“Well, look, I’m a lawyer too, and a woman, like your character, but” –and her expression became urgent as if she had clamped her hand to my arm–“the book was no help to me. It didn’t tell me how I should live my life.” – Rosellen Brown, “Characters’ Weaknesses Build Fiction’s Strengths,” Writers on Writing, p. 29
In the spring of 2009, my roommate and I enrolled in a philosophy class centered on utopias and dystopias. We had both agreed that the class seemed interesting, and it also fulfilled part of our core requirements for graduation.
While we had expected the class to involve lectures and discussions on philosophical terminology and arguments, we realized that the class was really an English literature class. We discussed the utopias or dystopias presented in books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. We examined societal and character flaws and strengths using plain language instead of modus ponens and modus tollens arguments. Our understanding of perfect harmony and perfect chaos came from fiction; we did not speak of real world examples of those who had sought to create utopias.
Truthfully, none of this bothered me. I liked reading novels where characters could be truly tested by the rules, or lack thereof, of their environment. To read of a father and son struggling to preserve a familial bond while fighting or hiding from robbers and cannibals, or reading of a man’s inability to accept a successful society controlled, and exclusively populated, by women, was fascinating.
Yet as with all classes based on books, there are times when you’re asked to think about yourself as opposed to fictional characters. So when the professor stood at the front of the class, squinting toward the back of the room to ensure that the clock was correct, waiting for everyone to slide into their seats and become silent, we could sense that we were about to be given some kind of quiz unrelated to the five chapters we had been asked to read.
“If all of society collapsed, the majority of the population was wiped out, and you were one of the survivors, what is the one book that you would carry with you?”
Such an easy question. No one needed more than a few minutes to hand in their answer. When asked to share, my classmates’ answers included the Bible, Twilight, and The Killer Angels. My answer was Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. My roommate, who was dressed in his ROTC uniform, raised his hand and said The Boy Scout Handbook. After five or six people had shared, class continued and eventually ended. I do not recall the teacher asking anyone why they had chosen their particular book, but I remember walking outside with my roommate and hearing him be disappointed with the rest of class. He said something along the lines of, “If you need to survive, fiction won’t help you.” I felt ashamed then. I had chosen The Prophet because of its poetic value.
Thinking back on this now, I still believe my roommate was absolutely right. Surviving the end of civilization demands knowing how to set up a safe camp, how to properly prepare food, what surviving plants are dangerous for humans, and how to conserve and prepare water for consumption. To that end, any recognized wilderness survival guide would be critical for success and safety. In a world devoid of working modern conveniences, someone has to know how to get things done. Whoever knows the most would be leader.
Yet as I reflect on the necessity of survival, I can’t help but shake the images of cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. With food available on shelves and frozen behind glass doors at the supermarket, it seems absurd to think of people eating people. However, if you do survive the collapse of all society and have no basic wilderness survival, when the electricity shorts and all of the Hot Pockets have been eaten, how far would you go to survive? If the situation was thrust upon you right now, can you honestly say you wouldn’t consider it?
I’d like to say it would never cross my mind, but that would be a lie. Human beings are still animals. Survival is one of our basic instincts. We will do what is necessary to continue to live.
Perhaps knowing this though is enough to realize that someone has to remind us that being human is about more than survival. This is where books come in. A religious text or a political or philosophical treatise could help bring a society together. Orwell, Swift, Twain, and Baldwin, could remind us of the complexity of human relations, reminding us of what we should never become, but also what we should aspire to be.
Ultimately though, all books could provide entertainment, so that when the soil has been deemed safe and fertile and dinner has been cooked and eaten, the last survivors can sit together and enjoy what’s left of their lives. Eventually, the day must end.
Now, assume for a moment that someone’s already chosen a wilderness survival guide. What book would you choose to share with the last of mankind?