Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
April 21, 2015
March 28, 2015
I didn’t know that Orwell was a former pupil of Aldous Huxley:
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.
March 18, 2015
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one. […] It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.
December 10, 2014
The most recent issue of Intelligent Life looks at the brief interlude of George Orwell’s career while he was working at the BBC during the Second World War:
Orwell spent a mere two years (1941-43) at the BBC, which he joined as a talks assistant in the Indian section of the Eastern Service. No recording survives of him giving a talk, which is perhaps fitting; for what is most striking about his essays and journalism is the tart, compelling timbre of his voice. The critic Cyril Connolly, an exact contemporary, thought that only D.H. Lawrence rivalled Orwell in the degree to which his personality “shines out in everything he said or wrote”. Any reader of Orwell’s non-fiction will pick up on the brisk, buttonholing manner (“two things are immediately obvious”), the ear-catching assertions (“the Great War…could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented”) and the squashing epithets: “miry”, “odious”, “squalid”, “hideous”, “mealy-mouthed”, “beastly”, “boneless”, “fetid” and — a term he could have applied to himself — “frowsy”.
Orwell might well have damned this new honour too. In his studio on the edge of the Blenheim estate in Oxfordshire, Martin Jennings, the sculptor working on the eight-foot likeness, told me that Orwell had made some disobliging remarks about public statues, thinking that they got in the way of perfectly good views. The bronze Orwell will look down on the comings and goings of BBC staff who, returning his gaze, can read some chiselled wisdom from his works on the wall behind him. The Financial Times recently called Orwell “the true patron saint of our profession”, another tribute he would probably resist. “Saints”, he warned, “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”
Why Orwell? His time at the BBC was ambivalent at best. As students of 1984 soon discover, the novel’s dreary, wartime ambience and the prominence of propaganda owe much to his BBC experiences; Room 101, where Winston Smith confronts his worst nightmares, was named after an airless BBC conference room. “Its atmosphere is something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum,” Orwell wrote in his diary on March 14th 1942, “and all we are doing at present is useless, or slightly worse than useless.”
One answer to “why Orwell?” is because of his posthumous career. Five years before his death in 1950, he was, in the words of one of his biographers, D.J. Taylor, “still a faintly marginal figure”. He had published seven books, four of them novels, none of which put him in the front rank of novelists, two of which he had refused to have reprinted. He was acknowledged as a superb political essayist and bold literary critic, but his contemporary and friend Malcolm Muggeridge, first choice as his biographer, frankly considered him “no good as a novelist”. It was only with his last two books, Animal Farm and 1984 (published in 1945 and 1949), that Orwell transformed his reputation as a writer. These two books would change the way we think about our lives.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
September 4, 2014
The Westport Independent, a self-described “censorship simulator,” places that editorial power in the hands of players during a time of political unrest in the city of Westport. It’s 1948, and rising rebellions against the government lead to a new bill banning any news outlets that do not comply with the Loyalist Government Guidelines. You play as the editor in chief of an independent newspaper entering its final weeks before the ban.
As editor, you control the censorship of articles, pick headlines, and arrange the layout to tell the truth of your choosing. As with Orwell’s 1984, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Will you abide by rules and force-feed your readers the government’s narrative? Or will you defy their guidelines, and print the rebellion’s perspective instead? The city, divided into class-based districts, dynamically responds to everything you print. By shaping public opinion with the stories you choose, you shape the current events that unfold. And by shaping the events, you affect the stories you can cover.
September 1, 2014
In the Telegraph, Sean Thomas says that the self-loathing tradition among Labour intelligentsia makes Labour the worst possible party to make the case for union, even though Labour stands to lose far more electorally than any other party:
It’s often been observed that a certain type of British Lefty hates Britain – and that they reserve particularly hatred for Englishness. Back in 1941 George Orwell made this acute remark:
England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.
So what’s new? The difference today is that this shame and self-hatred now dominates Left-wing thought, whereas it was once balanced by the decent Left: who were proud to inherit the noble traditions of radical English patriotism.
[…] The latest polls show that the United Kingdom is close to breaking up. This is a remarkable state of affairs when you consider that, a year ago, polls were two to one against partition. How has this occurred? Because we have allowed the British Labour party to lead the No debate.
This was a disastrous decision, given that, as Orwell noted, Labourites and Lefties revile and deride so many of the things perceived as quintessentially British. Take your pick from the monarchy, the flag, the Army, the history of rampant conquest, the biggest empire in the world, the supremacy of the English language, anyone who lives in the countryside, the national anthem, the City of London, the Royal Navy, a nuclear deterrent, the lion and the unicorn, duffing up the French, eating loads of beef — all this, for Lefties, is a source of shame.
