Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Orwellian blog.

Shortly after I'd finished with A Little Yellow Dog, I was packing some books in the basement, and I picked up my yellowing, beat-up copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a Signet Classic paperback edition published in 1961. Inside the front cover, an earlier owner of the book had written his name, address and phone number in a boyish hand -- a boy from Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. I don't remember buying this edition, but underneath the boy’s inscription I wrote "Dees Stribling --1983."

I decided last month that the time had come again to re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four. I don't remember how many times I've read it. Maybe this was the fifth time. It's one of those books; one that needs to be read many times across the decades, if you're fortunate enough to live so long. Everyone who reads books has a small coterie of titles like this, and I'm sure the selection is completely idiosyncratic. My mother once told me that my great-uncle Ralph Henderson, her mother's bachelor brother who died at 80+ years in 1971, read The Virginian once a year. Among many other things, Uncle Ralph was an oil-field worker and a cowboy, so I suppose that book spoke to him. (I thought it was good enough, but I don't itch to read it again.)

I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was 14. I picked it up thinking it was science fiction -- it was set in the future, after all -- and got considerably more than I’d bargained for, though I didn’t understand that at the time. That was also the year I read Brave New World, which seems to be paired with Orwell’s work in that compare-and-contrast mode peculiar to high school English teachers. Unlike the Orwell book, I haven’t ever felt the urge to revisit Huxley’s book any more than I have The Virginian.

I can’t say much about Nineteen Eighty-Four that hasn’t already been said. One small measure of its greatness is the fact that several terms coined for the book have seeped into common usage — “Big Brother” in particular, though sometimes you read of “doublethink,” thought crime” or the “Thought Police.” My own favorite, which I very occasionally see elsewhere, is the “memory hole” — a hole in the wall to dispose of things permanently, down to a real or imagined furnace, so that they are forgotten.

You can hardly read an essay or letter to the editor, or even hear a radio or TV report about the expansion of state power (or even some other group’s power) without stumbling across a reference to Big Brother. So much so that I suspect Orwell himself would have discouraged its use. “If you’re used to seeing it in print, cut it out,” is my paraphrase of one bit of his advice for writing good English prose, which appears in his signal essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946).

This time through Nineteen Eighty-Four, I thought less about it as a masterful polemic against totalitarianism than in previous readings, though it’s clearly that. (It’s a love story, too, for that matter, and a poignant one.) This time what impressed me most was the absolutely plausible detail that Orwell uses to describe his dystopia. You know that a totalitarian superstate would be a drab, grimy place to live, besides being an almost intolerably fearful one.


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