on 7 October 2008
In some ways Orwell was most suited to the art of essay writing; his most successful novels always had political motivations, and his deceptively plain, matter-of-fact style (like a window pane, as he said) helped him convey his ideas to the reader with ease.
Orwell was one who had greatness thrust upon him. His great works and essays are stimulated by the convulsions of the rise of fascism and World War II - obviously "Animal Farm" and "1984" but also some magnificent essays. These include "The Lion And The Unicorn", his glorious, stirring analysis of the national character and the prospects of socialism after the war; his analysis of party-line thinking, in which he works out the metaphysics of "double-think"; his dissection of James Burnham's book on the "managerial revolution" with interesting comments on the world splitting into three power blocs; and "Reflections On The Spanish Civil War".
Other essays are more personal - his scathing memoir of his school days, "Such Were The Joys"; the delightful "Some Thoughts On The Common Toad"; "Hop Picking", one of his earliest attempts to document working-class customs; and "Shooting An Elephant", a wry look at imperialism. He also looks at literary matters (he was the literary editor of "Tribune" for some years) with equal clarity and lack of verbosity, unusual in literary analysis, with "Politics and the English Laguage" and "Why I Write". ("Sheer egotism" as he frankly admits!).
This is an exceptional book, to be read and savoured by all. A real delight.
on 15 April 2002
Orwell is as likely to go down in history as an essayist as he is as a novelist. The clarity of his style is matched only by the clarity of his thought. Orwell’s belief in using language correctly, in order to transmit ideas, rather than to obscure them, is as essential to his idea of freedom as is democracy. He thought that the English language was in a bad way and set about to correct it in ‘Politics & the English Language.’ “The English language,” says Orwell,” becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts…. Modern English is full of bad habits…If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.” Lazy language – pretentious diction, meaningless words, and cliché - was a mask for lazy thinking. He would have been aghast at the abundance of modern jargon or the ‘spin’ put on news stories by politicians today, both of which is to either hide up the paucity of genuine ideas or to mislead the public. For Orwell, to speak, and just as importantly, to write, clearly are important for the political process. These ideas were, of course, to feed into his novel, 1984, with its use of Double Speak, to say one thing while thinking another. We recognise these words and phrases all too well: People’s Democracies for Communist dictatorship; pacification for mass murder and terror; We, the people for We, the ruling elite; and Protecting democracy for Defending our financial interests.
When people think of Orwell, they remember him as an anti-Communist and a defender of liberal democracy. This is most certainly correct, but it should also be remembered that he was also a socialist, and a socialist of the old school. In The Lion & The Unicorn, originally published as a pamphlet in the style of Paine or Cobbett, he attacks both the class system of England and its capitalist economic system. He thought that the “inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe” and that World War II has “turned Socialism from a text-book word into a realisable policy.” As a socialist, he thought that socialists had to make “our words take physical shape.” He advocated a 6 point plan that would transform England into a socialist country, which included “Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries” and the “Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.” One gets the impression that Orwell and Castro would have found a broad area of agreement. For Orwell, freedom, democracy, and socialism, were not incompatible, but were tightly bound together. He went to fight in the Spanish Civil War for the democratic republic, but fought alongside Marxists, Trotskiests, and Anarchists. Calling himself a “democratic socialist” was no contradiction to Orwell.
However, it should be remembered that these essays cover the 1930s and 40s. The world was a different place then. The political landscape has changed. If Orwell were alive now, what would his political opinions be? Who knows? You might as well ask what would Thomas Paine’s political beliefs be if he were alive today. Anyone who hazards a guess, and there have been many, usually transposes their own political beliefs onto Orwell. Only one thing is certain: Orwell was a man of his time. These essays, as do his books, reflect this. This is why he will be remembered. To read Orwell is to capture a moment in history, articulated by a man who was deeply involved in the political life of his time, in much the same way as Paine, Hazlett, or Cobbett was. One comes to Orwell and breaths the political atmosphere of the age, and takes from him what is relevant to one’s own self. What that will be will vary from one person to another. For my own part, it is satisfying to read someone who believes as passionately in socialism as he does in democracy, and argues for both with the same conviction; who believes in physical courage in fighting against injustice, -“manliness”, if you will; who saw through the myth of British Imperialism; who saw through the horrible snobbishness of the English class system; and who believed in clarity in one’s own words in order to reveal the clarity in one’s own thoughts – and to demand that clarity from others
on 6 May 2001
This is a fascinating collection of Orwell's masterful best: from political opinion, artistic debunking, and breathtaking personal insights, to hillariously frank descriptions of Boys' weekly comics and the virtues of saucy seaside postcards!
