Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Why You Should Read Nineteen Eighty-Four: Because we just handed an unpresidented government surveillance system and supreme executive power over to a charismatic autocrat with a catchy nickname.

Book Size: Smallish to medium. But there’s a lot of dense philosophy and linguistics to get through, so leave yourself some time to really chew your food.

The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:

Winston Smith has been watched every minute of his life.

Winston is a citizen of Oceania, a totalitarian dictatorship that’s all that’s left of the Western world after half a century of devastating war. The cities are in ruins and never seem to be rebuilt, food is scarce, enemies are everywhere, and a secret police force talked about only in whispers roams the streets, climbing in windows and snatching up people for reasons even the people being snatched up might not understand.

Worst of all, every room in Oceania is fitted with hidden cameras, microphones, and two-way telescreens that alternate between streaming propaganda and initiating awkward Skype sessions with government agents who want to know why you weren’t smiling ten minutes ago when they played the national anthem.

Like it says on the posters plastered on every wall: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.

It’s a miserable life, but it’s also the only one Winston Smith knows.

And actually, for the country he lives in, Winston isn’t doing so bad. He has a decent job erasing history his superiors find inconvenient, he’s an Outer Party member with at least the illusion of a future, and if the food sucks, at least it comes with free gin and cigarettes. War, hunger, and surveillance are all just an innate part of life, and Winston’s been going through the motions of life in Oceania for so long it seems relatively easy to keep chugging in his rut forever.

Everything is going fine, really — right up until the moment when a woman Winston barely knows slips a note into his hand that says I love you

Needless to say, love is not something the Party looks on kindly; it’s distracting, and splits loyalties, and uses up energy that could be better spent waving flags and praising Big Brother. As a result, the Party has done everything it can to wipe out love — which, of course, makes Winston desperate to grab as much of it as he can as fast as he can.

Only how do you have a secret affair when your every expression and gesture is watched every minute of your life?

Winston doesn’t know, but for the first time, he thinks he might be brave enough to find out.

 

The Characters:

Winston, the writer. A model employee at the Ministry of Truth, Winston is tasked with erasing inconvenient parts of history and making sure that when people are taken away by the secret police, no trace they ever existed remains in the world; a depressing and exhausting job that has left him cynical and bitter. However, it’s not until he’s given a chance to rebel that Winston realizes just how much anger against the system has been building up in his belly over the course of many decades. Until he meets Julia, the only hint of that feeling in him was his obsession with nursery rhymes (the only bits and pieces of his pre-Oceania life that he can still remember).
 
Julia, the firebrand. Julia takes joy in playing the part of a hardcore, flag-waving Big Brother groupie, while simultaneously defying the system in private. Her rebellions consist mostly of the personal variety — exploring secret parts of the city, carrying on love affairs in the dark corners where the cameras can’t see — but the world that she lives in is not one where a person like her can survive for long. Sooner or later, either the system goes, or she does.
 
Big Brother, the hero The stern face watching over his citizens from posters on every blank wall in Oceania, Big Brother has never been seen in person — and may not exist. The embodiment of the Party, he is given credit for everything the government has ever done, which, once people like Winston get through editing history, will be every human advancement going back to sharp sticks. He looks a lot like Stalin. He sounds a lot like Stalin. He acts a lot like Stalin. He is pretty much Stalin, except that Stalin probably actually existed at some point. Probably.
 

The Themes and Ideas:

“Freedom is the Freedom to Say That Two Plus Two is Four.”
George Orwell was fascinated with the transformative effect of language on the brain before it was cool, and a huge portion of Nineteen Eighty-Four is taken up with an explanation of “Newspeak” — the language Oceania is in the process of rolling out to replace English.

On the surface, it seems like the usual high-minded, slightly kooky language optimization project that somebody tries every few decades, not very different from Esperanto or phonetic spelling. Under the surface, however, Newspeak is designed to make treason against the state impossible by denying children the chance to learn the words they would need to even consider it.

If people have no word for democracy or self-determination, the theory goes, they will have no reason to demand those things.

It may seem like a crazy bit of reasoning, until one realizes just how many Newspeak words people have started using every day in the decades since Nineteen Eighty-Four was written. And in each case, one can’t help but notice that once people were provided with a simple word to illustrate more complex, abstract concepts — when they could say “thoughtcrime” or “doublespeak” (or “radical Islam”) instead of trying to explain in long convoluted sentences what those things were — the quicker they are to notice those forces at work in the real world in a way they never had before. But Newspeak is also based on the opposite principle: that if people don’t have a word for something, they might lose their ability to see it at all.

