One of the things I find fascinating about classic fiction, especially dystopian, is that it’s often a very accurate predictor of our current state of affairs. The rejection of capitalism in Atlas Shrugged. The Ministry of Truth in1984. The complete immersion into television and non-stop flow of entertainment and information in Fahrenheit 451. These authors, and many others, saw something coming that others did not. I wonder if they hoped to awaken a few of their fellow humans from their apathetic haze or were just telling stories and hoping for good book sales.
Regardless, I cannot help but notice most of the old dystopians had one thing in common: each of their fictional societies held a disdain for the written word. Well, naturally, a writer’s worst nightmare is a society that banishes books. So it only stands to reason that they would include this particular quirk in their dystopian societies. But I’ll argue that they weren’t only pulling from their own deepest fears. I honestly believe they were predicting such a turn. After all, many of these writers had just witnessed the horrors of Nazi Germany. And shortly before that, Stahlin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union (which continued on long after his death). Soon would come Red China, North Korea, Cuba, and a litany of other nations who sought to put their people in a perpetual state of bondage, under the guise of fairness and equality.
All of these examples provided our dystopian writer’s with the basic elements of their future societies. And what was the most important item on the agenda for Hitler, Stahlin, Mao Tse-tung, and other iron-fisted dictators, even before the confescation of priveatley owned firearms?
Absolute control of information. Especially the printed word. Without the printed word, societies quickly fall into a state of ignorance, knowing only what the state spoon feeds them. That is a society easily controlled and manipulated.
I wonder, though, if any of these writers envisioned a society that voluntarily surrenders its books. A society that is quite content to receive the information served to them through corporate owned news agencies that are, essentially, biased toward one of two political parties. The manipulation isn’t as direct. The government must use the channels available, but a government, by its very nature, will seek out these channels like the tendrils of a fog feeling its way through a forest. And, since the general population is content with the scraps of information fed to it, preferring to occupy its time with shows and music that entertain, the manipulation comes fairly easy.
All because we’ve surrendered our best source of information: the thousands of years of history and infinite ideas contained in books.
Know History or Repeat it
In the world of fiction writing we have a saying: there are no new plots. The same can be said of governments and societies. There are no new ideas. No new plans. Only old ideas, mostly bad, given a new face and presented to the masses as the antecdote to all of the world’s problems. It is only the well-read members of society who will see through such a facade, pointing to the great fallen empires and comparing the new idea to the old. And finding no difference, accurately predicting similar results.
But we don’t make the comparrison. Because we choose ignorance over knowledge. We can name the last ten winners of American Idol but we cannot explain why our Constitution calls for three branches of government, or that no branch is more powerful than the other. The men who crafted that ingenious document did read. They read of the governments that had preceeded them for two-thousand years of modern history. They knew the mistakes of their government. They crafted the perfect solution: let no government gain control over the population. A government of the people.
But that piece of paper means nothing if a high-school graduate cannot explain how and why it came to be. No document is eternal. It lasts only as long as there are men and women willing to defend it. And how will they defend what they do not understand?
I would like to issue a challenge to anyone who reads my blog or facebook posts. I’ll call it my 52 books challenge. 52 books in 52 weeks. Can you do that? Can you invite your kids, your facebook friends, your brothers and sisters, to do that? You can even use audio books like I do for the drive time (I’m actually hoping to read 100 next year…we shall see). They don’t have to be books about the Constitution or American history. If you read enough fiction, you will collect all of these and other ideas into the files of your brain. But just read.
The 52 Books Challenge
Beginning in January, I’ll post my weekly reads, and I’d love for you to do the same in the comments or on my facebook page. But don’t wait until January. Pick up a book now. And, of course, tell me how what you thought of it.