Why I should read more George Orwell.
Ever since Kellyanne Conway added the new phrase ‘alternative facts’ to the global political language, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have increased and newspapers from The Sun to The New York Times have been writing about it with great glee. With that in mind you may be asking, “if Orwell sales are increasing why write a 'why you should read him?'” Well, straw man (or woman) I’m writing this as a warning of the trap that I fell into myself, - I thought I knew Orwell.
I need to make a confession, I before last year had only read two Orwell books. You can probably guess which two. I can’t be alone in this. There must be other people in the world who read these two books at school and then never touched an Orwell again, assuming that that was all he had to offer. In fact, in my case, thanks to the failings of my secondary school English curriculum I didn't even read Orwell at school. Animal Farm was given to me by my mum to read and my first introduction to 1984 was a production by Hull Truck Theatre that our drama teacher took us to see. I might not have read another Orwell if it hadn’t been for my mum ordering too many copies of Homage to Catalonia and I, just coming out of a Hemingway binge, was feeling like a bit more Spanish shenanigans.
The thing I find strange is that these books had an effect on me when I was young. I remember Animal Farm perfectly, although, I haven’t read it for years, and I can still recall the face of the young actor who played Winston Smith.
So I’ve been asking myself why did it take me so long to come back to Orwell?
I think a big part of this is the ubiquity of Orwell or more specifically the word Orwellian. How many times have you heard that term? Given this year in politics, far too many I would hazard. This works against Orwell or the circulation of his books at least. It creates a false understanding.
It was certainly true for me. I thought I understood who Orwell was and what his works stood for, based on a tag line. In this respect he shares a fate with Kafka. Both dystopian writers are destined to have their name become almost meaningless, moronically repeated by BBC newsreaders and Facebook commenters with equal disregard. It has become a catchall and cliché trotted out as lazy short hand for the day’s authoritarian face of oppression. Just a normal part of the modern political parlance, not unlike ‘alternative fact’ in many ways, that is shameful.
That's not to say when journalists and commentators use Orwell or Kafka to describe a situation that it is inaccurate, particularly with the reemerging authoritarian right wing across the world. All I want to say is that rather than when you hear his name or his work reference I don't want you to think about just 1984 and Animal Farm; I want you to think about the rest of his work as well and to do that you need to read them.
“So what’s the solution to this problem?” you may ask. The answer is simple read. Orwell’s back in my life and I’ve read four books in as many months and a big pile of his shorter works. I’ve just finished The Road to Wigan Pier, which was particularly powerful for me as a Yorkshire Man. Although it was published in 1937 his observations about socialism and the class systems are as important as ever, particularly in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn’s New Old Labour party could do well remembering some of his lessons.
I’ve also been chewing up a lot of his shorter works: Shooting An Elephant was a painfully troubling look at Britain’s colonial history told through one anecdote. Politics and the English Language has advice for writers that I can’t wait to try and put into practice myself and warnings about how the English language itself can be used to manipulate and deceive. Due to their age, a lot of Orwell’s work can easily be found online in various forms and are well worth getting hold of.
As for long form, I’m going to read Keep the Aspidistra Flying next. I’m looking forward to a bit of London goodness.
Now you might be sitting there thinking “I know all this already you ignorant chimp” and if that's the case then good for you. But like I said I’m a book person and I fell into a trap, one that I can’t believe I’m alone at the bottom of. So, if you’ve read Animal Farm and 1984 ages ago and haven’t glanced at any of his work since then, have another go, you wont regret it. Start to really understand the meaning of Orwellian. I’m looking forward to making up lost time.
By Luke Frostick