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Book Review: 1984

george orwell 1984

Too good

Most books that want to be scary aren’t the least bit frightening.  The books I reviewed in the zombie renaissance post are dark and bloody, but when you read about zombies, do you really think: “Oh man, this would be so scary if it was happening!”

If you do, there’s nothing wrong with that.  I don’t.  I enjoy horror once in a while, but primarily for the thrill of the story.  I grew up with ghost stories and campfire stories and have nothing but affection for all things spooky.

1984 is terrifying.  It’s not cataloged as horror, but it could be and maybe it should be.

Pure Dread That Poe Might Have Envied

1984 is a noose.  From the first paragraph, you feel cold and threatened.  There is no way this story will end well for anyone.  The noose tightens on every single page, and this goes on for hundreds of pages!

I say this not to turn you off, because 1984 is an enjoyable read in many ways.  I think the overall effect is worth pointing out because there are thousands and thousands of books out there that want to pull off the mood Orwell imbues every single sentence with.  It’s been a couple of years since I read the book, and this time around I’m listening to it on audio.  I’m absolutely in awe, now as always, of how complete this book is.  Every single word contributes to the mood.  Nothing extra.  Nothing wasted.

1984 is frightening in a way that zombies can never be, because it’s plausible enough that you are forced to imagine the circumstances Winston lives in.

I would love everyone to read this book.  When you read it through the first time, you may be surprised at how familiar it is.  Phrases like Big Brother, doublethink, Newspeak, Thought Police, and many of the lyrics from Rage Against The Machine’s songs are all here.  They started with George Orwell back in 1948 when the book was published.  The flipping of the dates isn’t coincidental, either.

There isn’t much else I can say that you might not know already.  1984 is a story about a nightmare future (dystopia) where individualism is punishable by torture and death.  The book begins with an unimaginable act of rebellion: a man starts writing in a diary.

1984 shares territory with dystopian stories like Blade Runner, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, and about 90% of Philip K. Dick’s work.  But if forced to choose, I would put 1984 on top of the mountain without any hesitation.

It is a scary, marvelous, jaw-dropping feat by a masterful author.  When people say things like “The written word is man’s greatest achievement” or “novels are still important vehicles for ideas,” I think of good old George and can’t agree more.

On a side note, if you’re interested in Orwell, his history, and events that shaped his writing, you’ll get a kick out of Finding George Orwell In Burma. Orwell was stationed in Burma for military duty and there is a lot of talk about the Myanmar/Burma situation being the inspiration for 1984 and Animal Farm.

And speaking of Animal Farm, no matter how well you might know it, you’ve got to check out the version that Ralph Steadman illustrated.

Who’s read 1984?  Let’s compare notes in the comments.


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  • Casey August 10, 2009, 9:05 am

    1984 is definitely one of the master pieces out there. I think it defines the word “taut”. There are no wasted words, sentences, or thoughts. I don’t know why, but I always end up exhausted at the end of the book, maybe sympathetic for Winston?

    The way it can change your outlook on society I think ranks reading it as an event in one’s life.

    Josh- Had a good time on Saturday, we should definitely use those passes to go climbing sometime!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 10, 2009, 9:56 am

      Casey, absolutely. I’d love to go to that gym when my hands start working again. Right now I can barely type. “Taut” is perfect. And you said you got left behind when everyone started talking literature! And at the time I didn’t know you were actually a rocket scientist…you never get to cop out that way again!

  • TheWordWire August 10, 2009, 10:07 am

    1984 is scary because the chill never goes away. There’s probably no other piece of fiction that I can reference to describe a feeling. But it’s not uncommon for news stories, particularly about trading individual privacies (by degrees) for the sake of security, to make me think: “Ack! That’s creepy and Orewllian!”

  • Casey August 10, 2009, 11:14 am

    Ha ha, this is why I don’t usually go throwing the “Rocket Scientist” title around…

    What makes it creepy I think is that we can see leanings in that direction all around us. I believe it was Jefferson who stated “Those who would trade the slighest freedom for security deserve neither”.

    Not trying to be all creepy or conspiracy theory, but I do believe we need to continually guard our personal freedom.

  • Daisy August 10, 2009, 1:07 pm

    My son took world history last year. I wish they’d waited to read Animal Farm after he learned about The Russian Revolution. It would have made so much more sense!
    Orwell in Burma? Sounds fascinating.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 10, 2009, 1:29 pm

      Daisy, I know the feeling. I wish I would have had an English teacher in high school cool enough to assign any Orwell. We got stuck with The Scarlet Letter and Pearl S. Buck every year. Nothing wrong with either, in my opinion, but I would have been all over Orwell as an impressionable youth.

