Twilight of Democracy (I hope not)

The book cover shows the title, "Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism," and the author's name, "Anne Applebaum," accompanied by "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize." The words are in white except for "Authoritarianism," which is in red. The background of the cover is in gradating shades of blue.

By Eric L.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is a great read for the current moment. The title of the book should give you a fairly good idea of what the book is about. Anne Applebaum’s area of analysis and expertise seems particularly relevant right now. Sadly, she and I agree that hate and the belief in authoritarians has increased in recent times in America. Applebaum discusses how this is also the case in Britain, Hungary, and Poland (countries with which she has experience). Applebaum’s husband is involved in politics in Poland, which provides her an interesting vantage point into the “power elite” (my term). 

If you’re not familiar with Anne Applebaum, I would encourage you to read some of her articles in The Atlantic. I am mainly familiar with her work through this magazine. She is a journalist, but I would also describe her as a historian who has authored several highly regarded books on Russian history. She is also currently a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. I would describe Anne Applebaum’s politics as different than mine, where she is “center right” and I’m not. We may differ on specific policy prescriptions and perhaps views on liberalism and markets, but we agree that hate and authoritarians are both inimical to democracy. 

The book grabs you from the onset by describing a New Year’s Eve party they hosted as the 20th century ended. She details the somewhat raucous party, the guests, and the optimism many attendees shared for liberal democracies in the 21st century. I am younger than Applebaum, but I recall a similar optimism (and perhaps a little worry about Y2K). She then goes on to describe how in the 20 years since this party many of the guests would no longer speak to each other, and how’d she’d cross the street to avoid some of these folks. In our highly polarized and political society we can all share this sentiment to some extent. Perhaps we don’t know Boris Johnson personally, as she does, but we can relate, and her brief biographical sketch of Johnson is indeed indicative of western politics at this moment. 

The book is written by a good journalist, and thus it is engaging and thoughtful. It is very Western-focused, but it does concern more than the United States. The similarities of the things happening in these countries are a bit frightening. Personally, I’m remembering the era during the last century when fascism began to spread in the West. 

She goes into detail through character sketches of some of the people and the trajectory of their political beliefs. Many were former anti-communists and are now hard-right and authoritarian in nature. She points out that these are not poor, rural people, but actually quite elite, wealthy, and well-educated. She subsequently proffers her theories as to why this is the case, including that of a behavioral economist who suggests about one third of the population, irrespective of political beliefs, has an authoritarian “disposition.” This actually does not surprise me. Applebaum also puts words to the belief of many of these folks that things were better in previous times. The section where she delves into the different types of nostalgia is very interesting. 

I don’t agree with everything Applebaum posits, however I’d like to think she’d appreciate that fact. Specifically, I think she discounts corporate power and race issues in America. They’re addressed, but not to my satisfaction. Where I agree with Applebaum is that democracy is messy, it’s problematic, and not everyone is happy. In sum, it’s tough! It’s certainly much easier to be in complete control and get your way all the time. However, I don’t think I have an authoritarian “disposition” and I think getting my way all the time is not good for me psychologically. That said, I hope we’re not in the twilight of democracy.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is also available in large print and as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Chernobyl on Page and Screen

By Kristen B.

It’s not exactly a cheerful topic – the most devastating nuclear accident ever to have happened. However, the story of what went wrong is riveting and amazingly complex. More than 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986 at 1:23:58 am, one of the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl site suffered a massive explosion and containment failure, which led to fallout poisoning in large areas of Ukraine and Belarus. At the time, the Soviet government was more concerned with containing the political and international ramifications than protecting its citizenry. I have to admit that until recently I hadn’t thought much about Chernobyl other than as an unfortunate incident that happened during my teenage years.

A member of the book discussion group that I moderate, Books on Tap, advocated for reading oral histories and books in translation, particularly this one. She argues (and I agree) that it’s a marvelous way to gain insight and perspective from other cultures and points of view. Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster presents the ultimate expression of telling stories “in their own voices.” Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote it 10 years after the nuclear accident, and it was more recently translated in 2014. The book presents the written account of her interviews with a wide cross-section of people who lived through the catastrophe and the subsequent years. A surprising number of people returned to their homes or fled to the “open” country as other Soviet Socialist Republics disintegrated into ethnic warfare. They often refer to Chernobyl as “war,” being their only other frame of reference to so many people dying and the subsequent governmental propaganda. Although it can feel a bit repetitive, that sheer recounting from so many different people – teachers, party loyalists, army conscripts, wives, and mothers – drives homes the devastating, ordinary reality of living on top of nuclear fallout.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham (also an eBook and eAudiobook) offers another side of the story, one rich in politics and science. Where the previous title provides a direct line to individuals, this book takes a much larger overview of the history of Chernobyl – literally starting with the creation of the plant and its company town along a marshy stretch of wilderness. The perfidy of the Soviet institution’s need for results and optics, above any adherence to safety and good practice, was something I had forgotten since the fall of the USSR. The Chernobyl disaster was nonetheless a direct result of the political reality during that time… and in fact contributed to the fall of the communist regime. This book draws on interviews and recently declassified archives to bring the disaster and the people who lived through it to life. Although there’s a short holds list for the book, it’s worth the wait.

