“Oh, the fun stuff.”

“You know what novels are, right? Novels are books of lies.”

“What are you going to do with that. Do your parents have deep pockets?”

These are the sorts of things people say when you say that you’re majoring in English. It certainly doesn’t get much better when you tell such people that you like children’s literature.

I remembered these things because I just finished reading this children’s book (well, technically young adult) that was…not fun.

And though it was sci-fi, it got closer to the truth of what it means to be human than any news article I’ve read lately.

And it itself implies the question, “What are you going to do with me, now that you know what you do?”

This book is The Giver, by Lois Lowry. I refused to read it throughout my childhood, mainly because I hated being told what was a “good” book—unfortunately, The Giver is a Newbery award winner and was constantly mentioned by well-meaning adults armed with their “Best Books for Children” reading lists. I wanted to determine for myself what was good; I didn’t care much about gold seals on covers, and I made my own book lists. The more an “acclaimed” book was pressed upon me, the more I rolled my eyes.

(It was rather narrowminded, yes. But to this day, I firmly believe that no one should be pressured to read a book. Or really to take any sort of educational journey—whether that’s a musical instrument, a software program, or a trip to a foreign country. When the desire for an experience is intrinsic, the mind is open. Otherwise, it’s merely about going through the motions.)

The Giver is only 179 pages and written at roughly a fifth grade reading level. But it’s heavy and complicated. It’s like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 had a child with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. A precocious fifth grader.

It’s about a dystopian society where everything is carefully kept the same, with pills and monitoring. In this society, everything is always fine. In this society, there is no pain. No one makes choices, as that is too risky; your meals are prepared, your career is assigned to you, and even your spouse and children are selected for you. Simply follow the rules. And if you deviate, you are “released.”

And so, there is no individuality, there is no sense of self. There is also no emotional depth or truth. There is no love; feelings are prevented with a simple pill.

But when twelve-year-old Jonas learns what is beyond this flat, colorless existence, he must decide what he’ll do with that knowledge. Can he stay in the community, knowing what he knows, or will he try to change the system, even if it costs him his life?

The Giver is a statement of what it means to be human—to feel, to know, to remember. So, despite its being a science fiction novel, it is about exploring the truth of the human condition (which is the often-missed value of an education in the humanities). Despite its sitting in the children’s section of a library, it’s not exactly a fun, easy read.

It reminded me that when we suffer, we recognize it because we can distinguish it from the other emotions we know. It made me wonder why, when we experience loss, it takes us so long to feel grateful that we had it at all. It made me realize that we often assume we know something…but maybe we haven’t learned fully what a word means or imagined if things could be otherwise. It made me think of systems where individuality and truth are suppressed beyond recognition.

And, somehow, it made me think of that sad, beautiful line that Robert Frost wrote in “Birches”:

Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Yes, we don’t know an alternative place—it’s even hard for us to imagine another place. But at least we know what love is, and value it despite its lack of guarantee to go well.

I’d put The Giver on a list of good books (finally, I admit it). I’d be careful not to recommend it too strongly.