In general, this kind of deep-seated control over reality and the way people experience it is how the Inner Party stays in power. Their biggest weapon isn’t white vans, or electroshock machines, or even hidden microphones: it’s their ability to control the way their people understand the world. They control what history is recorded. They control what’s on the news. They control what people read. They control what people hear. They control what people remember. In a year or two, they are even going to control the language that people use to think, and that is pretty much going to be the ball game.

At one point late in the book, Winston winds up in a confrontation with an Inner Party member who insists he has the power to make a table fly. The Party member’s reasoning is pretty simple: I can make myself see the table rise into the air. I can force you to say that you see the table rise into the air. Give me enough time and some thumbscrews, and I can even force you to believe that you’ve seen the table rise into the air. So, if all of those things are true, then why would it matter if the table didn’t really rise into the air?

It’s insane troll logic, sure, but it’s the kind of insane troll logic that you can build a thousand-year empire on if you’re bold or crazy enough to commit to it. And it’s insane troll logic that is very difficult to fight. I mean, how do you prove what’s real and what isn’t when all the proof has been set on fire and history has been edited more often than the Wikipedia page on Area 51?
 
 
“Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.”
I’ll be the first to admit the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four is a little thin. Okay, it’s a lot thin. I told you like three quarters of it in the summary at the top of the page. The truth is, though, this book isn’t really built to tell a story. It’s built to answer a question: How do totalitarian dictatorships work? Where do they come from? How do they sustain themselves? How do they work? The story is an excuse to argue political philosophy — just like I, Robot is an excuse to solve logic puzzles#, and Black Mirror is an excuse to brag about not using Twitter#.

And, when looking at Oceania to better understand how totalitarian dictatorships work, we find out they work by successfully accomplishing three things: placing everyone under constant surveillance, controlling the way people see reality, and, most of all, eating away at the bonds between people in a way that makes trust impossible.

Once you start looking for them, you can see signs everywhere that trust and unity between people is the one thing the government of Oceania truly fears. Sex is discouraged. Love is forbidden. Children are trained to spy on parents, and friends on friends. Plus, the constant surveillance makes it impossible to tell what anyone is really thinking. No one can really know anyone, because everyone is acting, all the time, knowing that every word and facial expression is being reported to their superiors. And because people disappear in the dead of night for what seems like no reason, it is impossible to tell who has and has not betrayed who.

In fact, it doesn’t take long for Winston and Julia to realize their love is the only weapon they have that means anything. I mean, they’re two half-starved, poorly educated office workers whose combat experience is limited to cutting in the lunch line. The book doesn’t put them through a training montage where they suddenly learn to make 360 no-scope headshots and quote The Federalist Papers from memory, because this just isn’t that kind of book. Instead, Nineteen Eighty-Four puts some thought into deciding exactly what people like Julia and Winston have to offer the fight against people like the Inner Party.

The answer is a bit muddy (just like in real life), but it all starts with trust: that willingness to be brave, to reach out to another person and believe in them, even when you have no reason to, even when doing nothing would be so much safer, even when it’s stupid. Especially when it’s stupid.

Of course, the more power Winston and Julia’s love has to threaten the Party, the more serious the Party is going to get about stamping it out for good…


 

TL;DR

Your first grade math teacher was right when she said that everything in the world is built on addition. Everything is.
 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

“We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end.”

 

Side Effects of Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four May Include:

Doublespeak, a decline in arithmetic skills, a wanting to be understood.
 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
…philosophizing on methods of mind control, try Roberson Davies’ , try Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I am required by law to mention those two books in the same sentence, because Brave New World is pretty much built to be a perfect counterpart to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Instead of controlling people through fear and punishment, however, it focuses on controlling people through self-indulgence and pleasure — pumping them up with sex, drugs, and chocolate cake until they’re too stoned, fat, and happy to care what else you do. Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four without Brave New World is like reading The Lord of the Flies without reading that one Heinlein novel where a bunch of teenagers got stranded in the wilderness and everything went pretty much fine.
 
…learning more about life in real totalitarian dictatorships, try Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which follows the lives of half a dozen real North Korean citizens through multiple decades. You’ll see so much overlap between the tactics of Kim Jong-Il and Big Brother that you’ll have to wonder if the former wasn’t using the latter as a textbook. It’s also just a good primer on a lot of history that Americans don’t know much about, but really, really should.
 
…scaring yourself silly about the future, try Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which tells the story of a very slightly alternate version of the 1920’s and 1930’s where America elected a Nazi-sympathizing President (instead of just nearly electing a Nazi-sympathizing President, which is what happened in real life). It’s one of the only books I have ever had to put down and walk away from, because it is written by someone who understands America very well, and that makes it just too scary to deal with. So be warned.