Books for Our Times: How Fiction Informs My Politics

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Teresa Preston

Staff Writer

Since 2008, Teresa Preston has been blogging about all the books she reads at Shelf Love. She supports her book habit by working as a magazine editor at a professional association in the Washington, DC, area, which is (in)conveniently located just a few steps from a used bookstore. When she’s not reading or editing, she’s likely to be attending theatre, practicing yoga, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer again, or doting on her toothless orange cat, Anya. Twitter: @teresareads

A few months ago, a friend texted me to say she’d been thinking a lot about Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. What would Johnny Smith see if he shook the hand of our presidential candidates? And what would be the right response if, say, he saw nuclear annihilation, as Johnny saw when he touched Greg Stillson’s hand?

Fiction gives us a framework for thinking and talking about the world around us. In times of unpredictable politics, it may even seem to give us a lens into possible futures. And, like Johnny Smith, we have to decide how to respond.

The Plot Against America CoverI’ve been thinking a lot about two books in particular as I’ve watched the presidential campaigns here in the United States. The first, The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth, offers an alternative version of the past in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 race for the presidency. Running as a spokesman for the “America First” organization, Lindbergh relied on nationalism and fear of outsiders, especially Jewish outsiders, to win his way to the White House.

What The Plot Against America reveals is that the United States is not immune to fascism. We were lucky in the 1940s. Things could have gone the other way. There really was an America First movement, with Lindbergh as spokesman, as the always hilarious and on point Samantha Bee recently pointed out. It could have happened then, and it could happen now. So Roth’s book definitely figures into my bad dreams.

Parable of the Sower CoverAnother set of books that have been on my mind are Octavia E. Butler’s Parable books. Set in the near future, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents reveal a version of the U.S. where resources are scarce and corporations are in control. Instability and change are the norm. By the second book, Parable of the Talents, a group calling itself the Christian America party has won control of the government, largely by promising to make America great again. Once in power, the Christian America party rounds up and “reeducates” anyone deemed to be a danger—really, anyone who is different.

Reading books like this make me nervous for our country’s future. When I see parallels to fictional horrors in real life, I worry. But I also become even more committed to acting, by voting, by giving to campaigns, by letting my representatives in government know what I think. And I hope others see the potential clearly enough to take action themselves. Because even though both of these books present terrifying possibilities, they also offer hope.

The hope in both of these books comes from the fact that in each case the system eventually corrects itself. Life is unbearable for a time—there’s death and terror and all sorts of tragedy—but eventually the people realize their error and fix things. It is possible to fix things. The people—all of us—can fix things. But it’s far, far better not to let them happen in the first place, and we can do that, too.

Every Man Dies Alone CoverFiction teaches us that if we don’t act in advance, we may have some impossible choices to make before things can be made right again—and that’s if we’re lucky enough to have any choices at all. Hans Fallada’s remarkable novel, Every Man Dies Alone, written just after World War II, shows just what happens when people don’t consider the possibilities. The German couple at its heart, Otto and Anna Quangel, didn’t object when Hitler rose to power. Even though they didn’t care for some of his ideas, they hoped that he might help Germany out of its economic slump. And then they discovered never-ending war and a near-total lack of freedom, especially for those who, like them, didn’t want to declare loyalty to the party. At that point, the only resistance they could offer was small and, to all appearances, ineffective. And the consequences, if caught, were nearly certain death.

It’s because I don’t want to face those kinds of impossible choices that I pay attention now. Fiction may not provide a perfect analogue to real life, but books like these help me think about the consequences of my own political choices. They show me the possibilities I want to avoid and, sometimes, give me hope that it’s possible to get through the challenges. And, if not, they at least provide me inspiration for the type of person I want to be in tough political times.