Ask a Book Question: The Third in a Series (The Constructive Subversive)

August 19, 2003 | 7 books mentioned 4 min read

Cem’s travels have continued. As one of the few Westerners to visit Burma (recently, anyway), he has decided to take advantage of the opportunity by bringing along some literature that might be of use to the Burmese. Good luck and be careful Cem!

I am heading into Mandalay via Air Mandalay the day after tomorrow. Mandalay is the second most significant city in Burma, a country which has been under the boot, physically and psychologically, of one of the most oppressive governments in the world for some 30 years. save N.Korea and maybe now Tajikistan, there are few places more old-school totalitarian – even Syria is more free than this place.

Books, fiction and nonfiction, have always played an important role in denting the armor (and often more) of authoritarian rulers, just ask Vaclav Havel and George Soros. So – I would like to do my part in bringing in some interesting material, in denting the armor, even if the tiniest chink. I don’t intend on smuggling in tomes of guerilla tactics, or explicitly subversive rants published by expatriot opposition groups – I just want to bring in some books to give to these information starved people (well, the English speaking upper-mid class, probably students and hopefully not ‘guest’ intelligence, that read English), something that will either give them some inspiration, distract them, help them deal with/understand the living in an authoritarian/totalitarian society in an explicit way.

Now, 1984 is an obvious choice, and I already have 3 used copies in my bag. Anyone could have come up with that. I need some titles that will impress the fleshy white activist chick crowd in Chiang Mai! Anyone else have any ideas? Even if I am unable to get them in time -which is almost certain – I’d love to hear what people have to say.

I agree that 1984 is the perfect book for this situation. With simple, yet riveting prose, Orwell creates a generic totalitarian society, which, stripped of its ceremonial trappings becomes instantly recognizable as a society of horrors. One can imagine a Soviet dissident reading his samizdat copy by candlelight in an attic or basement and being struck by wave after wave of sickening, empowering recognition. It is no question that Orwell is most needed in places where books are banned and burned, so it seems fitting to bring along a book that addresses that very topic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Other suggestions that come to mind are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. And finally there is The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the towering giant of dissident literature. These books, once cutting edge, but now required reading in our schools, will surely fail to impress the “fleshy white activist chick crowd.” Anyone have anything sufficiently subversive to recommend? Send me an email or press the comments link below.

Mystery and the Buddha

I finished reading Bangkok 8 by John Burdett yesterday. The mystery genre is highly underrepresented on the list of books I’ve read. I’m not sure if this is from lack of interest or lack of time (all these guys wrote so many books, and I’m worried that once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.) Anyone who has read this blog consistently knows that I’m a sucker for books set in exotic locales, and the fact that this book is set in Thailand and was well reviewed, led me to pick it up. First the bad: I found the book to be less than gracefully written. At times the language is painfully stilted. I know that I am not used to the “hard-boiled” style that many detective stories employ, but too often the prose caused me to lurch to a standstill while my brain rotated the offensive sentence around in my head, unwilling to go on. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Burdett used Thai Buddhism to add fascinating depth and nuance to the story. I have often been wary of Buddhism in general, mostly because my only experience with it is as a trendy religion, the accessory of Beastie Boys fans and cause-hungry hippies for whom the Free Tibet bumper sticker perfectly conceals the country club parking permit on the bumper of the Volvo (cf: “fleshy white activist chick crowd” in previous paragraph). Burdett’s Thai Buddhism, however, is both unassuming and universal. He presents it as inseparable from Thai culture, and naturally the Buddhist way of thinking, so different from our cold Western logic, becomes integral to solving the mystery (we are investigating the gruesome death by multiple snakes of an American marine, by the way.) It’s not so tidy as most detective stories, but then that too, follows the Buddhist way of thinking and is the strongpoint of the book.

Two More Books That Bear Mentioning and an Important Programming Note

I’m starting to hear good things about the new Garrison Keillor novel Love Me. Brian pointed out the laudatory review in the Washington Post. Also, how could I have not mentioned this yet. Though I have never cracked the spine of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, I should mention that fans of his will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out very soon: Diary: A Novel. I haven’t seen any reviews yet, but I have heard that this one might be his most twisted yet.

Tomorrow I’m getting on a plane and flying to the East Coast for 10 days. I have a lot planned and so I will probably not be able to post extensively. However, if any of you feel like picking up the slack and have some book-related news that just can’t wait email me or use the form at the right, and I will post it up. Thanks!

created and edits The Millions. He is co-editor of the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, called "funny, poignant, relentlessly thought-provoking" by The Atlantic. He and his family live in New Jersey. If you'd like to correspond, please don't hesitate to email.

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