Reading List

Between the Stories

What is the role of fiction in an age of perpetual outrage, engineered distraction, and vicious governance? After returning to the monochrome worlds of Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in the wake of Trump’s installation, I began re-reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which might be the most urgent dystopian vision due to America’s increasingly empowered ecclesiastical hatred of women. Written in 1985, Atwood’s novel describes a militarized theocracy built from the dogma, rituals, and prejudices of the past and present. Women are stripped of all rights and some are rendered into, in the recent words of one Oklahoma lawmaker, ‘hosts’ for the unborn. Science is rejected. Writing is banned. Yet the most chilling dimension of the novel might be the narrator’s account of how this oppression and violence became the status quo while everybody was asleep at the wheel. What fills the vacuum when the institutions of democracy become feeble, when we prefer to focus on the self? “Whatever is going on is as usual,” says Offred, shortly after seeing the bodies of doctors dangling from the city’s walls. “Even this is as usual, now.”

My thoughts keep returning to one particular line: “The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.” This sentence nags in the margins while I compulsively scroll through the day’s digitized outrage, perplexed by the dogged faith that these technologies are doing us any measure of good. The words of Ray Bradbury’s fire chief in Fahrenheit 451 come to mind here: “Chock them so full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Atwood extends this idea of ambient distraction into tragedy. Not only is information overload a means of social control, it is a privilege that is often not recognized until it is too late, until it becomes clear that our fates are inseparable from the victims in the day’s headlines: “How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable,” says Offred, remembering the days when she had the freedom to spend her mornings in bed, lazily flipping through the newspaper’s reports of murder and terror. “They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

Perhaps the task is to close the gaps between these stories.

Reading List

The Woman in the Dunes

Published in 1962, Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is pegged to a single bizarre image: a man trapped in a sand pit with a mysterious woman. Their survival depends upon shoveling the accumulating sand each night, a metaphor for the labor of existence which the man alternately resists and accepts. Does shoveling an endless pit of sand make him any less free than his former life of paperwork, obligations, and bills?

He meditates on the reasons the mind craves routine: “It goes on, terrifyingly repetitive. One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” Yet what else is there? This question becomes more difficult to answer as the man contemplates the woman’s resignation to this strange life. Shoveling gives her existence as much meaning as any other activity might. Meanwhile, villagers peer into the pit to ensure his compliance. “More than iron doors, more than walls,” Abe writes, “it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.”

In the vein of Camus’s stranger, Abe analyzes human behavior with the detachment of a scientist observing an insect: “Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring.” Yet routine offers no shelter from spiritual loneliness, and his description of its effects reads like an epitaph for the digital age: “Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion. And so one bit one’s nails, unable to find contentment in the simple beating of one’s heart…one smoked, unable to be satisfied with the rhythm of one’s brain…one had the shakes, unable to find satisfaction in sex alone.” Although an extension of Camus and Kafka’s absurdism, the surreal society formed by Abe’s dunes transforms this philosophy into myth. This story has seeped into my dreams, grinding at my thoughts like sand in the teeth.

Reading List

The Story of Philosophy

Finally tracked down a clean hardcover copy of Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy, which might be the book I return to the most. Something about it feels like home. Aside from elegantly navigating the depths of Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer et al, Durant might be the most kind-hearted and humble writer I’ve ever encountered. A valiant warrior against the incomprehensible language of academia, he seeks to “break down the barriers beyond knowledge and need,” arguing that the academic’s “barbarous terminology” has forced the world to choose between “a scientific priesthood mumbling unintelligible pessimism, and a theological priesthood mumbling incredible hopes.” Instead, he is on the side of warmth and humor, “not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment, but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.” And all of this is in the first three pages of the preface.