Book Review: “1984” by George Orwell

Finding English books in South Korea isn’t always the easiest. I thought when I moved to Korea I’d just try and only read books on my Nook, only for after a year and a half for books to no longer download onto my device without getting an error. It only works now if I’m back in the states, so every time I go home I have to load up.

Because of that, I promised myself that I’d only buy books I didn’t mind leaving behind, because as a bookworm I tend to hoard books in a giant TBR pile and then go to the library for a book to read right now. But I couldn’t do that in South Korea where I knew my stay wasn’t permanent, and where there wasn’t a library near me with English books. So I tried finding as many used books and classics to read as possible. That way I’d be okay letting them go when I was finished.

It truly feels like I’ve spent the last 5 years doing the equivalent of eating my literary vegetables, by reading what are considered classics. The book 1984 was on my to read list when it became a hot topic around when I moved due to the shifting political climate. (Though I have a feeling it pops up) “Orwellian” kept coming up in news stories and articles so I figured I’d keep an eye out for it while in used bookstores in the hopes of finding a cheap copy to read through and understand the source material and what people meant when they said “Orwellian”.

Turns out it’s a very dark disheartening dystopian novel. I had figured it would be a dystopian novel based on context, but the disheartening part was a bit of a shock. I want books to at least have a solution to the problems they put forth. 1984 mentioned possible solutions but no steps were ever taken to get there.

I also struggled to get into 1984 for awhile. It felt a little reminiscence of the Halloween I spent reading American Psycho where I absolutely hated the main character who was steeped in misogyny, privilege and a sense of entitlement. They’re vastly different characters and stories but having a main character fantasize about beheading and sexually assaulting one of the only female characters in the book pushes it towards the grosser depths of American Psycho. Not to mention the actual torture that does occur throughout 1984.

I suppose the idea is that 1984 is suppose to be so shocking that it hopes to curb society away from it’s destructive path in the way The Jungle is accredited with changes in the meatpacking industry. A path where the government watches everything, everyone rats everyone else out to save their own skin, where love and familial bonds do not exist, where children spy on their own parents, and the government itself is worshiped and feared like a cult. With propaganda that is so detailed and perfect that everything available even in archives that no one ever sees is edited to reflect whatever the current government truth is. It’s in depth and no one besides Winston Smith seems to care about the actual truth. And he believes himself to be better than everyone else because he’s a cog in the system that has seen more of the actual system and is aware of it but not strong enough to create a revolution himself.

He rebels in minor ways: by keeping a diary, by going to areas he’s not supposed to, by having an affair (he’s married) with a young woman (the one he fantasized about attacking  and murdering) and by trying to become something better than himself, a foot soldier in the revolution, without knowing how to truly go about it. It feels like he hasn’t changed since when the world was free-er and he would steal food from his baby sister and scream at his mother until she’d relent and let him eat her food too, letting them both starve and die, essentially no better then the children of the current regime. Does anyone actually like this character? I feel like he’s not meant to be liked.

But the book is cold and cruel and while characters change, not much of the world behind them changes in the course of the book, except maybe to get darker and crueler.

It’s never going to be one of my favorite books. It’s unsettling and crawls under your skin with whispers of the negative side of humanity in a way similar to The Lord of the Flies. But it’s become ingrained so much in pop-culture that words made up for the book are words we use, idioms and quotes that we use also come from this book, especially in relation to government surveillance and censorship, and that I found fascinating, I knew “Big Brother” came from it but other things like “thought crime” and “thought police” I didn’t realize were from the book.

Another interesting thing, which is always fun with older science fiction novels, is to see what sort of technology the author thought of that ended up actually happening. 1984 was published in 1949, though the vast majority of piece was completed in 1944, inspired by World War II and the Tehran Conference. (Where three main world powers decided what to do with the world which corresponds heavily with the political climate in the book.) He wrote about Telescreens, two way TV’s, something we can now do with our phones and computers to talk with people from anywhere.

If you’re really into sci-fi, horror, or dark dystopian novels you might enjoy it if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. But if you’re not in the right head space for it, this book can get very very depressing. So I suggest something nicer and lighter after the book that will remind you of the good in humanity, because with the way the news is right now and has been it’s difficult to get out of that downward spiral. (May I suggest Bored Panda’s illustrations of good news this year?)

The strange apparatus behind the book that looks vaguely like a flamingo is a camera that follows and films anything that moves near it.

What’s a classic that you keep hearing about that you’ve read that you did not enjoy?

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