This is a work in progress. For example, I can’t list everything Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote, so I need to figure out which book to list. I’m happy to consider suggestions for books to add to the list.
This list is in no particular order, though Brave New World and 1984 are my favorites..
George Orwell- 1984
Probably the most famous book of all time about the evil dictators winning, and controlling every aspect of society, down to the most personal levels. Big Brother Is Watching You. No one talks about just how far big brother will go to get inside your head, though, and cause you to betray yourself, and those closest to you. No movie could ever do justice to this book.
George Orwell- Animal Farm
This is the other side of the coin to 1984. Where 1984 looks at the impact of totalitarianism on individuals, this book follows the creation, rise, and decay of a fascist government created when the animals on a farm run by cruel humans overthrow the farmers. The animals start out with a system that’s fair to everyone, but some of them quickly fall into the same selfish habits that their human masters followed. Those animals manipulate the others until the farm ends up with a system that doesn’t look any different from what they started with. Orwell wrote the book to criticize Communist Russia, and used the animals as a metaphor. When the book is made into a movie, it’s usually animated for that reason. Because of the metaphor, and because Orwell said it applied to Communists, and didn’t start with a Democracy, people tend to overlook the similarities to our own situation. Pay attention. The pigs are taking over and trying to look like men. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Aldous Huxley- Brave New World
Even as far back as 1930, when mass media and materialism barely existed, Huxley understood the power of mass media and modern materialistic culture to distract us from the real issues facing us. Brave New World takes place in a dystopian society, where people are engineered and hatched into socioeconomic castes, encouraged to live meaningless lives filled with endless overstimulation, parties, drug use and empty sexual encounters. Most of the women are engineered before birth to be infertile; the rest are on permanent birth control, other than when their eggs are harvested to be used in the hatchery. Children are raised without families, and “mother’ and “father” are considered dirty words. People are discouraged from forming any deep attachments, and are meant to keep living a life of excess until their bodies wear out. Conformism and staying within one’s cast are required. Conditioning is used to teach people that their cast is best, but others must be tolerated because they are useful. Intellectualism is strongly discouraged. The book follows various misfits born within and outside of the dominant culture, and shows how the strict need for conformity affects them. It also shows how a culture can become a tightly controlled dictatorship by being given what it thinks it wants, rather than by obvious oppression and fear.
Everyone always refers to 1984, but this book’s relevance to our society is usually overlooked. We are living in an age where we are encouraged from birth to drown in mass entertainment, to distrust highly educated people, and to conform to the norms of our socioeconomic caste without question. If you don’t think those things led to the election of Donald Trump by working class voters, then you need to read this book.
If you’d rather listen than read, there is a 2008 audiobook version of Brave New World read by Michael York that I enjoyed listening to with my kids when they were teenagers.
Fun Fact: My aunt and uncle owned one of Aldous Huxley’s ranches outside of LA for many years. I lived in his octagonal studio building in the Mojave desert for a summer in the 80s.
Sinclair Lewis- It Can’t Happen Here
This one chronicles the rise of a fascist dictator who is remarkably similar to Donald Trump. Lewis wrote the book in 1935 as he was watching the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, and saw some similarly dangerous trends start here. Thankfully, they didn’t become dominant at the time. The dictator is helped by the fact that no one, especially the press and the opposing political party, believe that he will take things as far as he does, until it’s too late to stop him. They all think that in America, we have the Constitution to protect our freedoms. It can’t happen here. We’re the greatest country in the world. But if a president has the military and Congress on his side, and the populace is complacent, almost anything can happen.
I’ve posted about this story before. The audio recording of the staged reading of its adaptation into a play that I went to in October, 2016 is HERE.
John Hersey- Hiroshima
Not for the faint of heart, this powerful, slim little volume recounts the stories of the survivors of the first atomic bomb attack, when the US dropped the bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. The book starts on the morning of the attack and follows the survivors, in unflinching detail, as they stuggle through the first minutes, hours, days, and months of the Atomic Age with an awareness of what that really means that few of us can comprehend. Modern editions also include a follow up chapter written by the original author after he sought out the survivors to find out the rest of their stories 40 years after the publication of the book. This book drives home why nuclear proliferation and trigger-happy tyrants are a bad thing, but it’s also a true story about the horrors of war and the best and worst of what extreme circumstances brings out in people. It’s the original nuclear apocalypse book that’s given rise to all of the others, except these these characters and plotlines are real, and could happen again if we aren’t careful. Similarly nightmarish stories happen today in small, poor and/or war torn countries. Instead of atomic bombs, the people suffer from chemical weapons, plague-like illnesses such as ebola, and more.
Hiroshima was originally published as an article in the New Yorker, one year after the bomb dropped, taking up the entire edition on 8/31/46. It caused a worldwide sensation, since Japan had been under a news blackout and little information had been released to the public about the affects of the bomb. The article inspired the creation of the Doomsday Clock by the Manhattan Project scientists that created bomb. The New Yorker has made the entire original article available on their site for free: Hiroshima.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein- All the President’s Men
Follow the Money.
This is the true story of how two bright young Washington Post reporters brought down a corrupt presidential administration, legally and nonviolently. This is why Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press are #1 in the Bill of Rights. In the 1970s, our democracy’s checks and balances worked as they should, and none of the scenarios in the books listed above have come true. Yet. Constant vigilance is required.
All the President’s Men is Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s firsthand account of their investigation into the Watergate scandal that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. It’s a fast-paced political thriller. Even though the outcome is already known, it still keeps you on the edge of your seat as they chase down clues and face powerful enemies. The Nixon administration tried to stop them, and the Washington Post itself, at every turn. The importance of a free press to democracy can’t be overstated.
All the President’s Men was also made into a 1976 Academy Award winning film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at the height of their careers.
Margaret Atwood- The Handmaid’s Tale
Another take on a dystopian society, from a female point of view. This one is frighteningly likely to come to pass right now, as Republican state governments are rolling back women’s rights in multiple areas and our vice president refuses to be alone in a room with female colleagues, to say nothing of the blatant misogyny flaunted by the man who was elected president in 2016.
But, if you pay attention, it’s not just women’s rights that have been lost in Gilead. The government controls every aspect of every citizen’s life, forces citizens to spy on each other, and doles out horrific punishments to anyone who doesn’t live up to very high government behavioral standards. At least anyone who doesn’t have wealth, power, and influence.
Atwood based everything about Gilead on real, historical societies. There are countries in the world today that treat women, LGBTQIA people, dissidents, and criminals the way they’re treated in The Handmaid’s Tale. This isn’t just a work of fiction. It can happen here.
Hulu has a streaming series, which is based on the book, that’s excellent. However, it does soften some situations and characters, lessening the impact and power that they have in the book.