The result, north of the Border, is plain to see. Whenever the passionate and patriotic SNP asks the No campaign for a positive vision of the UK (instead of dry economic facts, and negative fear-mongering) all we hear is silence, or maybe a quiet murmur about “the NHS”. Yes, the NHS. For many Lefties, the NHS &mdah; an average European health system with several notable flaws — is the only good thing about Britain. It’s like saying we should keep the United Kingdom because of PAYE. Thus we tiptoe towards the dissolution of the nation.
There is a deep irony here. If Scotland secedes it will hurt the Labour Party more than anyone, electorally. But such is the subconscious hatred of Britain and Britishness in Lefty hearts, I believe many of them think that’s a price worth paying: just to kick the “Tory Unionists” in the nuts, just to deliver the final death-blow to British “delusions of grandeur”.
August 25, 2014
There is a price to be paid for divorcing actions and concepts from the words that describe them. Government, and the law that undergirds it, is made up of words. Devalue the words, strip them of meaning, and you do the same thing to the concepts those words describe. Action follows Thought, and for Thought to exist there must be the Word.
This was George Orwell’s central insight when he invented Newspeak for his novel 1984. Language doesn’t just describe what we think about, and allow us to communicate with each other; in a major way, it actually determines what we think about, and how we think. We conceptualize the way we do, even in the abstract, using constructs of language — even mathematics and computer code is a kind of language. Orwell understood that the Word could actually be turned into a weapon, an invisible knife to cut away a man’s ability to think (and thus, to act). All you have to do is convince a man that the Word he’s hearing means something other than what he thought it meant … or can mean anything, really. Or nothing at all. Science, history, literature, even music — they evaporate like a puddle in the hot sun because the Words used to build them stop conveying meaning.
Words have meaning. They must have meaning, for if we are to communicate at all we must transmit meaning from one person to another. This is perhaps the most unforgivable part of the postmodernist assault on the language itself: it has weakened our ability to even describe the loss of meaning.
Monty, “In the beginning was the Word”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-01-27.
May 8, 2014
April 19, 2014
Bruno Waterfield reviews a recent “intellectual biography” by Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel:
Orwell, or rather Blair, was of the British upper class, but he could clearly see that human equality was a fact. It transcended class and nationality, and was palpable even in the briefest of encounters between people. It was the ‘crystal spirit’ that had bought a young Italian, and Orwell, to fight for democracy in Spain, just as it was the same human quality that made life in a slum unbearable. Equality for Orwell was not a merely a measure or a statistic; it was a quality that all living humans have, a resistance to fate even at its most blind.
These two encounters also reveal a man with a deep belief in the character and qualities of living humans, something that Robert Colls understands in his excellent ‘intellectual biography’ of Orwell. No book about Orwell can be perfect; the man was too contradictory, too contrarian and too bloody minded to be an easy study. But Colls (with some limitations) really gets it. Orwell refused ideology in a century defined by it, and that was his strength and brilliance. Setting out his stall, Colls, a professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, puts his finger on why Orwell despised ideology as a ‘form of abstract knowledge which, in order to support a particular tendency or regime, has to distort the world and usually does so by drawing off, or separating out, ideas from experience. Ideology, in Orwell’s eyes, could never afford to get too close to the lives of the people. The more abstract the idea and the language that that expressed it, the more ideological the work and vice versa’, he writes at the book’s beginning.
‘[Orwell] knew that if he was saying something so abstract that it could not be understood or falsified, then he was not saying anything that mattered’, Colls continues. ‘He staked his reputation on being true to the world as it was, and his great fear of intellectuals stemmed from what he saw as their propensity for abstraction and deracination – abstraction in their thinking and deracination in their lives. Orwell’s politics, therefore, were no more and no less than intense encounters turned into writings he hoped would be truthful and important. Like Gramsci, he believed that telling the truth was a revolutionary act. But without the encounters he had no politics and without the politics he felt he had nothing to say.’
Orwell was on a collision course with the intelligentsia to which he, as a rebel and a modernist radical, instinctively belonged, but which, due to its embrace of social engineering, the state and Stalinism, he was starting to oppose. His dissidence appears early in The Road to Wigan Pier where, as Colls wisely remarks, ‘Socialism emerges not as the solution but the problem, and the unemployed and exploited emerge not as a problem but the solution’. Colls paraphrases Orwell: ‘The battle of the classes… will not be won in the abstract, or in some future state, but in the present, in how people actually are and what they actually think of each other.’ Orwell despised the ‘Europeanised’ intellectual British Left because they had become wilfully displaced and removed, uprooted from the lived life of their country. Even worse, the deracinated intellectuals, divorced from the majority, wanted to refashion the people in their image. In the world of Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Fabian socialism, gaining political power also meant using the state to engineer the people, through eugenics and public health.
