I first read We back in early July 2008. I’ve gone back and read my review from that time, and it’s clear that I had no idea what to make of this book. It’s supposedly one of the three best dystopias of all time, along with Brave New World and 1984, but I had a really hard time with the book. I knew that a good half of it, at minimum, went completely over my head.
In the intervening time, however, the book has had a chance to percolate in my brain. I don’t remember that feeling of not understanding We. Reading my review from 2008 actually surprised me, because I could have sworn the book made some sense to me. I remember having some confusion about the timeline, but that’s all. In the three years since then, the book has come to make perfect sense, and grown into one of my favorites. There are very few books that I can say I still think about on a regular basis years after reading them. We is one of those books. There are images from it that come back to me frequently. Striking, distinctive images, ones that must have affected me far more strongly than I understood at the time.
So this time, rereading We, I didn’t feel like any of the book went over my head. It made sense. I could see all the pieces of it, how it all fit together, why it worked, why it’s considered one of the best dystopias of all time.
What makes up happiness? We asks this question. One State asks this question. The Ancients, people like us, we ask this question too. How can we achieve complete happiness? What is the key to locking away sorrow? What sacrifices are necessary to give us exactly what we want? Is it better to risk extreme pain to experience extreme joy, or is it better to cut out all extremes and to live, instead, on a field of medium – medium pleasure, medium emotion, medium living?
Think about the innocence of a child. A child, sheltered from the pain of the world, is far happier than most adults. As they grow, they lose that innocence, they are filled with thoughts and experiences that cloud their happiness, and they lose that carefree joy of childhood. Once you learn something, you cannot unlearn it. You cannot regress back to innocence. But what if, instead, you can be cured of learning? Of experience? Of pain? If you could stay in that childlike innocent state, would it naturally follow that you would remain happy? Or is experience at some point necessary to place value on your feelings, like a touchstone? Is it truly possible to know happiness if you have never known sorrow?
They say that as humans we have a tendency to want what’s worst for us. The wish to never feel pain or sorrow or grief implies the necessity of cutting off the opposites of those feelings as well. Would we be willing to give ourselves over to slavery in order to always be content? Can contentment be enough, if it also means never having to hurt again?
It’s funny that I didn’t recognize these themes the first time I read through We. It boggles my mind that I didn’t see any of this, particularly because as a writer, I have written many, many stories and novels that touch on these same themes! It’s one of the things I explore the most, one of the things that I have been thinking about since I was in my early teens. Somehow, I was just blinded to all this the first time I read We. Another proof that sometimes rereading can be a beautiful thing.