June 3, 2009

In this weekly series, we’ll touch base with Council staff members, board members and friends to discover what book is on their nightstand. This week, intern Christian Hines catches up with Orwell.

As a student of the English language and literary tradition, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m just now getting around to 1984. I’ve read my Bradbury, I’ve read my Huxley, and I even made it through Ayn Rand’s tirade at the end of Anthem. But not having read 1984 is akin to being on the outside of an inside joke. So much of Orwell’s phraseology like “Newspeak” or “Doublethink,” and even the adjective “Orwellian,” have assimilated into the English vernacular. Even a scant familiarity with figures like Big Brother functions as a sort of cultural currency in American society. 

Though I’ve only completed roughly 70 percent of the novel, Orwell’s frightening vision strikes me not so much for its political, but for its historic import. It is not necessarily the story’s plot, but the story’s mood, that has left an indelible impression upon the literary world. The book was published only four years after the close of World War II, right as the Cold War embers were beginning to glow. And though Orwell creates a terrifying villain in the government of Oceania, there is still an element of satire and humor to the work.  The Capitalists, according to the government’s history textbooks, were barbaric industrialists who created monopolies, suppressed the poor, and always wore top-hats. Like all humor, there is truth in such a depiction, and Orwell recognized that one need not abstain from poking fun at the propaganda of radical politics even as it destroys a society. 

Despite Orwell’s subtle humor, 1984’s influence has persisted because of its prophetic critique of radicalism and authoritarian intervention. Perhaps I’m too young to really be frightened by his vision, but I still recognize the biting accusation against the pattern of political and societal revolution which, in this case, led to the dystopian world of 1984. The paradox, of course, is that it takes a revolution to undo a revolution.  “If there is hope,” Winston mutters, “it is in the proles” (short for Proletariat). Though society produced a monster in its discontent, it is discontent, once again, which must overturn the beast. Orwell’s most prominent work, therefore, is not only an admonition against a certain type of government, but against the excess, folly, and capricious passion of the masses.

Have you read 1984? If so, what book should I check out next? And, if you haven’t, what’s stopping you from pulling the book off the shelf?

One comment

  1. Hi Christian,

    I’m on vacation this week, as you know, so of course I’ve read a couple of books. They’re rather at opposite ends of the spectrum, too — fiction and nonfiction, serious and lighthearted.

    One of the books is Paul Krugman’s The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008. Krugman teaches at Princeton, writes a NY Times column, and won the Nobel Prize for economics. Seemed like a good person to explain what the heck was going on, and he does, in very accessible prose. He points out parallels between our current era and events leading up to the Great Depression while also explaining things like collateralized debt obligations and the shadow banking system.

    The other book is Philip Gulley’s Home to Harmony, a selection from Humanities to Go. A “master American storyteller” who has been compared to Garrison Keillor, Gulley is a Quaker minister and a genuine Indiana author. His depictions of small-town life are irresistible, funny and touching. (A good example is “The Testimony,” a hilarious chapter in which a Harmony resident wins $5 million in the state lottery and decides to reject the prize on moral grounds, on camera and in front of the governor.) The Harmony series has been called Christian fiction, yet it also shares in a grand tradition of literature that draws comedy from eccentric characters and their interactions with society, best exemplified by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain.

    Today, though, I think I’ll just go out and meander.

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