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