This is one of those books I should have read already. It’s one of those everyone should have read. If you haven’t heard of it before, I’ll give you a brief introduction:
Winston Smith works for the Ministry of truth in London, chief city of Airstrip One. Big Brother stares out from every poster, the Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal. When Winston finds love with Julia, he discovers that life does not have to be dull and deadening, and awakens to new possibilities.
That’s just part of the blurb, but the premise is simple. The government rules with an iron fist. Everyone is surveilled, at all times. Big Brother and the Thought Police decides what you are allowed to think, what you’re allowed to say, and how you’re supposed to act. Anyone who goes against the grain is removed.
But that isn’t all. They’re not just removed as in killed or imprisoned. They cease to exist. Their lives, their history is wiped from the face of the Earth.
This is the reality for Winston Smith. He works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to alter history. He goes back to old newspaper articles and edits them, making sure that the truth was reported, or that what was reported was the truth. Winston also makes people disappear, by removing them from the history books. Or, on occasion, he’ll make someone up. The government is never wrong.
This book is called 1984 (in case you didn’t get it), because it’s set in 1984. This is the reality George Orwell envisioned in the 40’s, when he wrote it. I picked this up in an airport earlier this year. I’ve heard about this book all my adult life. Everyone recommends it, it’s one of those “have to read before you die”-books. I picked it up without even thinking about it, and though I should have read this ages ago, I’m very happy I waited until I became a writer.
This book isn’t perfect. It’s amazing yes, but in one sense, there’s hardly any plot. Not much happens at all really, and stuff that does isn’t super interesting. And besides Winston there’s maybe two other characters I can remember, and even they weren’t all that – neither was Winston. You don’t read this for the storytelling or the characters. It’s about the ideas. The concept. And about the language.
No, I don’t mean Orwell’s writing style, I mean the language in the book. In 1984, it’s called Newspeak. When Big Brother has decided to alter history, they’ve also realized that Oldspeak (the way we talk and write now), is both useless and inefficient. All you need is Newspeak. It’s concise and simple. Instead of good and bad, you have good and ungood. Instead of super good you have plusgood, or doubleplusgood if you want to go crazy. This is why I loved reading this after I started writing myself. This whole idea of a different way to speak and write was mind-blowing to me. In a strict, efficient way it’s so logical and sensical, but of course, it kills everything called art, passion, and writing. It’s devastating.
In case you hadn’t noticed, this book is terrifying. A political kind of horrific. Imagine that the government knew everything about you, could see and hear you at all times, and could decide whether you existed at all. Reading this in 2018 – on the tide of fake news and all the political chaos we are experiencing in our day – it makes me wonder if George Orwell wasn’t some kind of psychic, albeit 35 years early.
I don’t often read books suggested to the masses, the ones on the read-before-you-die lists, but I’m glad I walked through that airport bookshop and picked it up. Glad and horrified.
I recommend it.
I read 1984 when I was 20 I think. One of the ideas behind Newspeak was to remove certain words that are ideas or concepts so it would be impossible to think about them as there would be no words for them. It did make me wonder how much our language shapes our ideas and thoughts. Do other languages have concepts that aren’t in English and we don’t think them as we have no words to define them? I think the book fundamentally changed my understanding of the world. The world certainly wasn’t the same to me after I read it.
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