One of the bedrock beliefs that I have as a professor of literature is that we read to learn from, not about. When we read works simply because they are important to our cultural heritage, we have relegated them to irrelevance. Instead, we should read works to discover their living wisdom and insight, to learn the greatest thoughts of the greatest minds that have gone before us.
In light of this, I thought I would suggest a few literary works for those who are looking for some good fiction to read:
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005): a novel about cloning that defies the “norms” of what most folks expect from science fiction. Ishiguro is not an evangelical (to my knowledge) but his story is a delicate illumination of the thorniest of all issues relative to cloning: are clones fully human? I adored this novel, written by the guy who wrote that great novel “The Remains of the Day,” which was adapted into a fabulous Anthony Hopkins / Emma Thompson film. The novel’s power derives from Ishiguro’s ability to elevate “clone” from mere abstraction to living, breathing literary characters who clutch at our hearts.
Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915): a novel about a group of young men who hear about an undiscovered land that has no men: all of the inhabitants are women and reproduction is through parthenogenesis (a mysterious form of virgin birth). Foolishly they believe that they will be made kings and have the entire nation as their harem within a few weeks’ time of their discovery. I love the story because it is a very entertaining exploration of the naiveté of the bully boys who think that they can rule the world through their (untested) ideas and sheer will. A timely lesson for politicians of any sort who find that they have gone from chasing the proverbial car to actually being expected to drive the darned thing. Be sure to watch for Gilman’s diatribe against abortion (standard fare in the earliest feminist novels); be prepared, however, to cringe at her views on race (likewise a part of much early feminist literature).
1984, George Orwell (not to be confused with the album by Van Halen) 1949: never has this book been more relevant to our culture. Orwell, a disillusioned Communist, published this classic dystopian view of the future in 1949, and it is frighteningly prescient. At one time it was to the Left what the Left Behind Series has been to some elements of the Right, as the presumption was that it would be a theocratic cult of personality that would enact a government such as is depicted in the book; I have a sense that a secularist cult of personality would be equally frightening. If possible, after reading the novel, watch the 1984 film adaption starring John Hurt as Winston Smith and then watch the 2005 film “V for Vendetta,” where Hurt plays the Big Brother-esque Chancellor Sutler; the juxtaposition is startling. To cleanse your visual palette, follow up these heavy offerings with a viewing of Terry Gilliam’s superb “Brazil” (1985).
After reading these three works, you will understand the news in fresh ways, I promise.