An English professor reading The Hunger Games discovers what she’s long suspected–reading can save your life.
What would it be like to live in a country in which no one reads and writes? I cannot imagine finding any zest in such a place. When I was four, I fretted that I would eventually read through all the books in our tiny local bookstore in New York City (the revelation of the 79th St. Public Library, where it seemed I could find any book I wanted, was still a year in my future). Now, as an English professor who spends most of my time reading or writing, I am struck by the fact that nobody reads in Suzanne Collins’ dystopic country Panem. In fact, of all the various deprivations inflicted upon Panem’s citizens in The Hunger Games, one of the most pernicious is the lack of reading material. Because no one in the twelve districts seems to have a spare moment to do much except survive, we never hear of any recreational reading or writing: barely a single book, magazine, newspaper, or blog is mentioned in the novel. Neither are there any bookstores—for who has time to settle in at the local Barnes & Noble for a coffee, muffin, and a good browse when gathering ingredients for the family dinner might take all day? (Perhaps bookstores exist in the Capitol, but we are not told whether this is so.) Literacy, then, like privacy and sufficient food, has no place in Panem.
This is not to say, however, that there are no readers and no stories in Panem. The one book we are told of that has survived is Katniss’s mother’s book about plant life, an old parchment tome that details everything about plants: “their names, where to gather them, when they came in bloom, their medical uses.” Katniss’s father also inscribed his own experiential knowledge about plants in the book before he died: “Plants for eating, not healing. Dandelions, pokeweed, wild onions, pine.” Poring over the book, Katniss becomes an outstanding reader. In fact, she applies her reading skills to the terrain in the Arena so expertly that she is able to survive, finding plants on which to subsist. Moreover, when Peeta gathers berries that appear to be edible, Katniss draws on the memory of her father’s advice to identify them correctly as deadly nightlock. These same berries save Katniss and Peeta at the end of their ordeal in the Arena, allowing them to take control of the story prewritten for them by the Gamemakers in which either Katniss or Peeta must kill the other. When they place the nightlock on their tongues, agreeing that they will die together rather than submit to the destructive narrative charted for them by those in power, Katniss and Peeta briefly become the new Gamemakers, resisting and rewriting the story laid out for them. Collins thus shows the power inherent in one old book about plants to change lives. Katniss’s prowess as a reader— of her mother’s old book, of the plant life in the Arena, of the Gamemakers’ intentions—both saves and puts her at risk for condemnation by the powerful rulers in the Capitol. Among the many points made in The Hunger Games, one of the most important is that reading is a dangerous activity that can save your life.
—Dr. Kabi Hartman is Senior Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. She is currently using the 2paragraphs format with her students to explore where life meets literature.