Book review: 1984

How does one review a literary classic, one that has had such impact that the author’s name has become an adjective for the type of totalitarian state depicted in the book?

You don’t. What can I add that hasn’t already been said about 1984? It follows the protagonist Winston Smith as he harbors secret thoughts of defying the all-seeing, all-knowing government that has risen up to control nearly every aspect of a citizen’s life. In the end he finds he has been lured into a trap, is caught, exposed, broken and then released back into public life, fully converted to loving Big Brother while waiting the random and inevitable bullet to the head that will end his life, his existence to be completely erased shortly thereafter.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the level of detail Orwell brings to the totalitarian regime and in particular its use of Newspeak to shape and control the language, beliefs and the very thoughts of those under the government’s control. The past few years of revelations that every government around the world is spying on everyone all the time makes the novel more timely now than it has perhaps ever been.

And yet in the end, as horrific the depiction of life in 1984 is, and as terrible, controlling and untrustworthy as so many modern governments are (even those in supposed democracies), 1984 still requires the reader to buy into some less-than-credible premises: that the world would coalesce around three major powers, all of them equally matched militarily to the others, and that a government could maintain the exhaustive level of control depicted to not only stay in power, but to reinforce that power and strengthen it, especially in the age of the Internet (though some governments have certainly tried to keep a lid on things).

In the end the complaint about credibility is a minor quibble. The world of Airstrip One (nee England) is presented so vividly that it’s hard to not be affected by the utterly bleak depiction of a world where crushing hope is a fundamental principle.

1984 is not a fun book, but it is one that should be read by anyone at all interested in the state of government and the influence it has on our daily lives.

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