Ideas

The Enright Files: How books from the past can help explain the present

The world’s greatest writers have spent millennia chronicling their own times and world-changing events — and imagining all the conundrums and catastrophes that might confront humanity. On The Enright Files, a conversation inspired by books from the past to help explain these unsettling times.

If there's one positive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be that many people are reading more

The first edition of the Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was published in 1985 by McClelland and Stewart. She describes the novel as anti-predictive: 'You write these kinds of books in the hopes that they will not happen.' (McClelland and Stewart/David Livingston/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

If there's one positive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be that many people are reading more — both to fill those hours spent alone indoors and to help make sense of these unsettling times and our strange new normal. 

That may be true of any era that might be called unprecedented, and it was certainly true in 2015, when the rise of Donald Trump and other nationalist populist leaders was turning global politics upside down.

In response, books like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, George Orwell's 1984, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism were flying off the shelves. 

In 2017, Michael Enright spoke with Margaret Atwood herself, Sally Parry — an authority on Sinclair Lewis —  and Roger Berkowitz — an expert on Hannah Arendt — to see what kind of roadmap to the 21st Century's upheavals could be found in books from the 20th Century. 

"These novels can give us a sense of what could happen but on the other hand also make us think. That's really the power of literature: to think and to say, "if I were in those shoes — whether we're talking about Gilead or 1930s America — would I have resisted, would I have collaborated, what would I have done?" says Sally Parry.

Novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis wrote his novel, It Can't Happen Here, in about two months. His travel throughout Europe in the early thirties and his marriage to journalist Dorothy Thompson spurred his interest in political problems in the U.S. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Guests in this episode: 



*  This episode is produced by Chris Wodskou.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.