Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale last week was a great reading experience. Obviously not because of the subject matter because it’s horrendous. But because of the writing. There are a lot of things about the novel that feels inhumane and awful. There are also plenty of things about it that feel all too familiar in this day and age. However, one of the most powerful aspects of the novel for the reader in me is the lack of literature in women’s lives. The idea that writing is so impactful that it can corrupt their tiny minds. Books have always been seen as powerful and groups have always sought to have them removed. But, as we all know, everyone should have the right to read what they want. Reading immoral words doesn’t make you immoral. Reading obscene things doesn’t make you an obscene person. People who seek control have to take people’s freedom away wherever they can and books are an easy target. Which is why Banned Books Week is such an important thing. The fact that we set aside time to celebrate the books so many have tried to remove from the world. Keeping the words alive so generations to come can experience them and make judgements on them for themselves. And, for my second Friday Favourites, I’m going to talk about some of my most loved banned or challenged books.
It’s been a while since I read The Handmaid’s Tale which is why I wanted to read it before starting The Testaments. The original novel is one of those momentous pieces of fiction that, if you read it at the right time in your life, changes you. I mean, is it any wonder that a teenage girl reading one of the most important pieces of political literature turned out to be this outspoken little feminist? But more than that. Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest writers in recent years so it definitely helped shape me as a reader. However, I have to make a point before I carry on. Just as I ranted before my Blinded by the Light review, I have something to ask. Can we please stop saying that we’re living in a world like we see in the novel? I’m not trying to suggest that things are great right now but America’s (undeniably) severe policies regarding abortions and birth control are not the same thing. And to suggest that it is would ignore the genuinely horrible conditions that many women experience around the world. Like the young girls forced into marriages or the girls facing female genital mutilation. Yeah, every woman should have the right to an abortion but at least you aren’t being sold into sex slavery by your family. Yes, we still have a long way to go but we’re nowhere near Atwood’s dystopia just yet.
I’m a liar. Or at least I was a liar. For more years than I’d care to admit to I lied about having read you. Don’t judge me. I was a teenage literary student who hadn’t read one of the most revered books of all time. How could I possibly admit to not having read Orwell’s classic? So I didn’t. I not only pretended that I’d read you but that I loved you. I had discussions with friends about you. I argued in your favour. It was ridiculous. But I got away with. In fact, it was so easy that I decided that I could continue to put you off. It seemed like a massive hassle when I was so good at bullshitting.
I eventually did read you and I enjoyed you. I think I always had a sneaking suspicion that I didn’t love you as much as I’d always pretended but I ignored it. I’d finally read the book that so many people loved. The ultimate in dystopian fiction. I finally felt worthy of the title of book nerd. Even if I did, secretly, just wish I’d read Animal Farm again. That nagging feeling of doubt continued to get to me. That gnawing in the back of my brain that said “1984 isn’t actually that good” was impossible to shake. So, a couple of years ago, I reread you. And I came to a decision.
You aren’t a great novel. But you aren’t a bad novel either. I think there are a lot of great ideas at play in this work and I appreciate your overall message. I get the point of Orwell trying to point out the dangers of totalitarianism and I understand that you hold an important place in literary history. I get it. But all of that cleverness under the surface doesn’t change the fact that, really 1984, you aren’t that great a book. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that on my last read through I was bored. I didn’t even finish you! I just couldn’t do it.
However, I understand that it would be wrong to totally dismiss you. So I’m using a phrase that Orwell himself discusses in great detail. You are a good bad book. Orwell defines this terms as:
the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously
Which I think sums up my feelings about you, 1984. I love you as an idea and I love so many aspects of you. There are plenty of moments that I think are relevant today and your narrative never fails to start some sort of discussion. You are a book that never fails to excite me in some way. However, I find that I can’t really take you seriously. You can’t deny that you are flawed, right?
I mean you’re so melodramatic and kind of ludicrous. There are so many parts of the plot that just seem insane and absolutely unworkable. We all know that Big Brother is a very obvious caricature of Stalin, yes, but there are aspects of his government that just wouldn’t work. It’s not a system with any kind of longevity. Plus, I can’t help but feel that Orwell has been a bit too obvious with the whole analogy thanks to his powerful hatred of communism. It just lacks the necessary subtlety to always work.
