I was always a voracious reader with a preference for fiction. My family made regular trips to the library growing up, so I had a never-ending supply of books at hand. Yet, one story I read in my high school British Literature class stands out as influential: E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops.” The story itself captivated me. In it, humanity lives underground, reliant on “the machine” for all means of life. There is no need to visit others face to face: all communication is carried out through video conferencing and messaging systems. There is no need to leave one’s room or rely on one’s own muscles for support: everything needed is delivered, including air to breathe. One young man is dissatisfied with this life. He develops his strength by walking the hallway and eventually visits the surface, wearing protective gear. Throughout the story it is palpable how much humanity loses in giving up a connection to each other and nature and in rejecting self-reliance. The other characters, however, don’t realize their weakness until the day the tragic machine stops.

This is the earliest book I remember prompting me to think in depth about the human condition and about what we might need for fulfilling and flourishing lives. Forster’s story didn’t just entertain me; it promoted an interest in questions that continue to vex me and which I now pursue through philosophy. It was also one of the first ‘school assigned books’ that made me want to learn about the author’s life and read everything else the author had written. Forster is still one of my favorite authors. Although none of his novels are science fiction, as “The Machine Stops” is, all his writing depicts the melancholic beauty of humans in search of authenticity. But it didn’t stop there. Most of Forster’s novels have been adapted to films, and in pursuing those I developed a more general love of Merchant Ivory films. My friends may tease me for being moved by “sweeping British landscapes and gents leaning on mantles,” but for someone who grew up in the working class Midwest, these movies and Forster’s novels helped open new worlds to me and nurtured questions and concerns that have followed me over the years.

– Dawn Jacob (Ph.D. Student)