Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet, 1984.
(This book was written in 1948 and originally published in 1949)
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Believe it or not, I’d never read this one until now. I’ve heard about it all my life, though, it seems, and even thought I might have read it in college, but it was obvious the moment I started reading it that I hadn’t. This is a book whose vivid (often painful) scenes would have stayed with me.
I don’t know what I expected when I first started it, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be a page-turner, one right up there ready to rival the likes of Stieg Larsson when it comes to suspense. It was hard to read it slowly, but that’s what I wanted to do, because Orwell gave us plenty of food for thought, and I’m big on keeping my thoughts from getting too stuffed too quickly. Thus, I read it slowly (about 30 pages at a time) and gave my thoughts a chance to digest.
From the get go, Orwell set up a world in which the reader is afraid for poor Winston Smith, his main character. After all, the clocks are striking 13 in the first sentence of the book — an ominous beginning if there ever was one. Every single time Winston did something out of the ordinary (well, out of the “ordinary” as it is defined in his city and country) in this world in which he was under constant surveillance (“Big Brother is watching”), I found myself thinking, “Don’t do that.” It was like watching a horror movie, only instead of wanting to yell at the characters, “Don’t go down the stairs!” I wanted to yell, “Don’t trust that guy!” I was sure he was going to get caught, going to be taken to some place where he’d be treated to the most brutal sorts of torture. Bad things were bound to happen to this guy, because he was trying so hard to hold onto his humanity in a world that wants everyone dehumanized. And then he did the worst thing he could possibly do: he fell in love.
In an Afterward to the book, Erich Fromm wrote,
George Orwell’s 1984 is the expression of a mood, and it is a warning. The mood it expresses is that of near despair about the future of man, and the warning is that unless the course of history changes, men all over the world will lose their most human qualities, will become soulless automatons, and will not even be aware of it. (p. 257)
Fromm is dead-on about that warning flag. What made the book so scary for me was seeing how much of what he got “right” in the future world he depicted. I couldn’t help wondering if many of today’s world leaders, politicians, and corporate CEOs hadn’t read the book as a how-to manual (especially when it comes to things like Newspeak). Either that, or Orwell had a crystal ball. Orwell imagined a world that can only be realized if humans give into greed, hatred, selfishness, and polarization. We seem to be giving into them more and more every day.
It’s tempting to read the book thinking, “Well, that was really all about Stalinist Russia. We don’t need to worry about this here and now.” I couldn’t, though, because it was obvious that Orwell was examining human nature, was saying, “This is what can happen if we let that greed and hate win out over generosity and love.” We can all make the choice not to do that, but we don’t seem to be making that choice: much of this Orwellian world is here and now. Fromm thought so, too, because he concluded his Afterward by saying,
Books like Orwell’s are powerful warnings, and it would be most unfortunate if the reader simply interpreted 1984 as another interpretation of Stalinist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too. (p. 267)
I’m afraid for a country that might not recognize this. You would be, too, if you’d read the book to the end. What happens to poor Winston isn’t pretty, and I shiver to think what would happen to me. Read the book. Pass it on to others. Let’s all heed the warning.