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Road to Dystopia
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
One of the most unexpected publishing successes of the past decade has been Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" series, a trilogy of Young Adult, science fiction novels that take place in a post-apocalytpic, dystopian America. The first novel, The Hunger Games, became an immediate bestseller upon publication in 2008, and the book has stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks. The concluding book in the series, Mockingjay, was published in August in the United States, and sold more than 450,000 copies in its first week. There are currently 6 million copies of "The Hunger Games" trilogy in print in the U.S., and the series has been translated into 26 languages.
As with previous, mega-selling Young Adult series of the 2000's (Harry Potter, Twilight), a strong portion of the "Hunger Games" audience is made up of adults. Bookstores holding "midnight release" parties for Mockingjay noted the predominance of adults in the audience, and the editorial director at Scholastic Books (which publishes "The Hunger Games") said that roughly half of "Hunger Games" Facebook fans are full-fledged adults. A survey by Codex Group indicated that 47% of 18-24 year old women report that most of the books they buy are classified as "Young Adult."
As galling as it is to admit to being part of a national trend, I must cop to a personal fascination with Young Adult titles. While I've yet to read any of the "Hunger Games" books, and though I could only stomach the initial Stephenie Meyer book, I've discovered that most of my reading choices of the past five years has been dominated by Young Adult selections. When my kids went through middle school and high school, I paid close attention to the books on their reading lists, often buying additional copies for my self while they were experiencing the books for the first time.
It was interesting to notice that the quality of the books was uniformly very high; in addition to the "big four" young adult classics (Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Separate Peace), I encountered great stories from George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Robert Cormier. I couldn't help but recognize that many of the stories featured dystopian narratives, which perplexed me until I read a comment from young adult writer Scott Westerfeld, who said that teenagers experience the ultimate dystopia--high school — every day of their lives.
My favorite young adult novel, Chaim Potok's The Chosen, doesn't employ any apocalyptic scenarios or doomsday characters, yet the narrative speeds along as readably as the science fiction page-turners. The book was given to my daughter's eighth grade English class — 14 year olds — and after reading it I was chagrined that I hadn't discovered it sooner. Ostensibly a story about the friendship between two Jewish teenagers in 1940's Brooklyn, the novel manages to cover a lot of ground with a great deal of sophistication. Modern, adult-sized themes and situations emerge — the battle between Hasidic and Orthodox Jews after the war, the specter of the Holocaust, the crises of faith and belief, the establishment of a Jewish state in a new world.
At the novel's heart, though, is a very touching exploration of the complexities of the father-son relationship, as Potok contrasts the different methods of parenting employed by the two fathers in the story. One father is an ultra-conservative, Hasidic rebbe who demands fealty and submission, while the other is a sensitive, scholarly modern man who is not afraid of living in a contemporary America. It is to the author's credit that each father is presented three-dimensionally, with all contradictions and attributes intact.
The true achievement of the book, however, lies in the way Potok manages to make the attainment of knowledge seem like a thrilling, heroic journey. The novel's protagonist, Reuven Malther, is a rabbinical student who has to battle incredible obstacles in his pursuit of scholarship--ostracized from fellow students and teachers by his father's Zionist leanings, banished from his best friend, Malther tackles the most difficult and complex problems from the Talmud by himself. He devotes hours to the solitary practice of unknotting the most daunting aspects of Talmudic law, utilizing complex logician skills most regularly attributed to P.H.D candidates. When the antagonistic teacher finally calls on Reuven to explain the most difficult passage in the Talmud, the one that all the other students have dreaded, Reuven rises to the occasion. Eager to prove his scholarly talents to the condescending Hasidic students in the class, he uses the entire three hours of class time to explain the passage. The teacher, who usually interjects questions and contradictions when students speak, is rendered mute by the raw force of Reuven's knowledge. A second day is devoted entirely to Reuven's explanation, then a third. Finally, on the fourth day, Reuven's filibustering ends, and the teacher slowly acknowledges the depth of Reuven's scholarly achievement.
It's unusual for the emotional climax of a novel to take the form of a student's answering of a teacher's question, yet Potok makes the four-day monologue as thrilling to read as a last-minute, cliffhanger rescue from a mountain top. The Chosen does something that most young adult novels never attempt — it makes the dogged pursuit of knowledge seem like the most noble and sacred of all human activities.
It was heartening for me to re-read The Chosen during the past election season, for it served as an antidote to the poisonous anti-intellectualism so prevalent during the lead-up to the November 2nd midterms. There's always been an anti-intellectual tradition in American politics — Eisenhower loved to bash the "egghead" thinkers of the 50's — but it seems to have reached a new zenith in 2010. Obama's perceived aloofness caused many common-man populists to deride the "elitism" of the Harvard-educated president, and their antipathy seemed to imply that all educated people are by nature untrustworthy, condescending, out of touch, aristocratic. "Straight shooter" and "common sense" folks were the more appropriate representatives for "true" Americans, and tea-party candidates embraced the dumbed-down rhetoric of anti-intellectualism.
It's an idiotic and indefensible stance, one that any sane person couldn't possibly support. And it presents a real dichotomy in social thinking — nobody denies the importance of good schools and a revamping of the educational system, yet there's an apparent fear of getting "too" educated. It seems obvious that the "straight shooters" are engaging in the time-honored practice of baiting the populace with class warfare, and hoping they'll respond in irrational ways. It embarrassing to have to repeat this here, but education is a good thing. College grads make more money, live longer, and influence the country in far greater ways than non-grads. Associating sinister ramifications with college education is the province of dumb-asses and needs to be ignored.