Reading ‘Big Brother,’ Over the Centuries

June 20, 2013

At a time when readers are diving back into George Orwell’s tale of a “Big Brother” state in the landmark novel “1984,” a new mini-exhibition at the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library offers visitors a chance to consider other classic dystopian novels for their summer reading list.

The 17 novels ­− and a letter typed by Jack London – on display in the “Dystopian Fiction: Trapped in a Nightmare Future” exhibition track the evolution of the popular genre.

“There’s always a conflict or struggle of poverty, whether physical or emotional, and oppression in dystopian literature, which I think is relevant in any society,”  theexhibition’s curator Margaret Hrabe said.

Hrabe and the Special Collections library already were preparing the mini-exhibition before news of the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance program broke earlier this month. The serendipitous timing of the exhibition’s launch on June 11 coincided with an ensuing spike in interest in dystopian fiction.

As National Public Radio reported on June 12, sales of Orwell’s “1984,” first published 64 years ago, have jumped almost 6,000 percent since the NSA’s mass monitoring of telephone calls and Internet communications was revealed. “1984” has ranked in the top 100 of Amazon’s book sales the last eight consecutive days.

The exhibition includes the first American edition of “1984,” and the books on display range in date from 1518 to 2013. The exhibitions also features several rare landmark works in Utopian literature, including the genre’s namesake, Thomas More’s “Utopia.” In the exhibition, the 1518 edition of More’s classic is opened to the page containing a map of the fictional Utopia, the book’s perfectly ordered island nation.

The 20th century works featured in the exhibition mark the literary genre’s evolution toward darker tales where populations are ruled by nightmarish totalitarian regimes. As the exhibition explains, the rise of totalitarian governments in Europe after WWI fueled the genre and its exploration of the concept of being trapped in controlling societies that eliminate personal freedom.

In the 21st century, dystopian themes remain popular in contemporary literature and cinema.  The last books featured in the exhibition are from the Young Adult trilogy “Quarantine,” written under the pen name Lex Thomas by Lex Hrabe, a 1999 University of Virginia graduate (and son of Special Collections reference coordinator Margaret Hrabe) and his writing partner, Thomas Voorhies.  

The free exhibition remains open to the public through Aug. 18 in the library’s First Floor Gallery. The Special Collections Library is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. (The library will be closed on July 4.)

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds more than 16 million objects, including manuscripts, archival records, rare books, maps, broadsides, photographs and audio and video recordings. The noteworthy collections include American and British literature, the history of Virginia and the southeastern United States, the history and archives of the University of Virginia, sporting books and manuscripts, World War I, bibliography and book arts. 

Occupying 58,000 square feet in two underground floors of  The Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture / The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library building, the library features a reading room with seating for 32 researchers. While the stacks are not open to the public, the Reading Room is open to anyone with a photo ID.