I just read The Hunger Games trilogy, which I had been a little lazy about getting around to. Well, not so much read as swallowed whole. Over the weekend. While I was with my family in Austin and Abilene, although it was mostly during travel times or after bedtime. We had to make a special stop at Barnes and Noble in Austin for me to pick up the second book, because I had been in no way prepared for how ravenously I would read the first one, and therefore didn’t know that I would need the others on hand. I read most of the second one the flight back to Boston, and finished it while I ate lunch. Then I went and picked up Spur from the kennel she stayed at while I was gone and immediately went to Brookline Booksmith, my favorite bookstore which is near my house and welcomes dogs, so that I could pick up the third. Which I proceeded to read in its entirety that afternoon/evening/night.
I wanted to share that with you because I think it might help you to forgive me if this post gets long. Or maybe give you a chance to check out early if you don’t want to participate in the potential enthusiasm of this post. Which, by the way, will not be a review and maybe not so much about the books themselves as a response to one aspect of them.
If you haven’t read the books, let me fill you in a little. The Hunger Games is set several hundred years in the future, in what is left of a North America that has been partially destroyed by natural and man-made disasters. The nation that now exists is called Panem, and it is comprised of a Capitol and 12 outlying districts. There used to be 13 districts, but a rebellion some 75 years before the start of the book resulted in the obliteration of District 13. After that rebellion, the totalitarian government in the Capitol ruled that, as a measure for reminding the districts of their powerlessness, there would be an annual gladiator competition in which a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district would be randomly selected to compete in a fight to the death. Katniss, the narrator, becomes a tribute (a competitor), and we the readers experience The Hunger Games along with her.
In most of the districts, poverty is the norm. There’s not enough food, insufficient medical care, and no opportunities for upward mobility. There, people value scrupulous use of resources and survival. The Capitol, on the other hand, is characterized by hedonism, over-indulgence and vanity. The people who live there are so far removed from the means of production and so far removed from the concept of want or need that they never stop to consider where their food and luxuries come from or the people who make them. Since no children from the Capitol participate in the Hunger Games–since the Games don’t affect them personally–they also never stop to consider the horror or tragedy of their favorite entertainment. Everyone (apparently) surgically alters their bodies, dies their hair, dies their skin, and are perplexed that anyone wouldn’t want to do the same. They are all obsessed with beauty (of a sort), fashion, gossip, and the latest parties.
Is this culture sounding a little familiar, perhaps? With Katniss as our guide, we readers are easily repulsed by the extravagance and absurdity of the Capitol. We want to identify with Katniss, but the truth is that few of us will have personally experienced the kind of poverty that is normal in her district. Nope. If there’s a culture in the books we’d fit into best, it would be the Capitol.
Obviously, we’re not that bad. For one thing, our culture values children enough that we don’t like to think about them dying, much less being forced to brutally kill each other. And we’re really not as altogether wasteful, over-indulgent, or vain as the people of the Capitol. But when it comes to understanding the means of production for the goods we consume, we’re just as bad. Worse, even, because the government in the books prevents the people from knowing what life in the Districts is really like; we choose our own ignorance. We choose to ignore the fact that many of the items we enjoy are grown or made by people whose working conditions and compensation are at best grotesquely unfair and at worst outright slave labor. It’s unpleasant, disturbing even, to think of, and really, it would be awfully inconvenient for us to not have our morning coffee, our favorite chocolate bar, that new shirt, all at low prices because Heaven forbid we should overpay.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get preachy or sarcastic. But the truth is that I’m feeling a little disgusted with myself. Somewhere along the way, I’ve forgotten that almost everything I own is a luxury item. The sense of entitlement this culture has programmed in me has blurred the lines between wants and needs, and has allowed me to forget the human and environmental cost of the items I purchase. I’m ashamed by the wasteful ways that I use money and other resources.
And so one of the outcomes of reading The Hunger Games is recommitting myself to being frugal, to seeking out Fair Trade and similar products, to doing what I can to help where I can. There’s something broken about our culture that makes us able to ignore the fact that the luxuries and comforts we believe we need and deserve often come at the expense of people, simply because our lives are never personally affected by their hardships and tragedies. I choose not to let myself become broken in this way.