We live in an age of extraordinary surveillance and documentation. The government’s capacity to keep tabs on us—and our capacity to keep tabs on each other—is unmatched in human history. Big Data, NSA wiretapping, social media, camera phones, credit scores, criminal records, drones—we watch and watch, and record our every move. And yet here was a man who appeared to exist outside all that, someone who had escaped the modern age’s matrix of observation. His condition—blind, nameless, amnesiac—seemed fictitious, the kind of allegorical affliction that might befall a character in Saramago or Borges. Even if he was lying about his memory loss, there was no official record of his existence. He lived on the margins, beyond the boundaries mapped by the surveillance state. And because we choose not to look at individuals on the margins, it is still possible for them to disappear.
But the most important piece of furniture in Soviet times was always the bookshelf. “We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist,” one man recalls. Literature was the only real currency. “If someone got their hands on a new book, they could show up at your door at any hour—even two or three in the morning—and still be a welcome guest,” says another. As Alexievich writes in her prologue about the Soviet person (in whose ranks she includes herself), “‘reader’ is our primary occupation.” A girl talks about her Soviet parents: “They got by with one set of linens, one pillow, and one pair of slippers” because all they cared to do was “spend their nights reading each other Pasternak.”
Steven Johnson’s “Wonderland” makes a swashbuckling argument for the centrality of recreation to all of human history. The book is a house of wonders itself. Marvelous circuits of prose inductors, resistors and switches simulate ordinary history so nearly as to make readers forget the real thing. Red wires connect haphazardly to blue, and sparks fly. Who needs a footnoted analysis of “the ludic,” as play is known to the terminally unplayful? Barnumism of the Johnson kind is much, much more fun.