In my life so far, there have been exactly three stories that I’ve read that served to radically transform or reorient my worldview. I’ve met many individuals who have never had an experience like that with books, and, although I would expect that the great diversity of human beings means that not everyone would have one, I think many more people would if they read more.
Two of the stories were books, and they came later in my life. But the first was a short story: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. I read it in elementary school under the guidance of a wise teacher.
If I had to describe the nature of the transformations that accompanied the two books, I would call them a revelation and a call to arms, respectively. “Harrison Bergeron,” on the other hand, was when I “came online.” Before that story, I don’t recall thinking much about philosophy or ethics. Keep in mind, I was only eleven or so when I read it, so the thoughts that I might have had would have been quite preliminary.
But after I read it, my mind would never be the same. The experience is vivid in even now.
“Harrison Bergeron” is a satirical science-fiction dystopic short story. In its world, everyone is legally equal, and literally equal. However, there is one man, the story’s eponymous protagonist, who is a god among men: the most beautiful, the most athletic, the most intelligent—quite simply, the best. He is outfitted with various handicaps to bring him down to the baseline of everyone else, but eventually he shatters all of them. He defies the government and society by doing so, and it is a glorious moment. He is then immediately killed by government agents, and the story ends.
Reading that story provoked a violent rage in my barely-adolescent self that has hardly seen any rivals since—this is even considering that one’s capacity for rage grows with age as one’s mind is increasingly able to grasp the world.
The destruction of the best of humanity, simply because it was the best, all told in Vonnegut’s short and fast-paced story, overwhelmed my burgeoning mental faculties. I recognized elements of the story in the world, even as little of it as I had witnessed at the time that I read the story, and from that point forward I thought concretely and with conviction about certain rules of ethics, politics, and philosophy. These first thoughts were not sophisticated, but they were extant, and that is the point.
“Harrison Bergeron”, unlike the other two books that would come later, did not transform my worldview. It turned on the apparatus that would generate it in the first place.
This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.