1984

“To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction. But there was a space of a couple of seconds during which the expression in his eyes might conceivably betrayed him.”

For a long time I considered myself lucky for having evaded George Orwell’s 1984. I had read portions of Thomas More’s Utopia, which mostly seemed a sequence of dry descriptions and outdated opinions disguised as the explanation of a “real” place. And yet 1984 seemed so popular among books on Facebook; even my brother, who doesn’t read much beyond Star Wars and Redwall, admitted enjoying it. I don’t like to read books just because I “should,” but I felt a growing curiosity towards 1984 and decided to give it a go.

I’m not quite sure I can summarize, for those unfamiliar with this book. Suffice it to say that in the “future” year of 1984 Winston Smith is an ordinary man, which is perhaps his greatest strength and perhaps his downfall.

For me, the genius of 1984 is that it is fiction, and thus all the more powerful. Orwell paints a convincing picture and says not “here is what should be” or “here is what shouldn’t be,” but rather “here is what is.” The reader must decide how to respond by testing out the attitudes and reactions of the people in this world. At many points I found myself conflicted and unsure who or what to believe.

1984 is in some ways a sci-fi thriller, and yet one of its biggest assets is believability. It was quite easy to accept completely the world Orwell sets forth even after only a few chapters. Every detail is set forth, from daily routines to the modified language of Newspeak. Most convincing was Winston himself, who I not only believed about but believed in. I found myself deeply invested in the characters and their fates, alternating between horror and hope.

Regardless of which emotion was foremost, there was also fascination for what Orwell had to say. Even the thirty pages in the middle exerpted from a document held my attention, though I wished they were broken up a bit more. The book is a commentary on political practices, and above all raises many philosophical issues.

What is the meaning or purpose of the past, and does it exist at all beyond our own consciousness? I don’t think the past is ever completely objective (history is written by the victors), but I also believe that who we are is defined by where we have come from, and that admitting fallibility is a sign of strength. Reality is not always pretty. I am much more of an optimist than a realist, and daydream as much as the next person (probably more). But I also know when to come back down to earth and face facts, as much as I wish that beleiving in something would make it true. Only by acknowledging and confronting reality are we only ever able to really change it.

One thing that surprised me a bit about this book was the modern writing style. Sometimes I equate “classic” with “dense,” but this was a much quicker read than Dickens and still managed to be both descriptive and cohesive. There may be many books that I like better than this for enjoyment, but on a literary level I think 1984 is brilliant and memorable.

This book is on both the Guardian and 1001 Books lists. It is my third out of five for the Classics Challenge. As a fallback I may also use it for the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category of the Guardian Challenge, but this has reminded me that I actually don’t mind fantasy done well and have until February to read something else.

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Published in: on July 24, 2009 at 11:38 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] 1984, by George Orwell: I’m not big on distopian literature but Orwell is a master at spinning both this world and tale. […]

  2. […] 1984, by George Orwell (sci-fi/fantasy) […]


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