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A Year with George Orwell

Thanks to all who joined us for Our Year with Toni Morrison in 2021! In 2022, we're continuing the annual reading initiative with George Orwell, so read along with us each month! Orwell’s fiercely moral writing has consistently struck a chord with each passing generation. The intense honesty and insight of his essays and non-fiction made Orwell one of the foremost social commentators of his age. Added to this, his ability to construct elaborately imaginative fictional worlds, which he imbued with this acute sense of morality, has assured his contemporary and future relevance. A fierce opponent of authoritarianism, George Orwell is especially relevant in our own Orwellian times, where we have to look no further than Ukraine to witness what a totalitarian dictator is capable of destroying. Each month we will feature, and discount 10%, one of the author's books, alternating between fiction and nonfiction.

November:
Orwell's Roses
by Rebecca Solnit

Three cheers for Rebecca Solnit and her wonderful new book Orwell's Roses, an ingeniously fresh and unpredictable take on Orwell’s life and times!  We are all familiar with Orwell’s fierce critiques of fascism and communism, and his writings about the misuse of political language and power, but Orwell was also a passionate gardener, a man who planted roses, and by focusing on Orwell's lifelong fascination with gardening, we come to see a man who also devoutly believed in moments of delight and savoring the everyday, that cultivating beauty matters, that one might live a life of greater intention by opening our hearts to what is beautiful, and that pleasure and beauty go hand-in-hand with justice and truth. By unveiling this surprising side of George Orwell, Rebecca Solnit continues to dazzle us with her brilliance as a writer and a thinker; her grasp of literature and politics is unsurpassed, and in Orwell's Roses, her own wide-ranging, musing meanderings, going from the particular to the general, are full of all kinds of evocative discoveries and thoughtful connections. If George Orwell is the finest essayist of the 20th century, Rebecca Solnit is his natural inheritor, with her own similar effortless, spare prose style and unyielding political vision! To be in the company of her words is to feel invigorated, to feel a kind of joyous exaltation, to find kinship with someone who sees the world as you do. My favorite non-fiction book-of-the-year! Ed loved and highly recommends!

October:
1984
by George Orwell

Written more than 70 years ago, 1984 was George Orwell's chilling prophecy about the future, and while 1984 has come and gone, his prophetic, dystopian vision of a government that will do anything to control the narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 is still the great modern classic of "negative utopia" - a startling, original, and haunting novel that creates a completely convincing imaginary future world. 1984 cemented Orwell's status as an important figure in both history as well as literature, and the term "orwellian" has entered the lexicon to imply crushing tyranny and conformism. No one can deny this novel's power, its hold on the imagination of whole generations, or the power of it's admonitions, a power that seems to grow, not lesson, with the passage of time.

September:
Animal Farm
by George Orwell

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Brilliant allegory and prophetic work whose message should be heeded if we are to avoid repeating history’s mistakes, Animal Farm is George Orwell’s seminal work of anti-Stalinist satire. Orwell originally had a hard time finding a publisher; he courageously insisted on the truth being told about Soviet Communism, even though in the early 1940’s criticizing Stalin and Soviet Russia was a very unpopular stance—the war against Hitler was raging and most in the West were reluctant to criticize ally Stalin. Now, as a modern classic, with the characters of Boxer the workhorse, Benjamin the donkey, Squealer the pig, Napoleon the pig (Stalin), and Snowball (Trotsky) part of the modern literary canon, Animal Farm's continued popularity and astonishing success are a tribute to its enduring relevance. Capturing the menace of totalitarian rule, it is a political satire, a passionate warning against the dangers of political innocence, a lesson about political terror, and a scathing indictment of political propaganda that flies in the face of the truth. (interesting in light of modern-day current events, Orwell gave the rights for free to a group of Ukrainian refugees to reprint Animal Farm in their language, for which he wrote an introduction.) Of course, it can also be read and enjoyed heedless of history and Stalinism, by people of all ages, enjoyed simply as a great fable in the Aesop tradition. Christopher Hitchens sums it up, speaking about Animal Farm and 1984: “These books can be read as a strong preventive medicine against the mentality of servility, and especially against the lethal temptation to exchange freedom for security, a bargain that invariably ends up with the surrender of both.” Ed loved and highly recommends!

