Last night, the library where I work hosted a book club meeting. I had chosen the book, so I led the discussion. I was a little bit nervous that no one would come, as I’d picked a book I know would seem scary in my community, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. (It’s fairly amazing the quaking, the way faces blank and pale at the mention of the word “feminism.”) Only a few people came—six or seven—but we had a lively and passionate discussion anyway. What surprised me, though, is that only one person loved the book; everyone else told me that they hated it.
Not just surprised. I was stunned, because The Handmaid’s Tale is one of My Books. You know how you happen to come across a book at a specific time in your life, and it is exactly what you need, and in one way or another changes everything?
That’s what this book did for me.
When I was 17, rebellious and angry and full of fire to make my life something incredible, I discovered an amazing thing: buying books. I'd always owned my own books, courtesy of my mom, but there is a huge difference between being given a book and buying a book with your own money.
One of the very first books I ever bought for myself is this one:
I can't remember, now, exactly why I bought it. Likely it was a recommendation of the Quality Paperback Book Club (anyone else a member?) and maybe it even came on autoship. But I read The Handmaid's Tale.
And I was completely, utterly changed.
I'd been a reader all of my life, of course. I read widely, across almost every genre. I'd read Steinbeck and Bradbury and Fitzgerald, Steven King and Danielle Steel and Rosamund Pilcher. But I had never read anything like The Handmaid's Tale. It was brutal and puzzling and unimaginable. It was unforgettable not just for the story—a totalitarian regime overthrows the American government and creates a society based on Old Testament stories, stripping women of all of their rights—but for the way the story was told.
I was sitting in the bathtub, reading The Handmaid's Tale after something that felt tremendously and hugely brutal had happened in my own life, and I read this:
You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter.
And then I got out of the tub and found a green highlighter, and I highlighted those words. I wrote in a copy of a book I owned.
It changed me because it turned me into an annotater, but it was much more than that. After The Handmaid's Tale, mediocre books would never again do. I wanted that rush of beauty and difficulty and brutality and trueness in every book I ever read again. I wanted to learn how she did it. I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to make sure I wasn't the only person who knew such things made of words could exist. Do exist.
The Handmaid's Tale made me an English major, which made me a teacher, which made me a librarian. I'm not sure I would be who I am as an adult without it.
But those are just the personal reasons I have for loving The Handmaid's Tale.
It's bigger than just me of course.
Like every real dystopia, it gives a warning: if we keep choosing this, then look at what could happen. If we are apathetic to cultural change that limits freedom, we make it easier for change to progress. If we are entirely enmeshed in technology, others can control us in ways we might not expect. If we don't stop damaging the environment, we will damage ourselves.
Mostly the warning is this: We are never not in danger of losing whatever advancements we’ve made in equality, so we cannot become complacent.
I love it for that warning, even if the threats have (somewhat) changed.
I love it for the writing, too. As much as the story. For the descriptions of flowers, for the repetition of the word “flesh,” for how Offred stumbles in telling her tale, circles around, tells it in different ways.
And for the way the shadowy “us” (every bit as nebulous as the “they” who created Gilead) try to rise up. Ofglen kicking the man at the reaping in the head so he didn’t have to suffer. The passing of the term “May day” like a thing the handmaids who knew could hold in their hand. “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow,” Offred thinks, “or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.”
This was my sixth or seventh time reading the book, and this time I was drawn to the character of the Commander. We aren’t ever inside of his head so we have to read his motivations only by his actions, but with this reading I could see that he wasn’t the antagonist. “Men are sex machines,” Aunt Lydia taught the handmaids, “It’s nature’s way. It’s God’s device. It’s the way things are.” And yet, the Commander sneaks Offred into his room so they can play Scrabble. I think the Commander, while quite possibly a jerk (that comment about women wearing different clothes in order to trick men into feeling like they were always with someone different), is more than just a sex machine. I think he wants companionship, a relationship of some sort. He is in certain ways as bound by this new society’s rules as Offred is, flattened down to the only seemingly-essential part of himself, which is semen.
I love that after reading a book six or seven times, I can still find something new in it to think about.
If I ever get a tattoo, it will be of words from this book: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” In a pidgin-Latin sort of way, that means “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I’ve never forgotten reading that, either; quite often it is the barbaric yawp I make in my head, out of protest of whatever.
I had forgotten, until I re-read it, what comes after. Offred finds the Latin words scratched out of the paint on the back wall of her bedroom closet. “I don’t know what it means,” she thinks, “but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don’t know what else I can say to God.”
Sometimes I don’t, either.
I understand the objections of last night’s book club members’ discussions. It does only offer women a very few choices (which is sort of the point). It is a horrible place to find yourself in, the Republic of Gilead, whether you are Offred or you are reading Offred. Execrable things happen. It is maybe hopeless, and oh! that ending!
But I will always love it.
What books have changed your life, in small ways or large?