Orwell returned to Britain in time for the beginning of the Second World War. Apart from taking up the cudgels on behalf of the truth in Spain, without which the historical record would have been badly damaged by the falsifiers, he was not immune to much of the confusion that plagued the left in the run up to hostilities. Should socialists refuse to take sides in a conflict between imperialist powers? Should socialists sabotage the war efforts and oppose rearmament in the face of the threat from Nazi Germany? George Orwell was as confused as anyone else and his writings of 1939 and early 1940 are full of the turmoil and contradictions of the day.
But then in 1940, Orwell took another one of his leaps away from the lines and orthodoxies of leftish ideology which had led many intellectuals into pacifism or the defeatism of toeing the Stalinist line on the Soviet Union’s 1939 pact with the Nazis. In a way, Orwell’s experiences in Wigan and Barcelona, prepared the ground. In the Second World War, he would side with the British people, and an imperfect British state, because Britain’s political and wider culture reflected a way of living better than the fascism or Stalinist communism preferred by many of the intelligentsia. He reserved and exercised his right to criticise British imperialism, which he continued to attack throughout the war and his life. Again, his instincts were right or, at the very least, less wrong than most on the left. Instead of abstract ideology, distorted and twisted to suit either a Marxism that was synonymous with Stalinist tyranny, or the elitist social engineering of the Fabians, Orwell advocated a patriotic defence of a way of life that could not be trusted to intellectuals or, by implication, the state.
March 26, 2014
In The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell wrote that the most salient fact about England’s liberal elite was “their severance from the common culture of the country”. By “the common culture” Orwell was thinking of things like beer and bingo, as well as smutty humour, the tabloid press and a distrust of the state and its officials. What connects these things, according to Orwell, is that they all have a whiff of rebelliousness about them, something that appeals to the Sancho Panza in all of us rather than the Don Quixote – “your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul”. These are the things ordinary people genuinely enjoy, as opposed to what they ought to enjoy. In indulging in these simple, unpretentious pleasures, they are making use of their freedom to spend their money on whatever they like, not what various authority figures think they should spend it on. “One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical,” wrote Orwell. “They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.”
The reason the liberal elite are disconnected from this culture isn’t simply because it’s alien to them. It’s also because they actively disapprove of it. Unlike the common people, they are puritanical. They think gambling, drinking and bawdy humour, not to mention tabloid newspapers, are wrong and they often give vent to these feelings. Alongside a desire for a more just society, sits a yearning for a purer, less sinful society, one in which the workers spend their evenings reading self-improving books – Booker Prize-winning novels – and engaging in traditional arts and crafts, like basket making. The reason they seek political power isn’t primarily because they want to protect working-class people from being exploited by evil capitalists. They want to protect them from themselves.
Toby Young, “The Conservatives should become the party of beer, bingo and Lamborghinis”, Telegraph, 2014-03-26
February 25, 2014
Brendan O’Neill isn’t comfortable with the widespread media descriptions of Ukraine’s change of government and calls it regime change instead:
Even in this era of rampant political spin and platitudes, where George Orwell’s claim that political language is used and abused to ‘make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’ has never been truer, the commentary on Ukraine stands out for its dishonesty. Western observers tell us there has been a revolution in that benighted nation. They claim revolutionaries have overthrown a dictator. They say the people of Ukraine have risen up and deposed their despot, and are now ‘experiencing the intense emotions expressed so eloquently by Thomas Paine in 1776 [in his writings on the American War of Independence]’. It is hard to remember the last time political language was so thoroughly used to obfuscate reality, to impose inappropriate historical narratives on to a messy modern-day event. For what we have in Ukraine is not revolution, but regime change, set in motion far more by the machinations of Western politicians than by the stone-throwing of Ukrainians.
