Last year I read 1984 after we’d gotten back to Germany, in February. I was sick and feverish, and finished it in two nights. In the preface it said Orwell had lived through two world wars (he died shortly after the book was published, in 1950) and had been treated for psychological problems from the violence he’d been subjected to. There are rumors about why he chose the title of the book (was it a dark mirror to the year in which he wrote much of it, 1948?) but it doesn’t matter, it could be any year.
I was resolved to read more. I made a list of books, mainly classics. In a few months, I’d read Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and Orwell’s: and of course they all have the similar theme of dystopia, a word like Orwell’s book that’s found renewed interest in recent times.
The thing about myself I don’t like when I’m lazy about reading, and what I sense in those I know who don’t read, is it feels like it limits your world. Reading reminds you of all the ideas there are to be had (and our potential to create them), that’s limitless. I think those who don’t read kind of close themselves off, and their world is more simple, by their own design.
Orwell’s book is short, and painfully to the point. It really offers no hope in the way Hollywood sanitizes things, or pats us on the back at the end, with convenient resolutions.
Instead, it has a dreamlike quality but ends like a nightmare would, where you wake up realizing you died and then wonder if you should call in sick, and stay inside. It feels like a prophesy (Fahrenheit 451 does, too), and the best books are like that: which may be why dictators fear art and want to control it, they know it can change people’s thinking with its truths.
I did some reading about German history before we moved there a couple years ago. There was a very thick book called The German Genius written by a Brit, a love letter to German heritage, its premise that so much of German history and the great things they did got swallowed by the disproportionate attention to those awful years, the first half of the 20th century. The fact that Hitler put a mandate on art, and criteria about what topics could be covered in paintings, that it should be more for celebrating the nation’s heritage than dabbling in ambiguity. And how much they stole and destroyed.
The book made me proud though when it talked about the end of the war, and our former president Dwight Eisenhower, his reaction to touring the concentration camps: the fact he made his commanding officers do the same, though some questioned why. Eisenhower knew the power of the truth, a real carnage of lies, in what the Nazis left behind.
In Orwell’s book the state has gone beyond Fascism to complete control and succeeds by dehumanizing people, breaking their natural connections with one another, and does so on a platform of lies. Books make you think, I believe. If you haven’t yet, go read 1984 and think about our new president.