 

August:
Coming Up for Air
by George Orwell

George "Tubby" Bowling is a middle-aged insurance salesman, a job at which he grimly excels, dutifully paying the mortgage on an average English suburban row house, and supporting an ungrateful family. As the years roll by, he comes to feel like a hostage to his wife and children, regarding them as wardens and himself as a prisoner.

One day, after winning some money from a bet at the races, George steals away from his family to visit the village where he grew up, to fish for carp in a pool he remembers from thirty years before. The pool, alas, is gone, the village has changed beyond recognition, and the principal event of his holiday is an accidental bombing by the RAF—the perfect ending to his failed escape.

July:
Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell

In 1936, originally intending merely to report on the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, George Orwell found himself embroiled as a participant--as a member of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unity. Fighting against the Fascists, he described in painfully vivid and occasionally comic detail life in the trenches--with a "democratic army" composed of men with no ranks, no titles, and often no weapons--and his near fatal wounding. As the politics became tangled, Orwell was pulled into a heartbreaking conflict between his own personal ideals and the complicated realities of political power struggles.

Considered one of the finest works by a man V. S. Pritchett called "the wintry conscience of a generation," Homage to Catalonia is both Orwell's memoir of his experiences at the front and his tribute to those who died in what he called a fight for common decency. This edition features a new foreword by Adam Hochschild placing the war in greater context and discussing the evolution of Orwell's views on the Spanish Civil War.

June:
Keep the Aspidistra Flying
by George Orwell

Satirical and socially critical, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published in 1936, is George Orwell’s 3rd novel (the aspidistra was a hardy, indestructible houseplant ubiquitous in English middle class homes at the time, and represents for Orwell here the boring stuffiness of middle-class society and their bourgeois aspirations.) In the novel, Gordon Comstock’s romantic ambition is to defy the worship of the almighty ‘money-god’, and George has left a promising job as a copywriter to take a very low-paying job in a in a grubby London bookstore instead (the bookstore parts are actually quite sarcastic and funny.) The theme running through the novel is the destructive pervasiveness of money (“Money is what God used to be”), and how it rules (and ruins) everything, including relationships. For me it is the weakest of Orwell’s novels--there are many off-putting aspects of the novel that, to the modern reader, appear downright sexist, misogynist and homophobic, and Orwell himself said it was one of two books that he was ashamed of because it "was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn't to have published it, but I was desperate for money.” But as social commentary it is still a poignant look at class and society, and the gulf between art and life, and is notably an interesting lead-up to his two major (and final) works of fiction, Animal Farm and 1984

May:
The Road to Wigan Pier
by George Orwell

The Road to Wigan Pier shows Orwell as reformer, as political theorist, as agitator, as an advocate for Socialism, as a man worried about Fascism’s rise, and as a keen writer and shrewd observer of the human condition. Published in 1937, it is George Orwell’s 2nd full-length work of nonfiction and is divided into two distinct sections. PART 1 is a straightforward documentary account of the bleak living conditions of the working classes (especially coal miners) in the industrial north of England, in towns like Wigan (where Orwell fully immersed himself)—the deplorable housing, the debilitating effects of unemployment, the poverty, the intolerable living conditions, and what everyday life in a coal mine was really like, the descriptions of which Orwell hoped would rouse the middle classes from their ignorant complacency. PART 2 I found to be brilliant--a long, personal essay about Socialism (which he advocated) and the development of his own political consciousness, and, in the role of devil’s advocate, why he thought Socialism was having a hard time taking hold in England. A mix of autobiography, politics, wry polemic and righteous indignation to provoke thought and discussion, The Road to Wigan Pier still stands today as a testament to Orwell’s commitment to liberty and justice. Ed loved and highly recommends!

