Deep Breathing, Dystopian Classics, and Obama’s Letter to Librarians

I’m breathing smoke from Canada and coughing. I tell myself, “Stay calm.” I sit down on a tree lawn and riffle through my bag to find my inhaler.   It is buried under a small notebook, a paperback mystery, and a wad of Kleenex.  

One walker slows down and asks if I need help. “Or are you vaping?”

“It’s for allergies, “I explain.

The plastic inhaler resembles a Pez dispenser, but instead of Pez it emits puffs of albuteral sulfate. It was prescribed for my new allergies to dust, smoke, pollen, and the unhealthy particulate matter caused by air pollution this summer.   

I wonder how many of us are breathless in this new, quasi-post-Covid, wildfire-riddled world.  Some of us may have long Covid; all of us are breathing more particulate matter from the wildfire smoke. And we also inhale generous amounts of microplastics (little plastic bits) daily. “There’s a great future in plastics,” Benjamin was advised in the 1967 film The Graduate.

Information from scientists, the writer Bill McKibbon, the Sierra Club, and countless other environmentalists is ignored or met with delaying tactics. And because of the negligence of corporations and politiicans, we are living in the worst possible future: a dystopia where burning fossil fuels controls the earth, raises the temperatures, and burns the planet down.

And so we turn to dystopian novels, because science fiction writers speak the unspeakable and suggest alternatives – and most do scientific research before they write. Here is my personal Dystopia 101 syllabus (I have reviewed most of these here): John Brunner’s  The Sheep Look Up, Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, Margret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Karin Boye’s Callocain, T. C. Boyle’s Blue Skies,  John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, and  Orwell’s 1984.

Of course not everyone has access to these books. That is another problem. And a growing number of mad book-banning groups are challenging books chosen by librarians and teachers, insisting that such tomes will corrupt their progeny. They campaign against classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, biographies of Democrats, and Y.A. fiction with LGBTQ themes. Whether they have read these books is another issue.

Fortunately, President Obama is a hero. He has written a brilliant, articulate open letter to  librarians on the importance of providing books that introduce readers to a variety of ideas.

Here is the link to Obama’s letter.

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