Why I’m hooked the author Orwell after reading only a small amount of his writing.
Many times in the course of my life I’ve either quoted, or had quoted to me, various lines of George Orwell. This is not, I assume, an event exclusive to my experience. Orwell is quite possibly one the most important, if not the most important, writers of the 20th century. In my opinion he mixes real-world politics and fictional prose into an intriguing and entertaining potion. His non-fictional accounts of his life are just as entertaining, and even when he preaches his message it’s not boorishly forced into your head. It makes very clear and obvious sense why people would quote Orwell to add some sophistication and intelligence to their position.
What I do find surprising is the frequency that people quote Orwell then admit to having not read his work. Sometimes people will completely misquote Orwell, as in changing the words to fit their arguments or use the quote out of context. I’m somewhat guilty of this as I often use the quote, “People sleep peaceably in their beds only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Now what’s wrong here is that I have no clue where it comes from or if it’s the correct words. I can only say with some certainty that it wasn’t Down and out in Paris and London, or Animal Farm since these are the only two Orwell novels I’ve read. It could be a quote from his collection of essays Why I Write, but I’m certain it is not.
Reading the essays of Why I Write one paragraph seemed to jump off the page at me. I was unable to sleep, and the problems and questions of a long week raced through my head. As usual to so many people needing a retreat from their thoughts in the late evening I began to read to induce sleep. My eyes traversed thirteen pages as tried to force unanswerable questions to the back of my mind so I could listen to the voice in my head read the words of Orwell in its best English accent. That’s when one short concise paragraph summed up what was the closest to a solution the nagging questions needed to go away.
And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillarboxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks it has given you.
I had been thinking about how much I wanted to get away from everything in my life right now. That feeling had already taken my around the world to three continents, a dozen countries, and a brief stint in Texas. For some reason I’ve always been drawn back to Cincinnati. Orwell had explained to me, and possibly many others, in a few sentences what I couldn’t explain to myself after years of soul searching.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that so many people quote Orwell without actually reading his work? Or tweaking his words to suite their needs? I’ve never read a work by another author who could contain such complexity of thought, reason, and emotion in so few words. The second you hear or read them they are burned to your memory. Most writers seem to inflate themselves and their work by hiding small ideas behind many syllables only to be forgotten after you finish the last page. A book written about Orwell’s purpose as a writer by an author studying him was twice as long as Why I Write and both books, incase you haven’t guessed, are about the same subject.
So I and millions of others will go on quoting a man who we haven’t really given the respect of studying. All we can do in penance is to try to read some Orwell on our own and find some new quotes that speak to us as though they were written just for the moment we need them.