I’m thankful for my ninth grade world history teacher. Even though he had a propensity for tight black shirts and boasted a goatee way before facial hair was trendy, he gave my class a list of books to read if we wanted extra credit. Right on, I’m thinking, you’ll give me bonus points for doing something I enjoy—namely reading.
On this list was a book called 1984. A classmate said to me, “You should read that one. It’s about an out-of-control, authoritarian government.” Sounds good—better than, say, Ethan Frome did to my teenage ears. So I read it. I didn’t grasp many of the implications that I would years later when I was in my early twenties and read it again. But I intuitively understood that far from being simply an entertaining, dystopic fantasy, Orwell was sounding a warning that all of us who value the individual’s freedom would do well to heed.
That’s why it’s disheartening when I mention the book these days and get a blank stare. I realize that it was probably very rare that a public school teacher would still endorse such a book when I was in school. This day and time they would probably be fired. We’ve come a long way. We can’t even see Kansas in the rear view mirror. While I’m on it, I had a middle school teacher who made the whole class read Fahrenheit 451. I was too young and uninformed to really appreciate it. But seeds were sown from reading both it and 1984, seeds that would eventually bear the fruit of discernment.
Then, of course, there’s Huxley’s Brave New World. I confess I couldn’t get into it like I did the others. But it seems to round out the dystopic trilogy, a fictional resource compendium whose message is increasingly relevant. So what is the future? Is it Big Brother, Soma or book burnings? Perhaps it is all three.
Winston would be astounded at the level and complexity that mass surveillance has attained today. But hey, we’re over three decades beyond 1984. The Department of Defense (Ministry of Peace) wages war after war. The mainstream media (Ministry of Truth) is controlled by a handful of mega-corporations who all parrot the same talking points. Torture is apparently okay if it is sanctioned by the state (Ministry of Love). And anyone who disagrees with the national narrative is secretly in cahoots with Emmanuel Goldstein.
But if you toe the line, like Huxley’s Alphas, you get rewarded. Feeling depressed? The pharmaceutical companies via your local doc will straighten it all out. (Though maybe you’re just sad because you realize we’re in trouble). I don’t think I need to dwell on the fact that we’re a sex-saturated society. If it’s not the real thing, there’s a growing number of virtual options. Sex Ed (i.e. – underage sex promotion) is being introduced to younger and younger audiences. Designer babies with three or more parents are right around the corner. And the old people—well, they’ve lived long enough.
Bradbury’s vision of books being hunted down and destroyed might be the only stretch of comparison to make for present conditions. However, that’s because books don’t need to be burned. Most people don’t read them anymore, anyhow. Oh, I know there are still plenty of bibliophiles around. But the average man on the street is doing good to read one book a year—in any genre. Just check out the reading statistics for the general population. How the mighty have fallen. Americans have gone from the intellectual and innovative leaders of the world to pretty near international laughingstocks if you go by current standardized test scores.
Yes, we’re in trouble. But we can’t say we weren’t warned. Have I lost you? Read the books! Individual enlightenment is the first step toward meaningful societal change.