For me, it was Lois Lowry’s utopian/dystopian novel, The Giver. Dystopian fiction has been hugely popular in recent years, so maybe it’s not surprising to learn that a Giver movie is finally in the works and comes out this August. But I didn’t even know what those buzzwords meant the first time I read this book. All I knew was that I had never read anything like it before, and that I carried the story with me for weeks after I put my actual copy down. As Nick Hornby once said, this is the kind of book that might make you walk into a lamppost.
The Community is a peaceful but highly structured society where eleven-year-old Jonas lives with his parents -- matched due to their balanced personalities -- and his sister Lily, who, like Jonas, was born to a career birth mother. Hard work and aptitude are rewarded, the elderly are gently cared for, and life seems perfectly nice, if nondescript.
At the age of twelve, all children are assigned a role in the Community based on their interests, volunteer hours, and careful observation. Jonas is nervous but excited, until he is the only child in recent memory not assigned a career. Instead, he is to report to a mysterious man called the Giver.
The Giver lives a solitary life, which contrasts sharply with the socialist ideals of the Community. He alone keeps the memories of the Community in case the knowledge and experience are ever needed. He holds all of the joy, but also all of the pain. He is the only person who knows what color looks like or how cold feels, and he’s not allowed to talk about or share it with anyone, ever. Poor Jonas is tapped to be the new Giver, and he’s pretty overwhelmed by the whole thing. He learns that many good people in the Community do bad things because they truly do not know any better, a revelation which further isolates him from his family and friends.
The turning point comes when Jonas learns the true meaning of “release,” a term applied to what happens to those members of the Community who cannot contribute. That is exactly what sets this book so far apart from the rest of the genre: There’s no violence here. There are no bad guys, no dictatorial battles for power, and no grand revolutions. Everyone except Jonas is perfectly happy where they are, and for the most part, the system does work. But now that Jonas knows what lies outside the Community, can he continue to play along?
This is a study in whether or not ignorance is bliss, whether it is better to be able to make your own choices, including the possibility of failure, or to have your life predetermined to a safe but unremarkable path. If this book sounds interesting, please know that I have done a truly poor job of describing how awesome it is. AND there are sequels. The Giver -- Top Ten, All-Time Greatest Book. Seriously.