19. A book older than 100 years: Utopia by Thomas More
List Progress: 19/30
So in between getting ready for my book release party, I have been clicking along one some reading. In another random find on a library shelf, I decided to take a crack at Utopia, a 1516 book written in Latin by social-philosopher Thomas More. Utopia is framed as More himself speaking with a traveler who has come back from the island of Utopia, a perfect society that stands in direct contrast with More’s own 16th century European society, full of inequality and abuse.
I took a “Utopian and Dystopian Literature” class in high school that has defined most of my relationship to this genre. On the dystopian side, we read tense and exciting works like 1984, We, The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm and Brave New World, all incredibly popular and well-regarded books. On the utopian side we had…Herland and Looking Backward: 2000-1887. We did not read Utopia itself. Because at the end of the day, utopian literature is not that interesting. It is a whole genre based around worlds without conflict or strife, and do you know what makes stories interesting? Conflict and strife.
I did enjoy Utopia more than I thought I was going to, but I will not pretend that it was a riveting book that kept me on the edge of my seat. The first section, Book 1, involves More meeting this traveler, Raphael Hythlodaeus, and Raphael recalling getting into a debate with a cardinal’s courtier about how punishing thieves with execution does little to curtail theft in society as a whole. (This is also the portion quoted in the movie “Ever After” and as such has my love.) Book 2 is entirely Raphael’s recollections of his time living in Utopia and how the Utopian society is constructed. He describes the island’s communist ideologies, their progressive gender politics, their abandoning of money and their abandoning of the concept of private property. It is interesting, but in the way that anyone talking about how we should rebuild society from the ground up is somewhat interesting and somewhat off-putting.
There are some portions that are a bit funny in how they were probably very progressive for their time and have simply not aged well. It probably meant a lot in the 1500’s that atheists are not executed in Utopia, but they are still looked down upon and forbidden from speaking about their wrong and corrupt beliefs with normal citizens. But on the whole, a great number of complaints about society still ring true today. More clearly put a lot of thought and reasoning into the Utopians, even if not all of it holds true to how actual humans act and respond.
Utopia has influenced a huge portion of Western literature in the 503 years since it was written, and it deserves to be read through that lens at the least. But if you do not have some outside interest in 16th century literature, philosophy, or sociology, it does not offer much to a casual reader. An influential work with a lot of fascinating ideas, but not exactly a page turner.
Would I Recommend It: For a class assignment, yes. For anything else, not really.