Essays (Orwell)

November 24, 2015
George Orwell

From Penguin's Great Orwell series, this is a collection of George Orwell's nonfiction. Orwell wasn't a thinker who liked to limit himself, and so the collection ranges from recollections on the Spanish Civil War through musings on totalitarianism to thoughts on the mating habits of toads. He tells about his life as an officer in British colonized territories (and how he subsequently came to find imperialism utterly disgusting) — and in a bookshop, selling used books (and, as it were, boys' weekly magazines). He can write with authority on what life is like in a British 1930s homeless shelter and give a massive 60-page literary criticism of Charles Dickens. He'll rail and rage against pacifism (a philosophy he despised), and then tell why it was precisely the right strategy for Gandhi. He can make his experiences as a schoolboy picked on by upper-class bullies seem every bit as viscerally unjust as the evils of the fascists he fought in Spain.

I've long admired Orwell, and although I've loved his fiction since I was old enough to understand it, I think he's even better as a nonfiction writer than as a fiction writer. An unorthodox and fearless thinker, Orwell wrote in clear, direct language with no pretension and no buzzwords. The prototypical democratic socialist, he (in contrast to lazier, more tribalist thinkers) entirely rejected both the Stalinist intellectual current of his time (which he regarded as no better than fascism) and the rigid capitalist class society. If there's any one common strand in his political life, it's an enduring hatred of authoritarianism.

Orwell lived in a time that's still regarded as one of the most evil in modern history. He was a contemporary of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao Tse Tung and Franco. He wrote in the very beginning of the mass media culture we now live in — and if there's any thinker who ought to be considered required reading for anybody who lives their daily life soaked in both political and corporate propaganda, it's Orwell.

I can't recommend this collection highly enough.

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