Be amazed, as Orwell opens your jaded eyes to the bizarre writing foibles of Charles Dickens - things about the esteemed author you thought you knew so well. Be stunned by Orwell's deeply moving personal experiences, in 'Shooting an Elephant' and 'A Hanging', accounts of human frailty that made me shudder with a deep sense of recognition. Have the myths of Public School life exploded for you in 'such, such were the joys' as Orwell escorts you through the darkly repressed world of his boyhood education.
There are so many treats and revelations in this book, that you are able to dive in at random and be suddenly immersed in that lost world of the pre and post war years. The politics may have changed, the fashions, the doctrines, may have all faded or become obselete, but what Orwell does - in breathtakingly frank and beautifully simple language - is to reveal to us how little humanity itself has altered. The vanity and hypocracy we find within, still have an all too fresh ring to them. But Orwell refuses to give up our species' and its eternal drive for understanding and self-improvement; positive attributes that Orwell instills into so much of his scathing honesty and subtle attack.
'Essays' can be enjoyed on so many levels: from a one-man history lesson, to a vivid collection of snapshot opinions that you can delight in, debate or decry. Or perhaps, like me, you will eventually give up on the socio-political analysis and the search for cryptic symbolism, and simply end up enjoying a quite wonderful book.
on 7 January 2007
Meet the best prose writer in the English language (along with pre war P. G. Wodehouse) This is how to do it - access to a vast vocabulary, a mastery of grammar and syntax (and the determination to apply it) and a comprehensive knowledge derived from a deep and wide reading - all applied lightly, with a complete lack of pretension, and with the divine gift of irresistibly Good Humour (as opposed to the deliberately crude and savage kind) - so no hesitation in bracketing him and Wodehouse together.
But where Orwell scores above any other writer in his league was how much hard experience he had accumulated in his short life to set against his insights and opinions - a Police Officer in Burma, a slum dweller in Paris, a tramp in London, a wounded combatant in Spain - so that when he speaks, you listen.
With his clear uncluttered prose he conjures up worlds - a nauseating slum hospital in Paris, the Technicolor kingdoms of Seaside Postcards and Boy's Weeklies, his hellish Preparatory School in Eastbourne.
As to be expected, his analysis of Art and Literature - from Dali to Henry Miller to James Hadley Chase - is always worth reading, but perhaps more surprising is his love of nature and the English Countryside. But it was the latter that grounded him and provided a contrast to what he dedicated his life to opposing - Totalitarianism. `They' don't want you to enjoy the simple pleasures in nature (see `Some thoughts on the Common Toad')
Of course, being Orwell, Politics runs throughout all this, but don't be deterred - whatever your political orientation, this is a man who will always discuss, not harangue. In fact I recommend you read this book with a pencil to hand to highlight all the passages that apply exactly to today's world - your margins will be a mess of grey lines! The tragedy is that he didn't live longer to comment and advise and enlighten us some more. If you were to ask me to name two writers who epitomise a sort of utterly decent, good, civilised English type that can no longer exist it would be Orwell and Wodehouse - Wodehouse and Orwell.
on 17 January 2014
Most of the Folk thinking of buying this book will be familiar with him already; between that fact and his reputation, it seems a little silly to base this review on what is said within the essays and works herein. What then warrants the five star reputation then? Well, Its inclusiveness and scope, the passion (for Orwell) with which it has been compiled, and the physical decency of the volume.
Taking the first point first, this essay compilation includes far more of Orwell's writings than the other common compilations available. Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays is itself a fine compilation, but seems, after leafing through the Everyman's Library essay compilation, to be lacking some important essays: "The Lion & The Unicorn" and "Notes on Nationalism" to name just two though dozens more could be listed. Also, the Everyman's edition includes Orwell's writings for Tribune, namely his column "As I please".
To the second point then, this edition contains a little note from the editor on the inside sleeve and a little timeline of Orwell's life, along side which major political events and literary works of the time, are included. The essays themselves are printed in chronological order, which is a lovely touch
Lastly, it is a relatively dinky hardbound edition, with the typical Everyman's "Livery". It comes with a golden tassel stitched to it as a sort of in-house bookmark, and all is printed in a decent font, in a print which isn't too small.
