Choose Your Own Advent, Day 23: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George OrwellChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Author: George Orwell
Year: 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the few books my father ever recommended to me. He’s never been much of a reader. He likes true crime, and he’s read a few biographies and autobiographies of musicians. But there haven’t been many novels he’s read, let alone recommended.

It’s always been difficult for my father and I to bond. We don’t share many of the same interests, or desires. He lives a life very different from the one I’d like to lead. I think he was expecting to have a different kind of son in his life, and it’s hard for me to believe that he wasn’t (and isn’t) disappointed by the one he actually got.

And so we’ve lived our own separate lives. We both got older, and found our own ways forward…whatever “forward” might have meant for either of us. Not as father and son, but as two adults who know each other, and probably don’t approve of many things the other has chosen to do with himself.

But he recommended Nineteen Eighty-Four. He may even have given me his old copy. (I can’t remember for sure, but I do recall that the copy I had was quite old, with a cover on the verge of falling off. Knowing that handling it too roughly would likely break the spine, I developed my lifelong habit of always treating books with delicacy.)

Back then I may have liked it then more than I appreciated it. In my early teens, it was easy to overlook (to some extent) the novel’s message, and to focus more on what did–or did not–happen. Big Brother is a dick, authoritarian regimes suck, and nobody will find escape or happiness. I got all that, but I wasn’t yet a reader who latched on to themes. I was raised on film and television. I wanted events.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has those as well, and I had a few friends who also had read the book. So we talked about those scenes. The torture. The Two Minutes Hate. The infamous (within my circle) sex scene. In fact, if you want to ensure that sex scenes in novels will fail to turn you on as long as you live, start with the one in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There were two kinds of horrors in the book that legitimately got to me, though. The first was Newspeak, which the novel describes as being the only language that gets smaller and smaller. It’s a simplified variant of English, largely devoid of metaphor, very precise, and (by design) without room for artistry or even grace. I remember having dinner at a friend’s house, and discussing Nineteen Eighty-Four with him. When we talked about Newspeak, his mother laughed, as though the concept was a very good joke.

I’ll always remember that laugh. I guess it is a very good joke. But it’s far too frightening for me to laugh at.

The other horror was the simple truth behind O’Brien, poor Winston Smith’s false confidant. As Winston rebels (in small ways, yearning for larger freedoms), he finds what he believes to be a powerful friend in O’Brien. In reality, O’Brien is the enemy. It was painful and unexpected enough for me as a reader back then, but the sheer cruelty Orwell allows him…having him, specifically him, torture Winston until our protagonist is “cured” of his independent thinking…

…I’ll just say that it’s still one of literature’s great betrayals, as far as I’m concerned. It managed to hit me hard–and hit me in the correct way–before I was even able to appreciate much of the novel’s warnings. “I’ll bet you’re paying attention now,” that moment seemed to say.

I’ve read the book several times since, and I still think it’s great. I’ve heard some pushback from others, claiming, for instance, that Orwell was a better moralist than he was a novelist. And, well, maybe he was. But Nineteen Eighty-Four stands on its own merits as a piece of solid and important writing, I feel. I don’t make concessions for it; I don’t excuse its weaker moments or sloppy constructions on the grounds that it represents something larger.

No…I just don’t see weak moments and sloppiness. I see a powerful, brutal fist of a novel that exists in precisely the correct form. I see a story that genuinely could not be told any better, and the large number of works inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four that fail to live up to it seem to be evidence of that.

What’s mainly interesting to me now–and where I think a lot of Nineteen Eighty-Four-inspired works fall down–is that Orwell doesn’t actually give any advice. He doesn’t tell you how to avoid the situation. He doesn’t tell you how to cope with it. He doesn’t tell you how to improve it. (In fact, he tells you you can’t improve it.)

What he tells you is that by the time you’re there, it’s already too late.

You don’t live under Big Brother and think, “Okay, now what?”

You rage against Big Brother ruthlessly, constantly, without pause, because the moment he takes power, there is no more hope.

You fight now. Now. As you read the book, as you’re allowed to read the book, you fight. You don’t wait until you recognize Big Brother…you fight to keep Big Brother from ever appearing.

Yes, of course, there’s a temptation to liken it to certain things happening in the world today. But there always is. That’s why a book written in the mid-40s about a “distant future” that itself is already far behind us still resonates. It still matters. Because things are always bad, always terrifying, and we can’t get complacent. We need to fight to keep them from getting worse.

My father and I never bonded much. I’m fairly sure I can use my fingers to count the number of times.

But one time we definitively did bond was with Nineteen Eighty-Four. We bonded over the eventual, inevitable, hopeless end of civilization.