Originally published 1949, my edition- Signet New American Library 1961, with an afterward (worth reading) by Eric Fromm
There are many classic books and modern bestsellers that people read and then proclaim, “Everyone should read this book!” 1984 is one of these ‘must read’ classics, and finally, as a 35yr-old, I actually did read it. Back in high school, when everyone else read 1984, I read Animal Farm instead (which I loved), and since then I have averaged over 100 books (read, cover-to-cover) per year, but not including 1984.
Last year I was hanging out with a musician friend of mine who was reading 1984, and we agreed that it would be fun to have a small book club to read such books and talk about them. Months later, he has long ago finished reading 1984 (it is a short book), and our book club never happened. But, I did finally read it.
What did I think of 1984? A lot of readers of this book say it is scary, or really disturbing. Maybe I read too much news, or maybe the fact that I have a degree in political science and read a lot of history makes me less prone to such reactions about a fiction book, but in any case I hardly would call it scary. I did find it amusing and interesting thinking about the ways that parts of Orwell’s book have come true, at least in part. In our world big private multinational corporations are the ones driving surveillance and homogenization and fear-politics, keeping the masses sated and willing to support military spending and cheap, low quality goods with sham market diversity.
Also in our world, sex is heavily emphasized, just as in 1984, but with a twist. In 1984 sex is being robbed of pleasure and meaning, so that it is just what so many Christians say it is, ‘just for reproduction’. In our real world, sex is the only pleasure worth seeking, towards which our music, movies, clothing, hobbies and games are bent. We are taught through media that our lives are incomplete unless we are sexually involved with someone, though we are also taught that sex is not expected to be just one part of a more complex relationship. That might undermine consumerism.
Complex, long-term relationships are more likely to lead to lifestyles which are not just about consumption, and anyway who knows how to have meaningful close relationships anymore anyway? When we have arguments or get bored, we move on, and even if we try to do differently it is hard to trust that those partners we love will stick around.
Countries in our world, as in Orwell’s book, are always at war with someone, which whittles away at our countries’ ‘surplus’ wealth and justifies more production than we would otherwise need, of some things, and by keeping us all poorer, we are all willing to shop for cheap imported crap at stores like Dollar General, Everything’s A Dollar, Dollar Tree, Save-A-Lot, and Family Dollar, trading our meager earnings for stuff that is not actually as healthy, useful or long-lasting as other stuff we might be buying if we had just a little more money to spend, and if more local people could afford the capital and shop rent necessary to make goods to sell.
As far as Orwell’s books are concerned, I liked Animal Farm better, and I am not so crazy about 1984 that I would say everyone must read it. But, if I were teaching a highschool or college class that might connect to the ideas Orwell is trying to discuss, I might assign this book and set aside a week of lecture-time to discuss this book. It is certainly worth reading, but I wonder what people get out of it when they don’t have much history or political science background, or when they don’t know much about other parts of the world. What makes it so scary?