Friday, May 25, 2018

1984 by George Orwell

Book 2 of 100 on the Great American Read list

In 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, we first heard the phrase “Alternative Facts” and the classic dystopian novel 1984 became a bestseller once again. According to Amazon 1984 was the 17th bestselling book of 2017, in 2016 it was the 94th best selling, in 2018 it has yet to show up on the 100 bestselling books. Maybe now we’re all too busy living in 1984 to read about it.

At the time, I remember thinking that reading 1984 wasn’t the best choice of preparation for resisting Trump and his party. I’d never read the book, but I knew it was based on the paranoid semi-socialist ideology of Stalinist Russia. I felt that there were more pertinent dystopias out there, either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games would have been closer to the oppressive despotism we had been promised by the president’s campaign speeches.

But now I’ve read it and I’ve lived under the Trump administration for a while and I can definitely see some parallels. Mostly in the use and abuse of the facts. Donald Trump has a famous disregard for the truth. If a lie suits his current narrative then he will not only use that lie, but repeat it and defend it. And his supporters will repeat that lie too. The truth no longer matters, what’s important is the belief in the lie. Which is exactly the point of 1984.

Winston Smith lives in an oppressive society under the control of The Party and Big Brother. His life, like the lives of all his comrades, is closely watched for loyalty and conformity. But he privately questions the reality presented by The Party of constant war and successful three year plans. He finds a temporary escape through an elicit relationship with a young woman called Julia. Almost a third of the book deals with his arrest, torture and reprogramming to make him a loyal party member who believes every lie of The Party.

Is it any good? The short answer is yes, it’s compelling, disturbing and an accurate indictment of humanity at it’s worst. Orwell also managed to invent some terms in 1984 that are now commonly used in the English language and that’s no small feat. Big Brother, Room 101 and SexCrime are all with us now because of this book. However, 1984 does have flaws, the biggest being that it’s a work of political philosophy wrapped in an adolescent love story. So, perhaps not the best novel ever written.

Why is it on the list? I think the main reason 1984 is here is High School reading lists. The book is short, packed with teachable content and there’s a wealth of resources to help bring the book to life for teenagers. But it’s worth thinking about why this is such a popular book with American teachers. The Party is modeled on soviet Russia and this ideology has long been in opposition to all that America stands for. It’s important to remember that 1984 was published in 1949, just in time for McCarthyism and the Red Scare when the US government went after anyone who might have any communist/socialist/non-capitalist sympathies, in a way that would put Big Brother to shame.

America’s relationship with socialism may continue to be fraught and complicated. America’s relationship with 1984, seems to be much more comfortable.

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