Inspirations… (Jan. 27, 2017)


The Women’s March was truly inspiring. I took part in my own small way. Our small North Carolina town had 1,500 people turn out. I was gobsmacked, because we are just not that big a town. There were 17,000 people marching in Raleigh. Here are some wonderful photos of the marchers around the world. What I loved about this protest is how positive it was, to counteract the terrible negativity we’ve been seeing from elected officials; women and men  from all backgrounds came together in solidarity, to support one another, and to start building a movement, rather than to tear down.

The news this week has not been so inspiring, I’m sorry to say, but in troubled times, people always turn to literature. Literature gives us a blueprint for how to deal with life, and that’s why telling stories is so important. One such story is George Orwell’s 1984, which is selling out this week in response to the newly coined phrase “alternative facts.” 1984 is a touchstone book for me; here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago, also in response to the political climate. Now, unfortunately, Orwell’s vision seems even more prescient. 

For those of you who, like me, feel somewhat overwhelmed by current events, this article is a must-read: “How to #StayOutraged without Losing Your Mind.” There is some important advice here–follow it.

And now, a ray of sunshine–more great news in overdue filmed adaptations: Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is being adapted as a limited series by Amazon, joining American Gods on Hulu.

I leave you with the inevitable reading list (always more to read!). If you have already gobbled up 1984 and are looking for more dystopias, here’s a short list of recommendations that seem particularly well-suited for the current political climate:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Children of Men by P. D. James
  • Parable of the Sower  and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

12 Banned Books to Read

This is the week that we celebrate books that have been banned or challenged. Usually, the books are banned from school libraries or from being taught in school. The reasons given seem valid–sexual content, dirty language, racism–but dig a little deeper and you’ll generally find that the true reason is that these books seem dangerous. Often the ideas they contain are challenging–to authority, to established institutions, to the status quo. Perhaps this is why so much effort is made to keep these books out of the hands of children. Yet, the very act of challenging these books brings them to our attention and creates a handy reading list full of dangerous ideas. Here is my recommended reading list of banned or challenged books, one for each month in the year. Share them with a child you know.

Animal Farm by George Orwell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Diary of a Young Girl by Anne FrankAlice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis CarrollFahrenheit 451 by Ray BradburyTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeThe Hobbit by JRR TolkienHarry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK RowlingWatership Down by Richard AdamsCharlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald DahlThe Catcher in the Rye by JD SalingerThe Giver by Lois Lowry

The most influential books of the 20th century…

I spent all morning researching and writing this answer to the Quora question: What 20th-century novel has been most influential in shaping mindsets and changing lives? So I thought I’d share my answer here as well.

It is hard to pick just one novel, but I think that 1984 by George Orwell is the most influential novel of the 20th century. It’s not the first dystopian novel, but it defined for most people what a dystopian government is and influenced every dystopian novel that followed. It introduced many terms and concepts into our language: Orwellian, Big Brother, groupthink, thought police. It describes the dangers of totalitarianism and oppression, and persuades citizens to be vigilant against government corruption in order to safeguard democracy. Even today, it influences political figures, judges and ordinary citizens in guarding against government over-reach when it comes to mass surveillance, loss of individual rights and personal freedoms, and manipulation of public opinion.

To round out my top 10 (because I can’t pick just one book):

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which caused many readers to question their own prejudices and has one of the most enduring heroic characters in literature.
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, the defining novel of the Great Depression and one of the most widely read works of American literature. It exposes the plight of the poor in a capitalist, profit-driven system.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the quintessential critique of the idea of the American dream.
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which introduced a new phrase to the English language and exposes the absurdities of war and of bureaucracies like the military.
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, which captured the coming-of-age experience and has become synonymous with teenage rebellion.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which portrays how easily human beings can regress to savagery and influenced our perception of human nature.
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which depicted the dangers of censorship.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the counterpoint to 1984, which exposes the dangers of loss of individuality and societal control via mass entertainment and consumerism.
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson, which introduced the term “cyberspace” and influenced — or at least, predicted — the way the Internet developed.

There are so many other 20th-century novels that were highly influential in describing the human condition, bringing about political reform, establishing philosophies of thought, or exposing societal problems that it is really hard to limit this list. For example, it’s difficult to omit The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; Native Son by Richard Wright;  Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Roots by Alex Haley; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; The Trial by Franz Kafka; and The Stranger by Albert Camus. And then there are books that are just so widely read and highly beloved that they are bound to be personally influential, such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

It just goes to show the power of literature! Never stop reading.

Some thoughts on George Orwell’s 1984 inspired by the so-called Birther debate and other current events…

Big Brother Is Watching You

Image by thefoxling via Flickr

Like most people who have read 1984, it profoundly affected my way of thinking about power and political systems. Orwell introduced concepts and language into the general consciousness, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother.” The struggle against political oppression and the tyranny of the powerful few over the many seems to be a never-ending one, but I think Orwell’s masterpiece has become a great weapon in that struggle, by making us more aware of the forms oppression can take and helping us recognize when it may be happening in our own society.

Certainly, Orwell’s full bleak, dystopian vision hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps total control of the people through surveillance and torture isn’t very realistic. Yet, it frightens me to recognize how pervasive propaganda, misinformation and historical revision have become in our current political climate, just as Orwell depicted it. I can turn on my TV and see it happening every day. I see people blithely accepting fabrications even in the face of contradictory evidence and eagerly supporting measures that run contrary to their self-interests. I wonder if Orwell would laugh at the irony of the propagandists twisting his words into their own form of double speak.

Even more than 50 years later, Orwell’s 1984 is as relevant as when it was first published. We should never stop reading Orwell or learning lessons from it.