, Marshall reminds us that “Flags do not need to represent a nation or a political idea to engender emotion and convey a message. It might be a symbol of peace, a sign of solidarity for an international community to rally behind, or even just a successful form of branding” (pg. 245).

    Where do you see examples of these types of flags in your community, if they exist? What other symbols have this kind of power? If you were to design a flag, unrelated to a nation state, what would it be and why?

    And finally…

    (4) In a book with the subtitle “The Power and Politics of National Symbols,” it must be said that which flags Marshall selected for treatment, and how he chose to treat them, was a political choice.

    What choices would you have made differently, if you’d been the author? Does your answer change if I ask you to consider a publication date of 2016 (as it was) versus today (2020)? Why/why not?


  4. Ok, Friends,

    At long last, here are some questions we might choose to reflect on and answer, both relative to de Tocqueville and in general. They are all centered in content from the very beginning of his work, but if you’re a careful reader (of books and of life), you will see that maybe, just maybe, there is a thread to be pulled through, if only we’d have the courage to do so.

    And with that I leave you…

    (1) Who read the 1969 Foreword as I suggested? What commonalities with today’s culture — political and otherwise — did you find by reading editor J. P. Mayer’s words?

    (2) In de Tocqueville’s original Author’s Introduction, he asks:

    “Have all ages been like ours? And have men always dwelt in a world in which nothing is connected? Where virtue is without genius, and genius is without honor? Where love of order is confused with a tyrant’s tastes, and the sacred cult of freedom is taken as scorn of law? Where conscience sheds but doubtful light on human actions? Where nothing longer seems either forbidden or permitted, honest or dishonorable, true or false?” (pgs. 17-18 in 1969 edition).

    Interesting how something written so long ago can seem so relevant, right? Look and listen around you. Where you do recognize some of the same concerns? And, taking this a step further, do you believe society must always be (or be messaged as) this divided? I invite you to seriously reflect upon what that kind of message ultimately serves.

    (3) Throughout the book, de Tocqueville asserts that “equality of conditions” is present in America. And yet, in many places, his descriptions demonstrate he might actually have believed, or struggled to un-see, that conditions were very much otherwise. With that in mind….

    (a) Why do we think he was comfortable using that phrase to label American society? Consider both the culture from which he was visiting and the state of the American experiment upon his visit.


    (b) Have we made any further gains towards living up to his generous assessment? What else has changed to make that development possible, impossible, or otherwise arrested? Is it a goal towards which modern democracies can or should reasonably aspire?

    and finally

    (4) At the end of Part One, Chapter Two, de Tocqueville paints this rather damning picture: “One might put it this way. The surface of American society is covered in a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through” (pg. 49 in 1969 edition).

    How do you respond to this? With agreement or not, qualified or not? And, beyond that original reaction, what do you believe is the best course of action moving forward? Why?


    I will close with what I hope is a well-timed but perhaps unpopular reminder.

    History is cyclical and humans are fallible.

    Read that again.

    We are striving towards a perfection that we will never reach — simply because we cannot, at least not on this Earth, and not in these limited lifetimes. Instead, we will continue to make the same mistakes, albeit in different ways, as we strive to get closer to that goal.

    This is humanity’s fate.

    But here’s the deal.

    What we do still matters, because for the short while we are all here on this Earth, here in these limited lifetimes, how we experience the world and each other doesn’t have to be a veritable hellscape, either.

    So after you’re done ruminating on de Tocqueville and Marshall, on democracy and flags and all they can, should, or shouldn’t stand for, do yourself and everyone around you a favor… and ask yourself…

    What do WE stand for? Who among US is beyond reproach? And what are the connecting ideas between those thoughts and a stronger tomorrow?


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