Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Utopia Drive

Utopia Drive. Erik Reece. 2016. FSG. 368 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The corner of Fifth and Elm Streets in Cincinnati, Ohio, has held a certain significance for me since the day I stood there with my parents, as an eight-year-old in 1976, and watched the Cincinnati Reds return to the city after their seven-game victory over the Boston Red Sox in what was, as my father told me then and as I still believe, the greatest World Series ever.

Premise/plot: Erik Reece chronicles his ROAD TRIP through the Eastern United States. This isn't just any road trip. He's unpacking the IDEAS behind a handful of America's historical (for the most part) Utopian communities. (I believe only one or possibly two of the communities he visited were founded in the twentieth century and still active as utopian communities.) He includes biographical sketches of some really, really free or radical outside-the-box thinkers. There's some philosophy, politics, and economics as well. (And plenty of talk about nature and preserving nature and the environment.)

The first and last chapters essentially serve as an introduction and conclusion to the road trip. The remaining chapters chronicle the trip. He visited Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Bardstown Kentucky, New Harmony, Indiana, Cincinnati, Ohio, Utopia, Ohio, Louisa, Virginia, Queens, New York, Long Island, New York, Concord, Massachusetts, Oneida, New York and Niagara Falls, Canada.

My thoughts: It was interesting. No doubt about that. Did I agree with any of the founders of various Utopian communities? I'm not sure I did. I'm okay with that. Some communities were most interested in transforming religion and spirituality. Others seemed to be more concerned with economics and social class. A few really seemed focus on turning upside down social structures like marriage and parenting. (One, for example, banned sex completely. Men and women lived completely separate lives and rarely conversed. Another, for example, promoted sex and was all about free love and "complex marriage." Both communities, however, agreed that parents should not raise their own children. That children should be raised by the community and belong to no one in particular but to everybody to a certain extent.) I did not always agree with Reece's conclusions. Reece, in my reckoning, tried to find at least one or two positive things about every utopian community. And while he discussed how they "failed," or why they "failed," he was not quick to dismiss any of the ideas as actually being impossible.

Favorite quotes:
Americans live in a world we are too ready to accept. We acquiesce too easily to the inevitability of the way things are. indeed, many of us think of our consumer culture as its own version of utopia, where we are absolved of the responsibility to question where our food, our clothes, our cellular devices, our energy come from. (Erik Reece, 5) 
Erik Reece quoting Milton Friedman, "Only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." (6) 
Utopia, by definition, is a product of the imagination, and therein lies its power: it imagines something better, then calls on us to enact that vision. (Erik Reece, 10)

© 2017 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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