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Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) by George Orwell is by far the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. Near the top of my disturbing reading list was Lord of the Flies (like), The Way the Crow Flies (dislike) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (love).
Do you like to read complete dystopia? Well Orwell is an expert in creating a world so horrible that it can leave the reader feeling depressed from page one.
“Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal. (source)”
For a modern-day women’s fiction reader, this book is pretty much the opposite of what I read. The reason I have read it is because I have joined a book club called “The Books We Should Have Read Book Club.” The name is self-explanatory in that we select books that we haven’t read, but that the general public has read. So we mostly cover the classics.
For me Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t seem like a novel when you compare it to modern-day fiction. The way stories are written has changed tremendously in the last 60+ years so many things stood out to me because it doesn’t follow the basic rules for appealing to today’s reader.
What struck me as a writer/reader:
1. It was mostly background information and world building. The book is divided into three parts and I don’t think it was until midway or near the end of Part II until things started to happen. There wasn’t much action and so it felt more like I was reading an essay. Someone from the book club said, “It felt like I was reading the Communist Manifesto at one point.” So for today’s audience who expects an action-packed story, it’s important to remember that the method of story telling has changed a lot since the time the classics were written.
2. Hardly any dialogue. Most of the book follows the thoughts of Winston so the internal reflections also makes the book read slower.
3. Lots of theory, philosophy and ideas. The book was thought provoking to say the least. For example, Winston reads a large passage of a book within this book so there is a lot of theorizing and explaining.
One of the ideas that resonated with me the most being a history lover was imagining a world where history was continually re-written by the current government or ruling party to reflect what they wanted it to be. That was one of the saddest parts of this dystopian world.
The advent of Newspeak a language developed by the ruling Party that removed words from the dictionary in order to gain more control over the people. It’s interesting to think about how much of a loss it would be if we couldn’t use certain words or if language was reduced to such a basic state of communication.
Another depressing idea was a world “without colour” meaning everything is controlled so there is no laughter, no art, no freedom to think or create whatever comes to mind. As a creative who thrives on humor, I think I would go crazy from having my thoughts controlled/suppressed by the Thought Police and life becoming a dull from A to B existence.
As for Big Brother, I thought TV show was ridiculous, but now I find it to be an even more trivial idea for a show after reading the horrific things that happen in Orwell’s dystopia. How can you take “Big Brother” and make it into a one-hour TV drama, where only two things from Orwell’s world transfer: having cameras follow you and being controlled by the Rules of the House? Big Brother is not just about the TV cameras following peoples every move, isn’t it the whole concept of control through intimidation? I think it’s interesting to see how we use the term Big Brother today when the kernel idea is so old and weighty.
The ending of the book became so disturbing that I found myself trying really hard to keep reading. At one point I almost threw the book onto the train (LRT/metro/subway) tracks out of disgust and it even made me nauseous, which proves that Orwell’s writing is visceral. But this book is definitely not for the light hearted. I’m glad I waited until now to read it because it probably would have affected me even more 10 years ago (when most people read it for the first time). [I found an great blog about the topic of reading this type of book as a teenager here.]
A statement about Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s resonance as a book as quoted from Goodreads:
Written in 1948, 1984 was George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about the future. And while the year 1984 has come and gone, Orwell’s narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions. A legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.
I agree that Orwell’s book is convincing from start to finish because he is a great world builder and writer. He examines every aspect of this dystopian world, its bleakness and his use of language makes it all the more powerful because it elicits emotional and intellectual responses from the reader.
After finishing this book I started thinking about the whole idea behind the book culture of The Classics. I don’t think someone HAS to read a classic to have “mutual social knowledge” and I think reading a summary or a book review of the book will give someone the basics they need to understand the ideas. BUT, this book really pushed my reading boundaries and I’m glad I read it because it does make you question several socio-societal aspects of life and be thankful for living in places like Canada. I can imagine that classroom discussions on Nineteen Eighty-Four are intense and enlightening. I would have liked to study this book in school because I think I would get even more out of it, however a book club is a great alternative.
If you’ve read Nineteen Eighty-Four, what did you think about it? Do you think everyone must read the books branded as Classics in order to have “social knowledge”?