Orwell was right – too much political writing is less about clarifying real-world events than it is a collection of pre-existing phrases ‘tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse’. So it has been in relation to Ukraine, where the words selected by Western observers tell us more about them and their prejudices than they do about events in Kiev. So the word ‘meddling’ is used to describe Vladimir Putin’s interventions in Ukraine, but never to describe Angela Merkel’s or John Kerry’s cultivation of the oppositional forces – that is ‘mediation’. Ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich is now widely referred to as a ‘dictator’, confirming how exhausted and meaningless that word has become through overuse: unlike serious dictators like Gaddafi or Assad, Yanukovich won a free and fair election, in March 2010. As for the word ‘revolution’ – that has been knackered by misuse for decades, but its deployment in Ukraine takes its bastardisation to a new low: there has of course been no replacement of one social order by another in Ukraine, or even the instalment of a people’s government; instead various long-established parties in parliament, some of which are deeply unpopular among certain constituencies in Ukraine, are forming an interim government. Revolutionary? Hardly.
The Western debate and coverage of Ukraine has cast a massive political fog over events there. It may not have quite made ‘murder seem respectable’, but it has certainly made externally generated regime change seem revolutionary, and the Western-assisted anti-democratic removal of an elected leader seem like an act of people’s democracy. It has exposed a severe dearth of independent critical thinking among the Western commentariat. Even those on the right who are normally passionately anti-EU are now lining up like lemmings behind Brussels’ dishonest moral narrative about being a mere observer to a glorious revolution in the East. And even those on the left who condemned regime change in Iraq or Libya are buying the idea that Ukraine has undergone a revolution of Paineite proportions, with the Observer giddily declaring that Ukraine is currently experiencing ‘an intoxicating sense of liberation from an old guard’. Across the political spectrum, narratives about Ukraine that don’t add up, and which are being promoted by people normally seen as untrustworthy, are being accepted as good coin – among both a right excited by the prospect of a return of the neat Cold War-era divide between good West and bad East, and a left so desperate for evidence of revolutionary behaviour in the twenty-first century that it will lap up even staid, grey, distinctly unrevolutionary Brussels’ claims about a revolution being afoot in Ukraine.
Note: This article is posted at Spiked Plus, which is normally a pay site. They’ve made the site available to non-subscribers for a limited time to mark their second anniversary. If you’re reading this post at a later date, the link to the whole article may not work unless you’re a member.
February 2, 2014
After reading a post called An Incomplete Guide to Feminist infighting, ESR did a bit more spelunking down the feminist rabbit hole and came back with a bit of a travelogue for those trapped down there:
The most conspicuous thing is that these women ooze “privilege” from every pore. All of them, not just the white upper-middle-class academics but the putatively “oppressed” blacks and transsexuals and what have you. It’s the privilege of living in a society so wealthy and so indulgent that they can go years – even decades – without facing a reality check.
And yet, these women think they are oppressed, by patriarchy and neoliberalism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and there’s a continuous arms race to come up with new oppression modalities du jour and how many intersectional categories each player can claim.
While these children of privilege are filling out their victimological bingo cards…elsewhere, women are treated like chattels. Raped under color of law. Genitally mutilated. But none of this enters the charmed circle of modern American feminism. So much safer to rage at the Amerikkan phallocracy that provides them with cushy jobs writing about their outrage for audiences almost as insulated from reality as they are. Not to mention all those obliging men who will grow their food, fix their plumbing, mow their lawns, and know their place.
And to return to an older theme – I think this sort of bitter involution is what eventually and inevitably happens when you marinate in left-wing duckspeak for long enough. (Clue: if you find yourself using the word “neoliberal” as non-ironically as these women do, you’re there. For utter lack of meaning outside of a dense thicket of self-referential cod-Marxist presuppositions disconnected from reality, this one has few rivals.)
Accordingly, George Orwell would have no trouble at all identifying the language of the feminist twitter wars as a form of Newspeak, designed not to convey thought but suppress it. Indeed, part of the content of the wars is that some of these women dimly sort of get this – see the whole argument over “callout culture”. But none of them can wake up enough to see that the problem is not just individual behaviors. Because to do that they’d have to face how irretrievably rotten and oppressive their entire discourse has become, and their worldview would collapse.
Ah well. This too shall pass. The university system and establishment journalism are both in the process of collapsing under their own weight. With them will go most of the ecological niches that support these precious, precious creatures in their luxury. Massive reality check a’coming. No doubt the twitter wars will continue, but in historical terms they won’t last long.
January 21, 2014
The British Library has posted an interesting short item on their Untold lives blog about George Orwell’s pamphlet collection:
George Orwell’s collection of mostly political ephemera was an important barometer of the social changes of the 1930s and 1940s, and a measure of his influences during those decades. While Orwell’s personal papers went to University College London and the National Archives, his miscellaneous materials are held by the British Library. Totalling over 2700 items, a full inventory of Orwell’s collection of pamphlets is now available via the British Library’s website.