April:
A Clergyman's Daughter
by George Orwell

The subject of George Orwell’s 1935 novel A Clergyman's Daughter is Dorothy Hare, the self-effacing, dutiful daughter of a tyrannical, humorless rector in Suffolk, England, dragged down by her sense of duty to others and her constant, wearying self-denial (Dorothy denies herself so much that eventually her self evaporates and she is temporarily left without any identity at all.) The central theme of the novel might be stated in three words-- ‘not enough money’-- and the way that a lack of money erodes morality just as surely as an excess of it does. Orwell himself did not think highly of A Clergyman's Daughter and asked his executors not to allow it to be reprinted, but I  think he sells himself short here; casting a modern eye on A Clergyman's Daughter we see Orwell developing as a writer—his bitingly comic, dryly humorous prose, his structurally experimental, modernist style, and his sharp sense of social comedy result in a novel that is funny and satirical, challenging the social conventions and sense of respectability of the time, with pointed observations on homelessness, poverty, education and religious belief. The novel can be read as an extended meditation on the nature of life and losing one’s faith, and the certain lack of redemption at the novel’s end reflects the limited avenues available to women at the time for finding self-fulfillment and purpose in life. Ed loved and highly recommends!

March:
Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London, published 1933, is the first full-length book by George Orwell, a memoir of his own time being destitute and hungry working as a plongeur (a dishwasher/menial worker) in Paris restaurants, and then, still in near-extreme poverty, tramping around London living on the margins. (The actual title was changed multiple times before publication, as was the the pseudonym the author finally chose to use, and Eric Blair would forever after be known to the world as George Orwell!) It is interesting in the same way a travel diary is interesting—here is the world that awaits you if you ever become penniless! It is an eye-opening account of the utter squalor, degradation and enforced idleness associated with poverty at the time, and extremely critical of the prevailing thought that poverty was “sinful” and that poor people, especially the homeless and jobless, should be criminalized.  It prefigured Orwell’s later works of social critique and expose’, whether it was pulling back the cover of life in a coal mine or exposing the underbelly of the British Empire or laying bare the true nature of the Russian Revolution. Fascinating, illuminating, and immensely readable, Ed loved and highly recommends!

February:
Burmese Days by George Orwell

He had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism—benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.

Burmese Days is a novel set in the waning days of the British Empire, focusing on a handful of insular, small-minded Englishmen (including the fascinatingly complex and contradictory character of James Flory,) all living in a small settlement in Upper Burma, where they congregate in the European Club, drinking whiskey and arguing over an impending order to admit a token “native”, an emblematic depiction of the dying days of the Raj. It is George Orwell’s first novel and draws heavily on his experience in the Imperial Police in Burma, which instils the novel with a sense of resonance and depth, while also revealing the dark underbelly of British imperialism (published in 1934, first in the United States, then later in England where it was feared it would be considered libelous.)  The novel perfectly captures the suffocating insularity of the remote British outpost, and the stultifying atmosphere of “the club,” and its harsh portrayal of British colonial rule succeeds as great social commentary, showing the powerful pressure a system can exert on the isolated dissident. Burmese Days also succeeds as a great novel—fast-paced, with intrigue and adventure, with evocative descriptions of place, and dead-on observations of human behavior. Orwell himself said, "I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes…and in fact, Burmese Days is rather that kind of book.” Ed loved and highly recommends!

January:
Why I Write by George Orwell

In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues...

George Orwell is arguably the finest essayist of the 20th century. Orwell’s fierce critiques of fascism and communism (totalitarianism in general), British colonialism, and his writings about the misuse of political language and power are more relevant, entertaining and essential than ever in today’s era of spin and the “big lie.” His spare prose style and unyielding vision are unsurpassed, his essays timeless and uncompromising, and this tiny volume Why I Write showcases four of his essays and serves as a great introduction to Orwell the essayist. Ed loved and highly recommends!

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