To my mind, the most significant drawback is that this edition feels a little cramped, that is to say new essays are started without a page break, and the essays where a Orwell is setting out categories for things or subheadings,a line break would create a more spacious feel. Christopher Hitchens' equally brilliant essay compilation "Arguably" has these breaks, and looks more stylish for it.
To serious readers of Orwell then, I recommend this tome. I even recommend it as an introduction to his essays, for if one were to first buy any of the other essay compilations available, one will likely be buying this edition in end anyway.
on 20 April 2012
This is the most comprehensive collection of George Orwell's essays - the best part of his writings - currently available. It contains as far as I can tell everything that you might want of these works from the political "Notes on Nationalism", "The Lion and the Unicorn" to the personal such as his lovely essay on the pleasures of gardening "A good word for the Vicar of Bray".
Orwell's style throughout is direct and engaging. It's also very English. Has there ever been a more English writer? It is particularly satisfying to see the essays that reflect this side of his nature - "In defence of English Cooking" or the famous essay on the perfect pub "The Moon Under the Water".
As a well produced hardback, this book is a pleasure to own.
My only caveat would be that its comprehensiveness makes this a bulky volume. For portability I would buy the Penguin Modern Classics "Essays" which has a very fine selection. Ideally buy both!
on 26 March 2011
This volume, comprising around 250 pieces, is as exhaustive a collection of Orwell's essays as there is. It is worth having if only because it includes 'The Freedom of the Press', intended as the preface to 'Animal Farm' but suspiciously undiscovered until 1972 and excluded from practically every other anthology, yet considered by Noam Chomsky Orwell's most important essay.
on 26 March 2015
The merit of the actual essays is somewhat overstated, but they are extremely interesting as historical texts - rather like the writings of J B Priestley, to whom O is sometimes compared. The stars are really for this edition, which is huge and good value for money.
In these by times highly emotional essays written in the 1930s and 1940s George Orwell gives us with in depth analyses his personal viewpoint on the literary, political and socio-economic scene.
In literature, he sees the novel as `a Protestant form of art, a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.' Orwell's aim was to `push the world in a certain direction: a battle against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism.'
In his criticism he searches for the essential (hidden) message of the author.
Dickens's rather naïve creed is: `If man would behave decently, the world would be decent.' His ideal is `a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children and no work.'
Henry Miller's books are `a passive acceptance of decay and evil.'
H.G. Wells dreams of a utopian World State.
R. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, but he didn't understand that `an empire is primarily a money-making concern'.
W.B. Yeats is in essence a defender of feudalism, `a great hater of democracy and of human equality, of the modern world, science, technology and the concept of progress.'
A. Koestler's main theme is `the decadence of revolutions owing to corrupting effects of power.'
P.G. Wodehouse's real sin is to present the English upper classes as much nicer than they are.
In `Gulliver's Travels', J. Swift delivers a frontal attack on totalitarianism and shows that he is a disbeliever in the possibility of happiness.
Orwell's view on world matters is rightly `no Law, only Power'.
Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power.
The concentration of the media in the hands of a few rich men puts the freedom of the press and intellectual liberty under attack. The `very concept of objective truth' is lost.
The Spanish war showed him the essential horror of army life.
He is extremely severe for the British establishment: `The British ruling class thought that Fascism was on their side.' For them, `it is better to inherit, than to work.' `In an England ruled by stupidity, to be `clever' was to be suspect.'
But his solution is also naïve: `common ownership of the means of production. The State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee.' In other words, he pleads for a massive bureaucracy.
But he contradicts himself when he complains that `everything in our age conspires to turn the writer into a minor official!'
These essays contain also vivid memories of his public school life (`irrational terror') and of his Indian life ('Shooting an elephant'). He comments on sports (`war without shooting), detective stories (J.H. Chase), poetry (`the most hated art form'), mildly pornographic comic postcards (`a harmless rebellion against virtue') and ends with a superb portrait of Ghandi.
These remarkable essays, written by a fearless superb free mind, a fighter for justice and a true `révolté' (A. Camus), are a must read.
on 14 September 2011
There is not enough space here to go in to a critique of Orwell (who was great despite being a bit of a nag) and nobody wants to read a long drawn out review that makes their eyes feel funny from looking at a computer screen for too long.
Therefore I will make the point that this collection can easily be found online, yes. Each essay can be printed and enjoyed for pretty much nothing. However, it is my opinion that in buying the book you will be doing yourself an intellectual service because each essay is great. This means you can flick through, land on a random essay and begin - It is comprehensive and a good book.