Monday, June 4, 2018

As he pleased: Orwell's essays

For about the last year, I've been picking away at the Everyman's Library volume of George Orwell essays--and this morning I found myself up at 5:30am to finally finish the book. At 1363 pages (excluding biographical intro, endnotes, etc), this is an accomplishment in perseverance that has to rank up there with reading War and Peace.

Except that, in framing it that way, it sounds like it was a slog--which it was not. Spending time with Orwell, often in the early morning, with fresh coffee on the side table, and a sleeping 4-year-old to my right, felt more like a real treat. Similar to reading Kingsolver's essays this winter, or Miłosz's interviews in Kaunas, it was a chance to spend some real time engaged with a thinker who gave comfort, spoke sanity, and provided a needed sense of connection...

I've been buying an Everyman's Library selection for DH every year for his birthday--the hope is that, at some point, he suddenly realizes he's got a nice little library for himself there. I'm consciously trying to have books from different countries for him, so that it'll be a sampling of world literature when all is said and done...

And in the meantime, of course, I'm reading them myself. For his 4th birthday, coming near the end of our first full year of 45, I decided to seek out some wisdom (or even just sanity) from the man who gave us 1984 and Animal Farm. (I haven't read either of those again since high school--the time is still right to revisit.) This collection includes a wealth of pieces written for newspapers and magazines over the years, including a number of book reviews and a regular column he called "As I Please."

This column (80 pieces in all) was a "writer's notebook" kind of prose, often with 3-5 tidbits brought together for a snapshot of his thoughts that week. "As I Please" was particularly remarkable for its everyday-ness, especially in the context of wartime concerns. Orwell was always concerned with politics, but as much as anything about the politics of the everyday: socialism as a means for fostering humanity... It all read as anything but didactic.

I wonder what our son will make of this country's 2016 election, and how he'll make sense of it. I wonder if he'll still be trying to get his head around it 50 years later, as I seem to be doing now about 1968. My guess is that these Orwell essays will still be relevant: the struggle to remain human in an inhuman time feels downright Sisyphean.

Surely we must be happy.