thoughts on books: 1984

The first time I read 1984, I was in high school. It stayed with me. The idea that people would follow someone like Big Brother – too much to process. The notion that facts and memories could be “replaced” with alternate versions. The audacity of erasing the past. The use of doublethink and Newspeak to make the opposite seem correct and to diminish language and thought. Relentless surveillance. Turning family, friends, neighbors and coworkers against each other. Of course, when George Orwell published the book in 1949, these points may not have been so hard to imagine. I didn’t experienced World War II and rise of fascist or authoritarian governments during that period. Yet, the presence of dictators in countries around the world and the rise of similar disturbing political movements and conspiracy theories in recent years have made me think of this book so many times. For anyone who believes that a book published more than 70 years ago cannot speak to us today, read this book. When I reread it in 2013, I rated the book 5/5 stars.

Although I really liked the book as a teenager, I think it meant more to me in 2013. Being closer in age to the character Winston (older in fact) helped me identify with him more. Like him, my memory isn’t as good as it used to be and it’s sometimes a challenge to retain and be committed to clear memories. There is also the realization that memory is inherently faulty or inconsistent for most of us – it makes it easier to question what you think is true. In 2013, the world did not seem to be targeted by disinformation campaigns designed to confuse things – or at least we didn’t know about them. We now know, of course, that people and governments use and have been using disinformation to achieve their goals. It’s frightening to know that readily available technology can make it all so easy. And it’s troubling that so many people are swayed by these efforts.

In the book, it was the treatment of the past that really captured my attention. The constant changing of documents and “updating” facts so that they matched the message of the day or ensured that Big Brother did not appear to be wrong was compelling, in a terrifying kind of way. As a person with scientific training and an interest in history, it is unfathomable to live in a world where this would happen. It’s an insidious thing, the destruction of history and the tearing down of personal memories that have been collected over time and that contribute so much to who we are as individuals. The control of thought is also a horrifying idea. In the years before 2013, I commuted everyday on the train and would let my mind wander. I enjoyed daydreaming. The notion that that would be taken away from me and replaced with … nothing … or with someone else’s thoughts is too difficult and terrible to contemplate.

In the book, the Party’s disregard for knowledge, innovation, discovery and creativity was staggering. The goal of taking away everything that makes life worthwhile and fun was so repulsive. While Winston was being tortured, I kept thinking, “what do you have to say to be vaporized or shot or whatever?” I’m not suicidal by nature, but to have everything good extinguished and to celebrate everything that is destructive – well, it’s not a world in which I would care to live. That thought was interesting. Where is my breaking point? What would push me over the edge? What would my “rats in a cage” look like? Would I survive? Would I dissent or learn to love Big Brother … or live somewhere in between and try to hide?

When I was younger, I was more taken with the broad aspects of the story – the political control, the mechanized approach to society, the Brotherhood of dissenters, and the power that holds everything in place. The dogma set down in “the book” and the structure of society were intriguing. I was positive that I would dissent. I would fight Big Brother for control of my mind, body and soul. I would help others escape a life trapped in this oppressive system. For the 2013 reread, although the big picture was still a compelling aspect of the story, it was the personal, human story that drew me in. It was Winston trying to remember his mother and sister, the golden country, his time with Julia, and other significant things from his past. I was more afraid this time. Would I be able to hold on to love? Would I fight? In many ways, I’m stronger than I was as a teenager, but I’m also perhaps more aware of the pressure of societal intolerance and systemic oppression.

The book is still a frightening story on three levels. First as a tale of global conspiracy against humanity, as individuals are replaced by systems. Second as a very personal attack on what makes us each human and an individual. At what point are you no longer yourself? Third as a manual on how to control people, places and things – and how to use technology and disinformation to delude people, micromanage facts, and change history itself. To be honest, I’m almost afraid to read it again.

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