HBO aired a five hour, five episode Chernobyl miniseries in 2019 that combined the source material from these two books into an excellent show about what happened during the explosion and in the two years after, available to borrow as DVDs. You can’t turn away from the real-life drama unfolding on the screen, not even knowing the basic outlines of the story. All sources, books and screen, point to the complete cognitive dissonance of dealing with an accident that was largely deemed to be impossible. The show is immensely well-written and well-acted, pulling you in almost despite yourself. Content warning: The middle episode contains some particularly hard scenes of “cleaning up” wildlife and abandoned pets. Here, too, the faces and the voices give a human accounting to an unimaginable tragedy.

The area will not fully return to “safe” for millennia, barring any further contamination. I feel like this was an important moment in time, and only now can we begin to appreciate its history. I also hope it will give us some optimism about human resilience and the ability to solve big problems… because one thing has been made perfectly clear: it could have been so much worse.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, cook, and take walks in the park.

Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

The cover of "The Left Hand of Darkness" depicts a lunar-like surface with two opposite-facing profiles carved out of rock, against a dark sky.

By Eric L.

I read a lot of great authors, but that’s because I read great books! As we have been celebrating Women’s History Month, and HCLS has recommended a cornucopia of great material about and by women, I’d like to recommend the amazing Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Le Guin made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of sci-fi and fantasy half a century ago, and she wrote a great book about gender fluidity way before many others broached the topic. Le Guin said she recognized the ability to tell complex tales through the work of genre writer Philip K. Dick. Later, she openly criticized the way he wrote some female characters. Dick agreed, they became friends, and he thanked Le Guin for her influence on his subsequent works. I’d contend that in itself amounts to progress! 

A great starting point for Ursula K. Le Guin is watching Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin on Kanopy. It provides a great introduction to the writer and her work. The interviews with the witty and charming Le Guin are terrific, as are the conversations with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman and others about her influence on their writing and the genre. Gaiman astutely points out that the Harry Potter series owes a great deal to Le Guin’s Earthsea series.  

As I alluded to before, her most famous work The Left Hand of Darkness (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format) is a groundbreaking work, not just for the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but also for challenging our conceptions pf western masculinity and of western masculinity and femininity in a clever and subtle way. The protagonist, an envoy to the planet nicknamed Winter, struggles to understand a gender-neutral people using the social constructs of his own culture. Left Hand centers political intrigue and a forced epic journey across an icy planet while giving glimpses at the envoy’s gradual enlightenment. The drama and action of an arduous journey mirrors the personal journey of the protagonist and the relationships he builds.  

The Left Hand of Darkness is worth borrowing just to read Le Guin’s amazing introduction concerning science fiction and writing in general. Over the years, she has taken criticism for using the pronoun “he” for the gender-neutral characters in the book. To which she replied that just because the book was finished, it didn’t mean she was finished learning. I like this sort of thinking, the idea that we can all grow more and move forward. 

The cover for The Dispossessed depicts a man standing on a barren wasteland, looking towards another purple-toned planet with the sun peeking over its edge from behind, and a red-orange sky.

Le Guin’s other popular work The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia may be the perfect book for now, as the story of two opposing political views on how best to organize a society – collectivism versus individualism. The book examines power and extremes, and interrogates the best way for a society to temper those impulses. 

The protagonist Shevek (all names are computer generated) is a scientist from the anarchist commune-like planet, Anarres. Against the wishes of many of his people, he takes the opportunity to collaborate with the scientists of A-lo, on the planet Urras. The latter is a more individualistic, capitalist society. Shevek is attracted to the opportunity to further pursue his work, as he has begun to suspect that his society has some faults. Le Guin uses the protagonist’s perspective and experience to compare the two societies. The chapters alternate between Shevek’s youth and adulthood on Anarres and his present situation in A-lo. I thought this a clever technique, in a sort of nuanced compare and contrast story, but perhaps that’s just my conflicted mind? 

I believe Le Guin’s biases are evident, perhaps intentionally, but the book offers a provocative look at entrenched beliefs. The two societies are located on different planets and only know each other via their society’s own information (sometimes called propaganda), very similar to the way each of us arrives at our perspectives, beliefs, and, yes, biases. Le Guin cleverly has each society colloquially reduce the other to one-word epithets; the “propertarians” and “anarchists.” It’s certainly easier to believe we understand each other when we reduce ourselves to singular adjectives. 

This would be a great book to have people with opposing viewpoints read and discuss. The fact that Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist is evident in her work. Lastly, I’m inclined to conclude that Ursula K. Le Guin believes any thoughtful ideology should begin with a deeper understanding of each other and the forces that create fear and hate. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.