Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why The Handmaid's Tale won't come true

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for the first time. And while the book was written almost thirty years ago, there are still scary cultural and political parallels between the environment in the book and our current time.  But I just can’t imagine a world where information is so suppressed that we become servile in order to survive.  But then, I work at a library where the freedom to read and the freedom of information are the cornerstones of the profession.  I’m lucky to study and work in this world.  But I know that there is a much larger world outside of this.  A world that doesn’t understand why libraries are relevant, and that thinks books are dead.

What we hear over and over again in the media is that libraries are irrelevant, that information comes from the internet, and that spending money on public libraries is a waste, especially during economic downturns.  But what people fail to remember, or even realize, is that the internet, and the search engines we use to navigate it, are censored.  The information we receive may seem abundant, and it is.  But it is also prescribed to us based on our preferences and we are certainly not kept anonymous as users.  Public libraries are the last places where we can anonymously access information, and where our privacy is protected by law.  Public libraries do not keep records of book borrowing history and do not censor what is being borrowed by anyone regardless of gender, race, religion or age. 

In the dystopian future depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale, society becomes so far “lost” in morality that a fundamentalist conservative movement gains power and enforces laws that treat humans as physical vessels for procreation.  Intellect, sexuality, and physicality are all restricted to the basic levels necessary to stay alive.   People are kept this way through forced ignorance and complete lack of access to information.  The basic human right to information is gone, and what comes of it is a terrifying society where our bodies and minds are separated, no one is whole.

As I’m reading I keep thinking that libraries, especially public libraries, keep us from this future.  Through lending books, yes, but also through the ability to meet in a common space we share with our neighbors.  So if this notion is outdated, then what do we have to look forward to in the future?  It’s not so idealistic to imagine a world where neighbors share space, knowledge, and respect for one another.  It happens at public libraries every day.


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