Because of a life-long interest in fantasy and sci-fi literature, the Special Collections Arthur O. Lewis Utopia Collection sounded interesting to me immediately, so I decided to find out as much as I could about it. Little did I know that I would stumble upon a veritable gold mine of information about utopia studies, founded by Arthur Lewis. Not only do we have one of the premier utopia collections in our library, but we are also hosting a conference for the Society for Utopian Studies in October. Talking with Sandy Stelts, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, I was quickly engrossed by our discussion of “utopian” books and the debate over the definition of a utopia. When looking at some of the books in our extensive collection, I found many familiar authors such as Lois Lowry, Ayn Rand, Ursula K. LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, and Terry Goodkind.
So first things first: what is utopian literature? Well, to the best of my understanding, the term “utopia” comes from Thomas More’s novel Utopia, a description of a fictional society published in Latin in 1516. The term “utopia” comes from a play on Latin roots, as “topia” translates to “place,” but the “u” sound can come from either “ou” which means “no” (translation: nowhere) or “eu” which means “good” (translation: a good place). This means that a utopia is generally seen as both a good place and one that is entirely fictional, and therefore unobtainable. I have seen the differentiation between “utopias,” as a general term for fictional societies and “eutopias” as the counterpart to “dystopias,” which are negative futuristic views of society. The literature overlaps a lot with the science fiction genre, especially in more recent works.
So now that we’ve defined the genre enough for our purposes, it’s time to talk a bit about the Arthur O. Lewis collections at Penn State. I decided to focus my attention on the literature being pulled for the exhibition this October. The literature will be organized into the following seven categories: architecture, gender and gender relations, travel and imaginary voyage, 18th century, communities, Arthur O. Lewis, and post-colonial. I got to see first-hand some material being considered for each category and I will break them down and share some photos in the slideshow below.
Architecture: The architecture section is important for the exhibition because it provides some very cool pictures of futuristic-looking buildings and designs of sustainable but non-existent societies. The Architecture category gives a visual representation of the ideas of idealistic societies living in authors’ heads. It provides a guide to societies that can never be.
Gender and Gender Relations: There seems to be a lot of gender-related utopias that conceive of possible societies and future worlds based on feminist ideals or worlds without one gender or the other. The books investigate parts of our society that we take for granted and aspects that are affected by gender constructs. The covers for this section were some of the most interesting, so I made sure to include some in the slideshow below.
Travel and Imaginary Voyage: This section has the advantage of making up a niche of the utopian genre. Specifically, these texts seem to always find the nowhere and provide awesome descriptions and illustrations of it. The idea of seeking out or stumbling upon a utopian society makes one wonder what other kinds of societies may be out there. It is the ultimate “the grass is always greener,” if you will, unless of course one comes across a dystopian society.
18th Century: Due largely to the work of Lyman Tower Sargent, a Utopian Scholar writing a bibliography of utopian works and currently residing in the State College area, our library’s utopia collection is kept very up-to-date, and thus many of the texts are modern works. The 18th century works in our collection show the significant range of the works available in our library.
Communities: This section was one of the strangest and most fascinating. My favorite by far was the Communities Directory, which was basically a phone book for communes and community-centered living (think the Amish if you have no other frame of reference for this). The idea of communities here is the real-world application of utopian thinking. It’s building the Sci-Fi futuristic perfect society and applying it to the world we have today. It’s an interesting idea and one that I find fascinating, for it goes beyond the literature.
Arthur O. Lewis: The Arthur Lewis part of this collection shows off the private collections of the man that started it all. Lewis was a founding figure of Utopian studies and just happened to be an Associate Dean Emeritus of the Liberal Arts at Penn State. His work helped to establish the Society for Utopian Studies. Because he was such an important figure for utopian studies, a section of this exhibition is devoted to him. Some of the books in this section that I saw were owned by Lewis himself. It’s cool to see his own preferences within our collection.
Post-Colonial: The post-colonial literature seems similar to the feminist literature because both envision a world in which particular historical disadvantages could be rendered irrelevant or a world in which fewer differences exist between people. It’s interesting to picture a world that does not have the kind of problems that were caused by colonialism in the first place or a utopian world in which injustices could be recovered.
I hope from this post, you get a sense of how enthralling utopian literature can be. The reasons for writing utopian literature are many and varied and totally interesting. So please enjoy the utopian collection and try to make use of it if you can, because we have so many great works available.