There’s a wonderful scene in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places, in which professors of English and the lesser humanities gather for an academic parlor game called “Humiliation.” The point, in short, is that each player, when it’s his or her turn, admits to never having read a classic, canonical work of literature—something like War and Peace or Catcher in the Rye—and scores a point for each other player who has read it. Whoever racks up the most points at the end is deemed the victor. (Lodge’s protagonist ends up winning the game, and losing his job, by admitting that he never made it all the way through Hamlet).
Not long ago, I’d have been able to break the all-time high score pretty quickly. For I had never, until a satisfying binge last week, read a complete page of anything written by George Orwell. Not on purpose, I don’t think.
In high school I managed to get through a few papers and discussions about Nineteen Eighty-Four with big words and occasional recourse to that old Apple commercial. Through college I treated his essays and Animal Farm with similar frivolity. It didn’t seem worth the time, getting acquainted with something so ubiquitous and culturally saturated.
This, it would seem, is one of the more tragic afflictions of writers who become icons—whose surnames morph over decades into moth-eaten descriptors and cliched conversation pieces. Their work is admitted to the canon and added to syllabi and high school curricula the world over, bought up in bulk by high school bookstores, cast aside by students as dry secondary school staples. For little teenage brats like myself, especially, this kind of sacred status can suck the life straight out of a work of fiction, make it almost indistinguishable from a math textbook or those little grammar exercise books.
So I didn’t read Orwell, always believing that there were better, lesser known books and essays to sit down with in the evening.
In September of this year, however, I had signed up for a panel presentation in Christopher Wilson’s “Literature and Journalism in America” class, on Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma. Everyone had to take part in at least one, and this was the shortest and farthest down the syllabus. Reading the first few chapters of Larkin’s book, it seemed for a time as if I could skate by with the usual contrived comments and Sparknote-laden analyses.
But after getting deeper into the book—in which she writes anonymously, describing her search through Myanmar for traces of Orwell’s life and work—I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to. She writes about Orwell with the kind reverence that makes him seem essential—like a man everyone should have a chance to meet.
So I wrote to Professor Wilson, who suggested that I start with Shooting an Elephant and some of the shorter essays, and then took a little blue book from the stacks at O’Neill the next day. On the spine was written Orwell Reader in blocky white library type. The pages were well-thumbed, replete with scrawled comments and marginalia, which looks to have been the work of four or five different hands. It’s on my desk right now, with a bookmark close to the middle. I hope to keep it there until my own copy arrives in the mail from Amazon.
I read what I had to and made it through the presentation unscathed, never having to admit to the class that I’d only read everything I was pontificating about for the first time a few days prior. Although I suppose the cat’s out of the bag on that now.
But there were things about Orwell’s life and writing that stayed with me for days, the way the melody of a good song often does. The takeover was so pleasant and total, in fact, that I didn’t read anything else for days—just more pages from the little blue book.
To read Orwell for the first time is, in a sense, to make something like a lifelong friend. Never before have I had the pleasure of encountering a writer whose work seems so simultaneously classic and thoroughly modern, so orthodox and daring all at once. The prose really does read as if it might have been written days, rather than decades, ago.
On the one hand, that’s because the man had a lucid, direct and incomparably passionate approach to writing in English. Each word he set down seems to have been written in pursuit of total force and clarity, against what he calls “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision,” in a powerful essay called Politics and the English Language. This, if you’ve never encountered his work, would be, in my necessarily humble opinion, an ample point of entry.
On the other, the endurance of his work is a simple—and unfortunate—byproduct of his subject matter, and the many ways it’s been allowed to fester and endure. That is: tyranny. Subjugation and suppression did not die with the regimes of Hitler or Stalin. They didn’t even lie down. They endure with every attack on Western culture by ISIS and other extremists, and every threat or racial slur shouted at a campus protestor. They’ll be around long after we’ve all gone the way of Orwell and the oppressed populations he wrote about.
What’ll remain is the small stack of pages he was able to type out over his short life, and anything we write out of similar hopes or frustrations. I suppose he’s given me a new appreciation for his craft, and the way it can serve as an outlet for quiet, disaffected contrarians, too shy or prideful to march in protests or cover their mouths in duct tape. If there is a patron saint of introverted activists, I think it looks something like George Orwell.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics