Sunday Reads: Reading to make the world feel smaller

In case you missed it, Madison Magazine is sharing our introduction to the last month's edition of our monthly 'Sunday Reads' newsletter.
Sunday Reads banner with red bars and an illustrated cat sitting atop a stack of books next to a plant and coffee mug.

This article originally appeared as the introduction to the February edition of Madison Magazine’s monthly “Sunday Reads” newsletter, curated by Associate Editor Maggie Ginsberg. The rest of the monthly newsletter includes links to other articles within and outside of the magazine, plus book coverage and other literary news around town. Sign up for future newsletters here. The next newsletter will be emailed on Sunday, Mar. 27.

As I sit down to write this monthly Sunday Reads intro, I find it difficult to concentrate on anything but the horror currently unfolding as Russia invades Ukraine. I have no business writing about any of it and I don’t pretend to be saying something smart or profound here. Frankly, I tried to think of something else to write about — any other topic — but failed. Like many of you, I’ve lost sleep these last several nights, not just thinking about murderous dictators and big, faceless concepts like sprawling foreign countries with generations of complex geopolitical forces, but small, specific, human pain — terrified families fleeing, separating, remembering, grieving, fighting.

Although I have traveled to several of this region’s countries and experienced their citizens’ hospitality firsthand (including the former U.S.S.R. in the ’80s and ’90s; Berlin just after the wall came down; and Auschwitz), I am as insulated as any average Wisconsinite lying awake at night worrying and wondering. The Jewish half of my family history has its own stories of fleeing Nazi fascism to land in America, my Grandpa Freddy often giving up his bed as a little boy to take in yet another refugee. Because of this, I studied that period of history in college, drawn not to the macro-dynamics I continue to grapple with but the human stories at the microlevel; the people at the mercies of their “leaders.” Back then I read every personal account I could get my hands on, and to this day that’s my first instinct: Find someone’s story and read it. Remind myself that we are all the same. That most of what I hold dear about my home is a matter of luck and timing, an accident of my birth.

My co-associate editor, Maija Inveiss, is a proud Latvian American, a dual-citizen, fluent in the language and extremely close to her multigenerational, tight-knit Latvian family. One of my favorite things about her is the pride in her culture and the family stories she often shares with us both privately and as part of the magazine’s BITE newsletter. Her family, like many others in Eastern Europe, was directly affected by U.S.S.R.’s occupation. Now the invasion in Ukraine is triggering painful memories of what her grandparents endured in the 1940s, as well as fears of what could come. Similarly, former Madisonian author Dean Bakopoulos published a profoundly moving essay for Harper’s Bazaar on Friday called “Ghosts of Ukraine” about the generational trauma he and other descendants of the Ukranian diaspora are experiencing. Maija and Dean are only two of the many people I’m thinking about when I sit here unable to think about anything else. Of course you don’t have to be Ukrainian or Latvian or Lithuanian or Estonian or Russian to understand that the ongoing escalation of events that led to this week’s invasion will have a critical effect on every global citizen.

I read to escape — of course I do, there’s nothing wrong with that. And I read to understand (here’s a helpful book roundup I found on Friday, a Twitter thread of resources that Maija shared with me, and an English-language journalism source to keep up with The Kyiv Independent‘s breaking news). But more than anything else, I read to connect, so that experiences that might never be mine feel as if they are. So that it becomes instinctual, a kind of muscle memory, when the time comes to act. So that even when I fail to grasp every last nuance and complexity, I never doubt whose side I’m on — ours. The people’s.

This article originally appeared as the introduction to the February edition of Madison Magazine’s monthly “Sunday Reads” newsletter, which is curated by Associate Editor Maggie Ginsberg and includes a rundown on current the print issue, links to print stories you might have missed, web exclusive content like the Doug Moe’s Madison blog, highlighted articles from other journalists that caught our attention, author Q&As and other literary coverage around town. To sign up for the monthly newsletter, enter your email address below. The next newsletter will be emailed on Sunday, Mar. 27.