1984 – 5/5 Stars
This is probably only my second or third time reading this book, and well it still is pretty much the one that always gets it right. For example, I had completely forgotten, or failed to connect that “memory hole” as a metaphor in language now is from this book. It’s the literal hole that leads to the incinerator. So what stands out to me now reading this book is a few moments of real brilliance that I particularly enjoyed about the re-read (and this is among the brilliance that the book shows throughout already). One, the moment Winston Smith puts pen to paper, he knows he’s already dead. I get this feeling all the time (not in my own life luckily) but in reading and watching tv/movies. It’s a brilliantly pure distillation of irrevocable choice as a writing concept. The moment at which your actions becomes essentially fatalistic, details being the only thing that remains to determine. Two, Orwell just truly hates the press. This comes up in other Orwell books, but it’s almost seething here. It really does show that as vital as the press is in general, they often fail to live up to their own standards, and certainly to their potential. Three, it really seems better to be a prole. Orwell talks about the power of the people in his other books (and it’s more or less implied here) but there’s freedom in poverty here. Yes it seems truly terrible too, but the constant agonizing fear and oppression Smith feels throughout is harrowing in this book. Maybe it’s a grass is always grayer kind of thing, but it’s certainly the argument the book makes.
This book is also just truly one of the most clear examples of a book that allows for reflection/projection. The language games, the total fealty demanded to a cause/ideology/tribe, the purges from within, the ways that the outside enemy is less important than the inside, the reconstruction of histories etc. Man, that’s just the exercise of power. Even to take it as the expression of both how oppressive/suppressive regimes work in both Stalinism and Fascism is enough to make that point. But look around at your own little groups and see what you see.
Homage to Catalonia – 4/5 Stars
More of a time-capsule than a history really, Orwell really effectively creates the “I ran off to war and it really kind of sucked” memoir/nonfiction piece that plenty of others would also write. Orwell really hoped to go to Spain to fight the Fascists, and he kind of did! But also he got himself involved in a much less clear, more murky political fight among a wide array of combatants, fighting for a people who didn’t really ask him to be there, don’t really know if they care he’s there, and well, it turns out it’s all kind of awful. It’s not anti-heroic per se, but instead is a understanding that strong moral beliefs can only lead you so far, and you have to be convinced of your own actions.
There’s obviously a heavy layer of irony throughout much of the writing here. He’s more than capable of understanding the war, understanding himself, and writing to clarify as much as possible. But he’s also clearly trying to avoid simply agitprop, because a) that’s boring and bad writing, and b) he’s knows it’s more complicated than good v evil. Also informing all this is that he clearly positions him against the overly simplistic understandings he reads about the war in various media, and he’s trying to create a clearer picture of things. He’ll accept accuracy, where righteousness is not possible.
Down and Out in London and Paris – 4/5 Stars
George Orwell finds out what it’s like to be basically unemployed and basically homeless by doing the only things you can: being homeless and unemployed. A thing I learned from this book is that it definitely sounds a lot more fun to be homeless in Paris than London, where you can scrap together a job working in a restaurant and get a daily ration of food and wine as opposed to being put in what is basically a debtor’s prison in London. That moment, being told that workers in a restaurant get a ration of two bottles of wine per shift, because otherwise they would steal three, seems like it might have been downright perfect for me when I was that age. But alas. Alas.
The book, like his other nonfiction (and this book is presented kind of as both here) goes back and forth between the narrative and the explanation for questions that might arise. This back and forth is satisfying as a form of reportage, and less so as a memoir. So depending on how exactly you’re reading this book, you might like or dislike that part of it.