So it’s Labor Day, and we’ve reached the unofficial end of another summer. Last month, I posted my progress in my Summer Reading List challenge. I had read 2 out of 3 then, and I’ve since finished the third.
Title: New Atlantis
Author: Sir Francis Bacon
Yes, you read that year right, this is a work almost four centuries old. You can find it at Project Gutenberg if you want to read it for yourself. That’s where I got it, and I’m glad I looked it up. Genre-wise, I’m not sure what to call it, so I went with the catchall of “literature”.
New Atlantis is what we’d call a short novella today, but that’s mainly because it was never truly finished. It’s also an incredibly interesting text for its vision. Written like many old stories purporting to be travelers’ tales, it describes the utopian land of Bensalem, supposedly located somewhere out in the Pacific. The inhabitants of that land are far advanced (compared to the 17th century) and living in a veritable paradise of wisdom and knowledge.
By my personal standards, however, it reads more like a dystopia: despite professing a very progressive separation of church and state, for example, Bensalem is hopelessly rooted in Christianity, to the point where even the Jews living there (the narrator meets one) lie somewhere in the “Jews For Jesus” range. The whole place seems to be governed in a very authoritarian manner, where societal norms are given force of law—or the other way around. Yes, Bacon describes a nation better than any he knew, but I would take modern America, with all its flaws, over the mythical New Atlantis every time.
But people today rarely look at those parts of the text. Instead, they’re more focused on what the scientists of Bensalem have done, and this is described in some detail at the very end of the work. Bacon’s goal here is to overwhelm us with the fantastic creations, but they read like a laundry list of the last hundred years. If you read it right, you can find airplanes, lasers, telephones, and all kinds of other things in there, all predicted centuries ago. And that is the real value of the book. It’s further proof that earlier ages did not lack for imagination; their relatively unadvanced state was through no fault of their minds. As an author myself, I find that information invaluable.
I had fun with this whole thing. I read something I never would have otherwise, and I pushed myself outside my normal areas of interest. I’m not sure I’m ready to make this a regular, annual occurrence, but it seems like a good idea. I hope you feel the same way.