George Orwell is such a good writer than he gives me a rush feeling. I am always, and literally always, thinking to myself 'I must quote that paragraph in my blog'. I think it may be because he tried more than anything else to be honest, so his style is clear: form follows function. And his insights strike me in two ways - mostly thinking 'nothing has changed', and occasionally thinking 'that has changed a great deal, what a window onto how things used to be'.
The essays included in the volume are all available online, but it was a great little volume to read through on a snowy evening. Links below are to online copy, and I've done a little star-rating where *** is must-read.
* Books vs Cigarettes is Orwell proving that reading is not an expensive habit, by contrasting how much he spent on books and fags over the previous 15 years. People don't read much 'nowadays' and prefer to spend their money on drink and gambling - perhaps things haven't changed so much.
** The prevention of literature an essay on totalitarianism, self-censorship and art. The context has changed - who now would say that scientists are unaffected by religious censorship - but it's still worth a read.
* My country right or left. This is an essay about socialism and patriotism, from the depths of the second world war.
Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same... To be loyal both to Chamberlain's England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility, if one did not know it to be an everyday phenomenon.
** How the poor die a harrowing account of recovering from pneumonia in a pauper hospital in pre-war France (I supose from the time of 'Down and Out in Paris and London'). My god. This is why we need socialism, and antibiotics.
** Bookshop Memories. An account of working in a bookshop in the 1930s - the loopy types who hang out there, how nobody reads any more, how they only read trash, and how there is no market for short stories. La plus c'est la meme chose. One thing has changed for the better - in those days nobody read Austen, Dickens and the rest. Now they are very popular - thank the BBC. One thing has changed for the worst:
It is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines (I guess this means big corporations) can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.
* Confessions of a book reviewer. Just a little thing about why professional reviewing is so unsatisfactory. The whole context of this has changed since it was written.
People sometimes suggest that the solution lies in getting book reviewing out of the hands of hacks... a good deal of reviewing, especially of novels, might well be done by amateurs. Nearly every book is capable of arousing passionate feeling... in some or other reader, whose ideas about it would surely be worth more than those of a bored professional. But, unfortunately, as every editor knows, that kind of thing is very difficult to organise.You'd need some kind of world wide web.
*** Such, such were the joys. The stand-out essay of this collection, and one that anyone should read, this is Owell's reminiscence of life in a minor prep school (private boarding school for boys 8-12). He is blunt and fierce on the ignorance, snobbishness, bullying and abuse.
The second beating had not hurt very much either. Fright and shame seemed to have anesthetized me. I was crying partly because ... of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.
I know exactly that feeling from childhood. He speaks about the feeling that was instilled in him that he was worthless and a failure, and the way he simply acepted that as the way things were.
The snobbishness that was an integral part of my own education would be almost unthinkable today... A Russian boy, large and fair-haired, a year older than myself, was questioning me.
'How much a-year has your father got?'
I told him what I thought it was, adding a few hundreds to make it sound better. The Russian boy, neat in his habits, produced a pencil and a small notebook and made a calculation.
'My father has over two hundred times as much money as yours,' he announced with a sort of amused contempt.
Unthinkable today? That is more or less the Tory platform isn't it? With the addendum 'so vote for me'.
(Reading through the online text I think this is heavily cut down from the version in print).