September 6th is National Read a Book Day, so we thought it was only fitting to discuss some of our top picks for books that have changed the world we live in. We don’t want you to pick up any old book (well, we do. Any book will do – knowledge is power, you don’t have to listen to us); we want you to be filling your head with the important stuff. We’re talking about the pieces of literature that really knocked the socks off their readers and continue to do so, even in an age of instant technology.
Virginia Woolf – Orlando, 1928 and A Room of One’s Own, 1929
The novel’s protagonist, Orlando, is born an entitled man in the reign of Elizabeth I who wakes up one morning to find that he is now a woman. The novel follows Orlando as she tackles women’s issues across three centuries living, un-aging, through several tense periods for gender equality in human history. The novel comes to a climax in 1928, at the height of the Suffragette movement, as Orlando reflects on the past and future of women’s prosperity in universal society. Orlando herself is rumoured to be based on Vita, Woolf’s lover, and the novel acts as an ‘undiscovered’ love letter to their relationship. Written in a time where most homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK, and the word ‘transgender’ hadn’t been allotted any meaning yet, the book acts as a proud pinpoint in LGBTQ+ literary and cultural history.
Another Woolf-penned book worth mentioning is her extended 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own. In this celebrated piece of feminist and modernist literature, Woolf discusses female freedom and independence; socially, sexually and financially, in a constricted early 20th century. Like Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush, which was written on the cusp of the 20th century and illustrates societal unrest as a newly industrialised England stepped out into No Man’s Land, A Room of One’s Own seems as though it was written on the knife edge of its own temporal trench. The book remains on the historical verge of first-wave feminism being introduced into mainstream society, and in the midst of women dying for social independence.
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949
Besides the obvious similarities we could draw between Orwell’s oppressive ‘Party’, ‘Big Brother’ themselves and numerous political and cultural doppelgangers that exist across the world today, the most fascinating relevancies found in the novel are that of the mentions of technology. From giant telescreens to undetectable microphones used to survey the citizens of Oceania, it is hard to ignore the fact that Orwell might have had a flux-capacitor-loaded DeLorean hidden away somewhere. Realistically, though, 1984 presents some of the first mentions of nationalised observation recorded in ‘contemporary’ culture, which has become something 21st century citizens have developed an uncomfortable relationship with over the past decade.
From Snowden (our very own Winston), to Zuckerberg and his giant cookie jar, and to Amazon and their tiny plastic spies that we’ve voluntary installed in various rooms in our houses – it seems we only have George Orwell to blame for inspiring personality-oppressive media moguls and today’s political ‘Big Brothers’. The novel even mentions that Winston’s neighbourhood is constantly monitored by dozens of cameras, which is terrifying to say that the commercial use of CCTV wasn’t issued until after 1984 was published. As readers, we have the uncanny power to theorise as much as Orwell did prophesise about the past and future developments of human history. As contemporary readers, we have the powerful reflective ability to identify certain points in cultural history where pieces of literature have shaped the present we exist in today – 1984 being a very poignant piece of evidence.
Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake, 2003
Finally, a book that is ahead of its time, today. Written by A Handmaid’s Tale author, Atwood’s speculative fiction novel inspires its readers to evaluate the ‘now’ and how we are twisting the future, instead of how the the ‘then’ has twisted our present. The author herself declined to call the novel science-fiction because it doesn’t involve things that, in her words, ‘we can’t yet do or begin to do’.
The protagonist, Snowman, grew up as a young boy called Jimmy in a world frighteningly identical to our own present. Snowman recalls his time watching ‘underground videos’ – often mirroring content found on the ‘dark web’, and ‘lifecasting’ (essentially, vlogging) as his main forms of entertainment. He befriends the overzealous Crake, who designs genetically-engineered herbivorous humanoid pigs that he hopes will be the next stage of human evolution and also the pill, ‘BlyssPlus’. The medication is marketed as a ‘happiness’ drug but covertly acts as a sterilisation method to control the population of their diseased planet. The outrage this generates becomes intensely violent, thus ensuing the apocalypse and the failure of ‘civil’ human society.
The fact that the apocalypse is essentially bioengineered makes the contemporary fiction novel equally as sobering as it is terrifying. We are very much capable of causing this imminent future, more now than in 2003. Humanity’s selfish need to rule over nature and persevere with this destructive Anthropocene will inevitably be the planet’s breaking point. I doubt we’ll all end up as psychotic pig-people, though, but you never really know.
Turn to the last page
Literature has changed, and is changing, our present and future but most importantly, it makes us aware. To read isn’t just to enjoy, it is to know. Literature has inspired the growth and development of human civilisation for thousands of years, with authors acting as fictional soothsayers that continuously echo silently booming words of warning trapped in the pages of books that only few get to read. Words that ward hordes of societies away from being a detriment to themselves; if we would only choose to listen.
The world is constantly screaming out for someone to listen to, for great writers – and so are we! If you have a passion for wonderful wordplay and written communication, we’re currently on the lookout for fantastic freelance writers to join our team and flex their creative muscles. Take a look at our careers section to see if you might fit the bill.