  • Robby G August 10, 2009, 2:15 pm

    I’ve actually never read 1984. I began it years ago and never ended up finishing it. Loved Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange and 1984 had always been on my To-Read list and you’ve motivated me to go and pick it up.
    I love Ralpha Steadman’s work so I might as well pick up his version of Animal Farm. Nice review.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 10, 2009, 2:21 pm

      Robby G, do you have any favorite Steadman pieces or books?

  • Ben Owens August 10, 2009, 3:35 pm

    1984 is the kind of book that sticks with you for a long time after you’re through with it. I remember, after finishing it for the first time, feeling a sense of dread for days after. I still get that feeling when I read it, even though I have read it once a year for about six years now. Fantastic book. The mood it sets, almost more than the content, is unforgetable.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 10, 2009, 3:38 pm

      Ben, good for you. You’re a man among boys with that once a year habit. What would Frank Mir say?

  • Laura Wall August 10, 2009, 3:38 pm

    I remember reading 1984 in 1984…spooky then, spookier now. Another one that should be classified as horror, and is delicious, delectable reading? The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. Chilling.

  • Ben Owens August 10, 2009, 3:49 pm

    Frank Mir is too big of a douche to have anything to say about 1984. This whole business with me and Franky has got to stop. I can’t stand the guy.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 10, 2009, 4:15 pm

      Ben Ben Ben…this level of hatred is unbecoming in such an apple-cheeked, fresh-fraced brother in law. Whoever said anything about you and Frank Mir? Oh wait, that was me. The long night of killing zombies has rotted your brains!

  • Ben Owens August 10, 2009, 5:16 pm

    It’s true, it has. I assume we are still on for more zombie shenanigans this weekend. I haven’t played it since we stopped.

  • Tina August 11, 2009, 6:03 am

    I actually read 1984 in high school, for fun. One of my English teachers actually thought I was nuts for wanting to read something like that for fun. I absolutely loved it, and recommend it to anyone any everyone. I’ve read all the other books you mentioned by name, except Blade Runner. We did Animal Farm as one of the English lit assignments, and it was awesome. I guess I’m a sucker for this type of speculative fiction-dystopic future stuff, because it gives me fuel for why we need to keep our governments and leaders in check.

  • Laura Cococcia August 11, 2009, 6:11 am

    Hey Josh – I am embarrassed to say this publicly, but I couldn’t get past the first 30 pages. I read a ton, and I couldn’t do it – why? I don’t know. I promise to try again – it’s still on my bookshelf – and will get back to you. 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 7:36 am

      Laura my darling Daffodill, don’t worry about it. Maybe you’re just not the sort of person who needs to inflict sickening dread in book form on themself:)

  • Jim August 11, 2009, 11:59 am

    Just reread ANIMAL FARM a month ago for the first time in probably 25 years. Was stunned at what a great, frightening book it was. And your review makes me want to pick 1984 again. If I ever finish ULYSSES, I will. 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne August 11, 2009, 1:25 pm

      Jim, Jim, Jim…I took ten cracks at Ulysses over about ten years. Finally finished it, shrugged, and said…hmm…I’ll be thrilled to hear what you think about it, but I read it simply because I couldn’t stand the fact that I’d never gotten through it. Good luck!

  • laura k August 13, 2009, 10:56 am

    I am still terrified of rats thanks to 1984. But it is absolutely chilling. I have to say, though, that Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is more frightening to me. Perhaps it hits a little closer to home? Mm, you’ve tempted me to re-read 1984, though. Probably haven’t read it since college.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 13, 2009, 11:38 am

      Laura K, my wife says the same thing about Atwood’s book. Ovaries as commodity definitely rings a different chord.

  • Beth L. Gainer August 13, 2009, 4:08 pm

    Hi Josh,
    I’m so glad you decided to review 1984 — it is, in my opinion, the best novel in all of English literature. I see Orwellian themes in everyday life. Not only is every word crucial to the flow of the book, but Orwell hits the nail on the head in his understanding of totalitarianism and its effect on the human spirit. I love all his work. Burmese Days is outstanding, too.

    I found out about your terrific blog through your Problogger article. I loved the article and said to myself, “Geez, this dude can write!” I agree wholeheartedly that we bloggers do so for the sheer love of it. Once we show our hearts through our writing, good things happen.

    Congrats on having an agent contact you!! That’s HUGE.

    — Beth L. Gainer

    • Josh Hanagarne August 13, 2009, 4:43 pm

      Beth, thanks. I’ve realized how intimidated I’d be without an agent. That’s just not my world at all.