When Everyone Is Equal

"When I was your age, television was called ‘books.’"

– The Princess Bride

Reporter Justine Wettschreck wrote about her experience of the Junior Great Books program yesterday, and I thought I would chip in with my own impressions.

Essentially, Junior Great Books was a program in which the "gifted" readers in a grade school class would read a story and then get together to discuss it under the supervision of a teacher. The stories were, I think, somewhat above grade level, but they were all pretty easy reads (at the time I was plowing through Shakespeare and having a crack at Milton, which I couldn’t get into at all then but learned to appreciate in college).

Many of them were quite memorable. "The Gun Without a Bang," by Robert Scheckley, for example, illustrated the limits of even the most wondrous technology created for destruction. "The Veldt," by Ray Bradbury, had a twist ending that managed to take me, a very cynical and serious child, completely by surprise. Completely. "Mateo Falcone," by Prosper Merimee, a story about honor, impressed me with the utter strangeness of some people’s notion of integrity.

In retrospect, I’m surprised by how violent most of the stories were. There was one about a kid who shoots his brother to death, for example, one where a dad murders his child and one in which people got eaten by lions. But they were good stories, and the violence certainly wasn’t any worse than what one would see on the news or in movies. And the stories were literary, not trashy. Each had a point and each was meant to be thought-provoking.

The one that captured me, swept me up and made me perpetually wary ever afterward, however, was "Harrison Bergeron," by Kurt Vonnegut.

In "Harrison Bergeron," everyone is not created equal. Everyone is made equal, by law, which is enforced by disrupting smart people’s brain waves, forcing athletic people to wear weights that slow them down and having pretty people shave their eyebrows or wear uglifying prosthetics.

Everyone is equal, and it is a nightmarish dystopia. And when someone challenges that equality, the story ends in shocking violence and worse.

So many things in "Harrison" are worthy of discussion: the concept of equality, the question of what fairness means, the government’s role in an individual’s life, and the importance of memory. 20 years after I read it, I can’t remember what we discussed, but I still remember the end of that story. More appalling than the violence that came immediately before it was the stillness and peace at the end.

If you haven’t read "Harrison Bergeron," I recommend that you do.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.