THOUGHTS ON: Freedom: Vintage Minis

by Margaret Atwood

“’There is more than one kind of freedom,’ said Aunt Lydia. ‘Freedom to and freedom from.’”

Freedom CoverI slid my battered copy of The Concise Oxford English Dictionary off the top shelf, rolled a chair up to my desk and (hands curled around a mug of frothy cappuccino) looked up the definition of ‘freedom’ – for no reason other than it pleased me to do so. I could have searched for the word on Google and would almost certainly have received a response within seconds, but I didn’t wish to do that. Why use a search engine when it gave me greater satisfaction to peruse the pages of my old dictionary? In this matter, as in so many others, I have complete freedom of choice.

What then did my 1977 edition of the OED reveal? It established that freedom equates to 1. Personal liberty, non-slavery, civil liberty, independence, liberty of action, right to do, power of determination, independence of fate or necessity. 2. Frankness, outspokenness… 3. Exemption from defect, disadvantage, burden, duty, etc. In other words, I used the freedom I possessed to choose the source of my definition.

In the newly released Freedom from Vintage Minis – one in a series of 30 “short books by the world’s greatest writers on the experiences that make us human” – Margaret Atwood reflects on freedom. She wonders, what does freedom mean, and asks: can we ever be wholly free? In order to help us answer these questions, she has selected several chapters from two previously published novels: The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Hag-Seed (2016).

I have read Atwood’s terrifying tale of life in a near-future, totalitarian, Christian theonomy a number of times over the years but have yet to find a moment to start the latter (a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, set in a prison) since receiving it as a gift last Christmas. In neither instance was my familiarity with these narratives a problem as I found her combination both artful and intriguing. Plus, I seldom tire of rereading her greatest novels.

Whenever I begin a book by Atwood, I am unfailingly lured into whatever commonplace or bizarre world she has created. She is a virtuoso storyteller, a perceptive gatherer of human emotions, and an eerily accurate prognosticator. No matter where she leads, I inevitably follow, even into this frustratingly brief (144 page) volume.

In case you hadn’t already realised, I am a huge admirer of Margaret Atwood’s work – both her fiction and non-fiction, long and short, old and new. It is therefore only fair to ask the question: if I was less of an Atwood enthusiast, would I be disappointed to discover there was so little original material in this book? The answer is: quite possibly. She makes limited if insightful observations on the meaning of freedom in her introduction, which may not satisfy all readers; much depends on their prior acquaintance with the reproduced extracts that follow. However, at a cost of only £1.99 for the Kindle version (£3.50 for the paperback), it may well prove good value. An Atwood taster, anyone?

As for me, I shall continue to believe that a mere morsel of Margaret Atwood is the literary equivalent of a heaped dish-full of many other writers and, having read this book, will henceforth make it my habit to search for definitions in the old-fashioned manner. Simply because I’m free to do so.

“The Kremlin has gone back to using typewriters for a good reason.”

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16 replies

  1. I am a big fan of old dictionaries as well. I love technology but sometimes slowing down and searching the traditional way is extremely satisfying. 😊
    I have been wondering if we are ever completely free and think that absolute freedom is probably borderline anarchism.. I’m not done with this topic yet and am very much intrigued by this book.

    • Very true, Vera. We’re certainly not free in the sense we can do anything at all. Laws, I know, are usually put in place for the best of reasons, but we need to get the balance right. It’s so easy to let your civil liberties slip away unnoticed – until it’s too late!

      Yes, there’s something immensely satisfying about looking up words in an old dictionary. 😊

  2. That’s a chilling quote you’ve pulled out at the end of your review, Paula. Atwood’s books are always worth reading but that alone has convinced me to pick up a copy.

  3. A great review- from praising the dictionary to Kremlinology. Aunt Lydia seems to be very wise- there is a philosophical distinction between positive and negative freedom which someone smarter than me once made. In Britain, we used to have a lot of negative freedom- we could do what we wanted, as long as it didn’t directly harm someone else. One couldn’t argue that New Labour’s smoking ban in pubs changed that, but there does seem to have been a change of some sort since the happy 1990s. Perhaps the fear of terrorism led us to accept cameras everywhere- I don’t know. Positive freedom is where people are given things with which to work to improve stuff. So with food banks instead of social security we can see that positive freedom has declined too. As for Atwood, she is a prescient writer and Cheep has specific preferences for Cat’s Eye and The Edible Woman- I hope I remember the titles properly- when a writer is so prolific it can be hard to recall the names of stories which resonated so much with a reader way back when.

    • Many thanks, Cheep. Aunt Lydia (from The Handmaid’s Tale) is actually quite a sinister character, but what she says is true. I agree, Cat’s Eye is a superb novel – one of my favourites. I have a copy of The Edible Woman waiting to be read. Sadly our civil liberties in the UK have been eroded in recent years, and we’ve allowed it to happen because of an understandable fear of terrorism. Yet statistically, we’re more likely to be bumped off in a domestic violence incident. It’s all about perceived threat, I suppose. We should hang on tight to the freedoms we still enjoy.

  4. Atwood is *such* a marvellous writer – I’m a bit of an addict too! 🙂

  5. Maybe I’m living under a rock, but these Vintage Minis are new to me. Thanks for the introduction! (And I suspect that I’ll love the Atwood as much as you did.)

    • Thank you, Naomi. I knew about these minis only because I signed up to receive the Vintage Classics’ newsletter. They’re a great idea if you just fancy dipping into a writer’s work. Glad you found my post of interest.

  6. A wonderful review, thank you. And both quotes fitting and powerful.

  7. Brilliant review, Paula, and you’ve certainly pulled me in. I confess to being one of the few who struggles with Atwood. I feel that I OUGHT to be able to appreciate her books and I’ve read several and yet… So the first thing that occurs to me is that these brief snippets by renowned authors into the human condition are an ideal way in for those of us fumbling towards an understanding of a writer as well as of humankind in general. I’m both appalled and intrigued by the idea of there being 1,200 books in the series. So many facets to being human! So many books to collect with no hope of ever managing to collect them all! And fascinating to see which writer has been chosen to be paired with what human concept. I had better make a start if I’m to have any chance at all!

    (I love dictionaries too!)

    • Hmmmm – perhaps I have that wrong? 20 titles? That sounds a lot more manageable! 🙂

      • Thank you as always Sandra for your thoughtful response. No, you are absolutely correct, there appear to be more like 30 than 1,200 books in the series. Where that figure came from I’ll never know. Thank you for pointing it out (I’ll alter it in this post). If you follow this link you can see what else is on offer.

        I’m afraid I can be rather an Atwood bore – someone should really tell me to shut up. I know she isn’t for everyone, and I can appreciate why some readers would feel that way, but I’m beguiled and bewitched, good and proper! 😍


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