Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell



Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Thought provoking look at a totalitarian government
Cons: Weak as a novel, but still gets the point across.
The Bottom Line:
While the plot is weak
The thoughts expressed in novel
Are still important




Learn to Love Big Brother

When I was in high school, all seniors read 1984 as part of government.  However, it’s been *mumble mumble* years since them, so the details were pretty sketchy on what happened in the novel.  My impression of it remains the same, short on the novel but long on the thought potential.

Welcome to Oceania.  Our guide to this world is Winston Smith, a member of The Party who works at the Ministry of Truth making sure that all documents conform to The Party line.  And in this socialist vision of the world, The Party, as embodied by Big Brother, is all powerful.

However, Winston is old enough to have vague memories of life before The Party took over England.  While he outwardly tows the line, he is hoping that at some point The Party can be overthrown.  As he starts a forbidden affair with Julia, it looks like his hopes might come to be.  Do they have hope of overthrowing the government?  Or is Big Brother really all powerful?

This novel is essentially broken into three parts.  (Not that I’m being terribly original since Orwell himself did that, too.)  There’s the setup, where we meet Winston and see what his world in this alternative 1984 is like.  Then there’s the part where he and Julia build their relationship.  Finally, there’s the part where Winston faces the results of his actions.

But here’s the thing – as a novel this book falls rather flat.  If I were rating based completely on the fiction portion, I’d rate this book as a 3 at best.  The pacing is very slow as we get lectures at various points in all three sections of the story.  The characters are also rather flat.  We do come to care for Winston enough to root for him to avoid his obvious outcome, but the rest are just there for the story.

This is certainly not a bright look at the future.  While I wasn’t depressed at the ending like I was in high school, it is certainly sobering.

However, the point that George Orwell was trying to make in the book is a warning that still needs to be heeded.  If we let government have too much power, we can lose our freedom and control of our very lives.  Anyone who has been paying attention during the last decade has seen this for themselves just be reading the headlines.  Frankly, it is scary looking at what is happening in American right now.  However, it is easy to point out the planks in the eyes of the other party.  I could sit here all day and pick apart what I think is going wrong based on what one side is doing just based on things I saw on Twitter this morning.  However, if we are honest, these assaults on our freedom are coming from politicians, period.  And not even just politicians.  There are organizations who will try to do whatever it takes to get their way.  It’s scary, and if we don’t watch ourselves, we will wind up living in a world like Orwell describes.  So we need to get the specks out of our own eyes while pointing out the planks in the eyes of the other side.

When Orwell wrote the book in 1948, the technology he describes was certainly fantastic, and we weren’t quite there in 1984.  However, thanks to computers and smart TV’s, we are getting closer to this vision with every year.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the internet (it’s how I’m posting this review, after all), and I watch too much TV.  However, those things can be used against us.  We need to be careful.

So, obviously, I think the message of this book is still important, and for that reason it needs to be read.  It’s why I actually gave the book 4 stars, a compromise between the rating as an average novel and the rating as an important piece of literature that needs to be thought about and dissected.  The novel part works well enough to get us involved and see what Orwell is trying to teach us.  I’m sure I would have completely tuned out a non-fiction book that made these same points.  Plus, when we see what happens to Winston, we see the points better.

Here’s another reason to read this book – it has greatly impacted our culture since it was published.  References to Big Brother and NewSpeak all come from this book.  It is always wise to know where references come from and why and what they truly mean.

I actually listened to the audio version by Recorded Books this time around.  Frank Muller did a wonderful job with the narration, which helped keep me engaged even during the slower parts.

No, 1984 isn’t going to be a page turning, highly enjoyable novel.  But it is a book that should be read by anyone who enjoys freedom.  Read it before Big Brother takes away the privilege.

This review is part of Reading to Know's Classics Book Club.  Check out the blog on April 30th for more takes on the book.

3 comments:

  1. Yes, not exactly enjoyable, but worth reading. I find it interesting that you read it as part of a government class in high school (vs. literature class). Very appropriate. Thanks for reading along.

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  2. I wouldn't have read a book on this subject if it was a non-fiction book either. I didn't think that but this book certainly makes a compelling argument for the power of story. As you say, seeing what happens to Winston has a rather huge impact on the way that the reader thinks.

    I read this book for the first time this past month. SHOULD have read it in high school.

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  3. It's interesting how different people see things so differently - I was terribly interested in the story and loved being inside Winston's inner life. I certainly wouldn't describe this as a plot-driven novel - but I still found it plenty engaging as a story.

    I do agree with you, though, that reading it is definitely worthwhile if only to understand the many references that have become common parlance.

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