Orwell was not a writer of ‘bestselling’ books until the end of his life, after the Second World War. He became known as a journalist, a critic of other people’s writings and a word-portraitist of the landscape of politics. It is likely he never passed up the opportunity to acquire pamphlets of any persuasion. He wryly observed in The Tribune that the pamphleteer’s road was paved by a “complete disregard for fairness or accuracy” (8 December 1944). Perhaps the most appealing aspect of his pamphlets collection is that he wasn’t Hoovering them up to form a George Orwell Archive; he considered them as a spectrum of thought that was deserving of preserving.
Orwell’s heaps of pamphlets informed his writing, both fiction and non fiction. He took pride in his squirrelling-away of pamphlets, “political, religious and what-not”. In 1949, he estimated that this hoard numbered 1200-2000, but even the higher figure was an underestimation. He wrote that “a few of them must be great rarities” and they were “bound to be of historical interest in 50 years time.” In line with most of his considerations, he wasn’t wrong.
January 17, 2014
Ben Domenech discusses the books that “everyone must read”, but very few have actually done more than turn the pages a bit, or perhaps scanned the Wikipedia entry for:
The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.
So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.
10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.
9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.
8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”
7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.
6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.
5. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith: Smith’s invisible hand is all that many people seem to know about his work, but his contributions were more sophisticated than that, rejecting a simplistic view of self-interest and greed as the motivating factors in a healthy economy.
4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: If you haven’t managed this one yet, consider that William F. Buckley, Jr. did not actually read this until he was 50, remarking then to friends: “To think I might have died without having read it.”
3. The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Misunderstood and misapplied by people who’ve never bothered to read it, Sun Tzu’s advice is as much a guide to war as it is to avoiding combat via deception and guile, and to only fight battles one is certain of winning.
2. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli: Viewed by people who don’t understand the context as a guide to mendacious political gamesmanship and the use of hypocrisy and cruelty as political tools, Machiavelli’s work is likely a brilliant work of sarcastic trolling which contradicts everything else he wrote in life – which is one reason it was dedicated, sarcastically, to the Medicis who exiled and tortured him.
1. Ulysses, James Joyce: I own this book but have never read it.
Yeah, there are a few books I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read or, in the wonderful phrase used on the Bujold mailing list, “bounced off”. I’ve read lots of Rand’s non-fiction, but have only ever finished We, the Living in her fiction works. I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and own copies of most of the others, but haven’t finished most of them (and haven’t even begun with the Darwin, Dickens, Hugo, or Melville titles).
January 16, 2014
This should be entertaining: not the film, the reactions to the announcement of a romantic remake of 1984:
The literary world is agog, reeling, aghast, at the news that Kristen Stewart is going to star in a romantic remake of 1984. You read that right. Romantic. Remake. 1984.
Anyway, the news has sent literary types into a flat spin. “THIS IS MY ROOM 101,” bellowed Chocolat author Joanne Harris on Twitter. “This is more chilling than ANYTHING actually in 1984,” said publisher Gollancz, adding: “Ministry of Truth announces ‘romantic adaptation’ of 1984. Then announces its own closure as there is nothing left for it to do.” And “just to finish my terrible mood off, I read this about one of my favourite books. *head implodes*,” tweeted author Sarah Pinborough.
Pinborough managed to find a bright spot, however — “I’m quite entertained by the thought of a million Twilight fans rushing out to buy 1984 after it”. Let’s hope she’s right — and literary Twitter has been cheering itself up by imaging how, exactly, this Orwellian romance will play out. Will Big Brother be overthrown? Will Winston and Julia’s love conquer all? And what about the rats — what place do they have in a love story of epic, epic, epic proportion?
H/T to Terry Teachout:
"Nineteen Eighty-Four," the romcom: http://t.co/z7njQe7rLH
— Terry Teachout (@terryteachout) January 15, 2014
Those aghast at the news might also not have considered how well Kirsten Stewart can play an expressionless automaton.
Jokes aside, there is perhaps a legitimate silver lining to Hollywood interpreting the greatest anti-totalitarian novel of the 20th century as a romance.
The struggle against fascism and totalitarianism consumed most the 20th century. It was the defining conflict of Orwell’s life, and he dedicated most of his short time here to fighting it, both on the page and in the trenches as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War.
By contrast, the youngest generation in the West, and even in former Eastern Bloc countries, has grown up in a post-Soviet world that has never faced a truly existential threat. They weren’t even born when the fearsome year of 1984 rolled around. (This probably explains the title change, because what tween Twilight fan wants to go see another ‘80s movie?)