Screening Room: ‘1984’ Tonight

George Orwell started off Nineteen Eighty-Four this way:

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

That day was April 4.

So in a backhanded compliment to Orwell’s ability to portend, shall we say, certain aspects of the modern political climate, theaters around the country are screening Michael Radford’s movie adaptation tonight. Check out the participating theaters here.

Reader’s Corner: Orwell and Trump


My article “Forget Orwell: No Book Will Prepare You for the Trump Years” was published earlier this week at Medium:

After Donald Trump’s human smokescreen Kellyanne Conway announced that the president was simply presenting the world with “alternative facts,” the connection was quickly made to George Orwell’s 1984. There is good reason for this. (And while one should be happy for any resulting increase in sales of the book, we shouldn’t presume that it will be any guide to the remaining years of the Trump presidency. More on that below.)…

Writer’s Desk: Working in Bookstores

books-theidealgiftIt’s not a prerequisite for writers to have worked in a bookstore. But just as a director needs to occasionally watch their movie with an actual audience instead of by themselves, it’s handy for writers to have spent some time out there in the literary trenches with the folks who buy and sell these things.

Even George Orwell spent some time flogging the printed word. He wrote a decent essay on the experience, so there’s another reason to do it: Research. A few observations of note:

In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.

Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass.

…it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are ‘always meaning to’ read.

…[the dear old lady] who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.

Just overlook the racial terminology (“oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks” George?) and much of this would apply just as well today.

Writer’s Desk: Orwell’s Reasons

George Orwell at the BBC (1940)

According to George Orwell, he played around with writing from a very early age. A patriotic poem here, some comic verse there. But it wasn’t until he read Milton as a teenager (always a dangerous combination) that the fire was well and truly lit.

In the essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell lays out the four “great motives” for pouring one’s heart and soul into the often tedious manufacture of prose:

  1. Sheer egoism—”Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm—”Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
  3. Historical impulse—“Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
  4. Political purpose—“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

You might not agree with all these reasons; though it is difficult to argue with all books being political to some degree or another. But it is Orwell, so attention must be paid.


Reader’s Corner: George Orwell and ‘The Thinginess of Life’

As part of the effort over the past several years by various publishers to ensure the longevity of George Orwell, this past August a collection of some eleven of his diaries was released, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Barry Gewen’s New York Times review doesn’t make it sound like the most engaging of reading, advising readers to take Hitch’s faint praise (notable from such an Orwell fan) to heart. In other words, there are a lot of things in these diaries that many people put in their diaries which aren’t meant to thrill the public (lists of animals spotted, far too much information about chickens).

But the review gives Gewen a chance to consider the many contradictions and attractions of Orwell’s writings, namely, his attention to the quotidian details of the everyday, the “thinginess of life.” This focus on grounded realities—as well as his natural aversion to authority—made Orwell healthily suspicious of abstractions and “isms.” Although a patriot, he despised much of the systems that constituted England: “Insofar as patriotism was equated with God, King and Country or, worse, the preservation of the British Empire, he was against it.” Gewen further notes:

What patriotism meant to Orwell was the ordinary things of his English life — heavy coins, stamp collecting, dart games, an irrational spelling system. In the essay “Notes on Nationalism,” a companion piece to “England Your England,” he said: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life.” It was around this same time that he wrote essays in praise of pubs, cricket, even (outlandishly) English cooking. He would lay down his life not for the grandiose abstractions preached by politicians and the clergy but for gardening and warm beer.

In other words, a patriot for humanity, and not a flag.