Becoming Well-Read: The Handmaid's Tale

We all have those books we’ve been meaning to read: the can’t-miss classics, the contemporary blockbusters, the revolutionary self-help phenomenon. But there are so many great books to read, so many now languishing in your to-be-read pile, that these books keep getting pushed to the back-burner, no matter how many times friends pester us, saying “You haven’t read that yet?” in an incredulous voice. 

It’s a plight I’m intimately familiar with. My TBR list has over 500 books on it, and includes Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and a heck of a lot in between. I’m one of those people who pretends to know a lot more about David Foster Wallace than I really do. (Hey! I read part of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (specifically, the titular essay about cruises), and watched that movie starring Jason Segel.) 

But today I’m taking a stand, and I hope you will, too. Slowly but surely, I’m going to conquer those “books everyone has to read during their lifetime” lists with the power of Scribd. Finally, it’s time to go on an epic journey to becoming well-read.

First up: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

What I Think It’s About: I only know the basics about Margaret Atwood’s scifi masterpiece: it’s a dystopia, it’s feminist, and the name is some sort of riff on The Canterbury Tales. (Note: I have only read selections of Chaucer’s Tales, so the implications of this are lost on me.) From those sparse details, I can only assume the handmaidens suffer under the oppression of the patriarchy but then end up toppling it; by the end, it essentially becomes Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (which I also haven’t read, but I know it’s a utopia, and I can only assume from the title that it’s a land full of ladies and no dudes.)

What It’s Actually About: In one of the U.S.’s many possible dystopian futures (according to popular fiction), abortion and birth control have been outlawed, and a woman’s primary duty is to reproduce. (Hey, wait a second, isn’t Atwood Canadian? Why does it always have to be America...) The story follows Offred the handmaid—a dolled up word for a concubine—as she navigates this new world order, comparing this new society where sex is no longer allowed to be sexy to the snippets of her past, supposedly sinful life full of second-wave feminists like her mother.

Why You Should Read It Right Now: Whether you are for or against abortion, whether you think this is America’s actual imminent future now that Donald Trump has been elected president or scoff at the idea that Trump will make things worse or even has that type of power (Atwood herself has some strong feelings about Trump), you should read this book in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that we don’t seem to agree on much these days. (Right? Please tell me we at least agree on this.) And while Atwood’s tale clearly picks a side in the abortion debate, she’s critical of everything. And if I’m being honest, The Handmaid’s Tale often doesn’t feel like it’s narrowly focused on women’s rights, but more generally on the effects of dehumanization, of putting law above love, and of the dangers of picking sides and uncritically sticking with them in the first place.

 

One passage in particular hit me pretty hard. Offred recalls watching a television program in the past, an interview forty or fifty years after World War II, with a woman who had been a mistress to a Nazi officer. The mistress claims this man was not a monster, and Atwood writes, “She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.” 

It’s easy to agree that a former Nazi is a monster. It’s easy to see how having sympathy for people who do atrocious things makes us implicit in those things. It’s easy to think, “I have been too nice to people who are undeserving of that kindness.” But the flip side is, of course, once you remove the humanity from actual humans, you start down the same path to becoming a monster yourself. Where’s the comfortable medium of accountability and kindness? Isn’t that the exact issue we’re facing in America right now?

Sorry. The Handmaid’s Tale is a petite book full of heavy stuff. I promise, there are also some pretty well-timed jokes throughout the tale to lighten the mood. There’s always a black market for the fun stuff, after all. Plus, Atwood writes with an intriguing mix of stream of consciousness, present happenings and past rememberings, and flat-out unreliable retellings. There are stories within stories and it’s hard to see what’s factually true, but easy to see how little it matters in such deplorable circumstances.

Perhaps the biggest reason you should read The Handmaid’s Tale right now is to prepare for the Hulu adaptation of the series coming out next year. Because if nothing else, we can all agree that we love Hulu. Right?