The Critical Mass

My frightening reading list

I’ve been reading a lot of books the last few months. As Burgess Meredith said in that classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “I have all the time in the world.”

And as the lights went out on 2017, and we stumbled into the new year, the holiday party literary discussions over a glass of wine naturally came down to the favorites.

Unconsciously, mine seemed to share one theme.

Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road is the one I’ve been mentioning first, as I just finished it about a week ago. A father and his son traveling through a shattered American landscape, everything covered in ash, most of the population reduced to dried, mummy-like figures. Frightening images of cannibalism. What happened here? We never know. I was talking to My Friend Patrick, and we kinda agreed that it seemed like the kid was maybe Jesus Christ. Or the next Messiah. McCarthy leaves it open to your speculation. I passed on The Road to My Neighbor John. We’ll see what he says.

When the television show started airing this summer, I picked up Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The U.S. president and most of Congress have been killed in an attack and a totalitarian, Christian, misogynist leadership has assumed control of the country. Non-Christian religions and non-white people are destroyed or relocated.

Maybe I’m just looking for trouble. But when I read Careers For Women by the University of Rochester professor Joanna Scott, I sensed an overwhelming corporate evil behind every aspect of the story, from the desecration of Native American land to the murder that’s at the center of the story to the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Along the way, at a used book store I bought a paperback copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I think that one’s next.

And way back in March – that seems soooo long ago – I picked up a book that was on The New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The extinction of truth. The government manipulating a world in which truth and lies are indistinguishable from each other.

The connection is obvious. For the most part, these are dystopian visions. Dystopia, as in the opposite of utopia: “An imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives,” as the Merriam-Webster dictionary says.

I’m sure now that my brain went to these places because of the news, and the political climate, that entered our lives with the advent of Trump. It’s a dehumanization, a fear, that’s been with us at least since 2001, and the attack on the World Trade Center. Certainly The Road, published in 2006, could be connected to the 21st century’s dystopian dread. These books are fiction, yet the scenarios they present all seem so possible. Especially now.

But wait. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986, Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949 and Brave New World in 1932. We’ve been waiting for the end of the world as we know it for a long time now.

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