You also lack a lot of subtlety in terms of writing. Orwell is clumsy and long-winded. I mean think of the huge section where we sit and watch Winston reading a book. I think I skipped most of it in my last read. I can’t help but feel that there was a better way to get this information across to the reader. There is so much detail piled in here to get Orwell’s point across that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with the story. And don’t even get me started on the attempt to realise a Cockney accent. It’s mega cringe.
And I’m only saying this because you’re still a good enough book that it won’t matter. You’ve changed the world of literary and you’ve changed the world in general. You have seeped into society. You’ve changed our language. You’ve empowered people to stand up for themselves. You’ve forced us to see the negatives in front of our eyes. You’re also not completely terribly written. There are some passages of stunning descriptions of your dystopian world. You have endured for good reason. But, it would be amiss of me not to point out that you are flawed. That’s probably what makes you so impressive. For something so ridiculous to be so powerful is, perhaps, the true definition of a literary classic. So, I’ll continue to defend you but I’ll be doing so well-aware that beneath your legend there is the frail, flawed body. You look like the Disney Hercules after his training but are, in fact, Disney Hercules before his training. Still a demi-God but a much less impressive one.
Confession is not betrayal
Dear The Picture of Dorian Gray,
They say all women love a bad boy. Teenage girls? Phew, they can’t get enough of ’em. And you? You’re one of the biggest literary bad boys out there. I mean, you were once described by a magazine editor as containing a “number of things an innocent woman would make an exception to”. What kind of young girl could resist those bad boy credentials? Is it any wonder that I was obsessed with you? You were scandalous. You were immoral. You were going to turn my head and take me down a dark road. I couldn’t wait. And then I read you.
I’m not saying our first time was disappointing… it was just… not what I was expecting. You weren’t quite the bad guy I’d been lead to believe. Clearly you’d just read the ‘How to be a bad boy’ wikiHow page to get a few tips. Scandal? The only thing scandalous about you is how you maintained the reputation of being a dangerous book for so long. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t still like you. It was just like The Wizard of Oz; I’d pulled back the curtain to find nothing more than a rather tame novel that had gothic elements. Yes, there was something of a homoerotic undertone but it was nothing more scandalous than the volleyball scene in Top Gun.
What you are, Dorian Gray, is a wonderfully written tale that highlights the dangers of art for art’s sake. It is a tale that cautions against morality rather than promoting it. Any hints of Dorian’s immoral behaviour are hardly blatant and the suggestion of homosexual desire is pretty tame. You were not something for me to fear. You are story of a young man who goes to great lengths to preserve the only thing he cares about: his beauty. A man who wants to continue being the belle of the ball whilst being able to give in to his every desire. No matter how dark or sinful they were.
I still loved you but in a different way. You are classic Oscar Wilde. Full of quotable lines and wonderful witticisms. When I first read you I highlighted and memorised so many quotes. You know, cause I was a super deep and intelligent teenager. I got you. I got you more than anyone had when you first published and I, probably, got you more than anyone ever had. You were the first book I ever proclaimed to be my favourite. It was a bit of cliché and you were no doubt part of my attempt to create an image for myself as a creative and intelligent teen. But all teenagers are stupid.
Our first time may have been a bit rocky but we’ve found our rhythm. We’ve come to understand each other’s wants and desires. We’ve come to understand how we fit together. Maybe that initial spark has gone and you’re more comfortable and familiar these days but I still love you. Even now that I no longer have the desire to seem deep, well-read, and pretentious. How could I not? There is so much within your pages to feast upon. I always feel full and satisfied after reading. Even your truly horrendous film adaptation couldn’t scare me off. You meant so much to me that I named the fish I bought at university Dorian. Yes, I claimed it was partly to do with Finding Nemo too but, let’s be honest, I was a pretentious English literature student. Nobody saw through my bullshit.
You my teen love. My first real grown-up book love. You were an older guy, more experienced. But you treated me well. Better than I had thought you would have done considering your reputation. Unfortunately, I gained some insight and experience myself. I know more about the world and I’ve met books that satisfy me in ways you never could. It doesn’t mean I won’t always look back on you fondly. You were the perfect choice for my first favourite book. You were everything I needed.
The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold