Orwell Feature

On Our Bookshelves – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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NOVEL: Nineteen Eighty-Four

AUTHOR: George Orwell

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1949

REVIEW:

A friend of mine recently decided to start a book club. I’m always up for a good book discussion, but as she lives in Columbus, Ohio (and I do not), I was only able to participate online. She did invite everyone who could make it over to her house, though, for wine and treats and discussion of a book that’s currently tearing up the best-seller list: yes, the classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell.

Despite having a PhD in English literature, she’d never read it. I had read it, but back when I read the book, it wasn’t yet 1984. I must have been around 12 or 13. I dug up my old paperback copy (I do find it hard to get rid of books) and figured now was as good a time as any for a fresh look.

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Somehow I’d never been assigned to read this one, although we did read Animal Farm at one point in junior high (and were shown an animated film of it, too, which reduced at least one of my classmates to tears). The themes are pretty similar…Animal Farm is a straightforward allegory, while Nineteen Eighty-Four, if you had to categorize it, would be put in the dystopian science fiction box. They’re both really about power, though, and how it corrupts, and the shattered hopes and wreckage that follows revolution. They’re not happy tales.

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Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four as an adult, there’s actually quite a bit to criticize here…the main characters, Winston Smith and his love interest, Julia, although rebellious, aren’t particularly admirable as heroes. Their relationship makes little sense, and her character is flat and stereotypical. She’s pretty vapid…her rebellion seems to be confined entirely to the personal and the sexual, while he worries about history, technology, politics, and language. It’s not great as a story…there’s not much plot, and what plot there is moves slowly. The narrative is interrupted by long excerpts of the dissident Goldstein’s book. Although I thought it was rather a fascinating essay by Orwell the political scientist, I didn’t find that it really worked terribly well embedded in a work of fiction. (Show, don’t tell!)

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But, really, I’m just picking nits here. The importance of this book isn’t about its literary merit as a novel, but about its insight and its influence. Orwell’s impressive achievement includes vocabulary that has had an enormous cultural impact…including a pretty impressive collection of words and phrases still in current use. Newspeak. Doublethink. Big Brother. The memory hole. Thoughtcrime. A boot stamping on a human face, forever. And he had a prescient view of some of the horrors of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and what life under constant surveillance does to family ties.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four speaks to us today, whenever reality starts to seem somewhat “Orwellian.” When in 2013, it was revealed that the NSA was engaging in mass surveillance of global internet traffic, sales spiked sevenfold within a week. And it hit the top of the Amazon sales charts this year after Kellyanne Conway came up with “alternative facts.”

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Whatever you think of Orwell’s pessimism on the future of democracy, his literary output, his complicated and continuously-evolving political views (until his untimely death at the age of 46), and his advice for writers (famously found in “Politics and the English Language,”) it’s hard not to admire his intellect, his intellectual honesty, and his sincere warnings to us all about the consequences of the naked pursuit of power at all costs. Nineteen Eighty-Four was worth reading in 1949, and in 1984, it’s worth reading in 2017, and my guess is that, sadly, we will have considerable future need for Orwell’s insights.

RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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CCTV Image Courtesy of Herr Loeffler / Shutterstock.com

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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