13. 1984 by George Orwell

Year Published: 1949
Pages: 268
First Sentence: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Rating: 3/3 (double plus good)

I have a very clear memory of what was going on in my life the first time I read 1984. It was 2006, and my first real boyfriend had just broken up with me. I wasn't quite twenty years old yet, and was living with a friend during the summer break between university terms. Writing about this really reminds me of how long ago this all was.

Anyway, 1984 stands out that way in my memory less because of what's in it than because of what I was reading it to escape from, which is why I've always been surprised by how much of the actual content of the book managed to lodge itself in my brain. I've never forgotten the ending, for example. Rereading the book for the purpose of the review was an interesting exercising in finding out which plot points had stuck with me, and which hadn't.

I feel like the actual plot of the book is rarely discussed. Our protagonist is Winston Smith, a very low tier member of The Party, who works in the Ministry of Truth (aka propaganda and lies), doctoring old newspaper articles to comply with the facts as the Party wants them to be today. He'll be rewriting all of it again in a scant few weeks. Winston is a sad sack, but a rebellious one—as the book begins, he's purchased himself a blank notebook and begun writing out thoughts he isn't supposed to have.

Winston lives in a society dominated by the mythical figure of Big Brother. It isn't clear if Big Brother has another name, or if he is alive, or if he ever was alive, but his image is everywhere. Also everywhere: telescreens, a sort of audio-visual two way mirror surveillance device. There is little or no trust or love in this society, and resources of all kinds are scarce. The Party has done its best to squeeze all the joy and comfort out of life.

This gets a bit further into the book than I typically do for a plot summary, but basically, one day Winston meets a young woman in the halls of the Ministry of Truth, and the two of them being a secret relationship. They both know and think they are resigned to the fact that they'll get caught one day and be killed by the Party.

So I'm not gonna lie, 1984 is kind of boring.There's a long section in the middle where Winston gets his hands on a revolutionary text and the whole novel just comes grinding to a halt. The pace of the book is very like Winston's life of drudgery—steady and occasionally gruelling. Of course it isn't badly written (in fact it's very good), it's just that it lacks a little on the "pure entertainment" front. Pure entertainment isn't what George Orwell was going for anyway.

The book introduces a ton of cool ideas though. It's just barely science fiction. The ubiquitous telescreens weren't a real thing in Orwell's day, though we voluntarily bring something similar into our homes now. I think the rocket bombs showering over London were also science fictional at the time of publication. But the bulk of what the book depicts is just the same kind of social engineering Orwell had witnessed himself. The best dystopias have less to do with prescience than they do with showing the reader what's already going on, and what's been going on all the time.

1984 is a classic for a reason, even if it is beginning to show its age in the era of social media and climate change. I wish more people would read it and not just parrot what they infer its message to be based on reputation and popular catchphrases. Ultimately, the ruling parties in our actual world seem to still just want power for its own sake, even if those ruling parties are the wealthy elite rather than an ideological elite as they are in 1984.

Maybe someday I'll read this one again without feeling quite so disheartened.

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Once again he glanced at his rival in the opposite cubicle. Something seemed to tell him with certainty that Tillotson was busy on the same job as himself. There was no way of knowing whose job would finally be adopted, but he felt a profound conviction that it would be his own. Comrade Ogilvy, unimagined an hour ago, was now a fact. It struck him as curious that you could create dead men but not living ones. Comrade Ogilvy, who had never existed in the present, now existed in the past, and when once the act of forgery was forgotten, he would exist just as authentically, and upon the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar.
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