At The Margin
Vol. 3, Issue 7 (Whole Issue #33)
September 19, 2002
Matters, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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1. A Meditation on Roget's Thesaurus
2. Guest Article: Trading UP? by Tom Owen
3. Production Notes
4. Blue Underlined Words
5. E-Mail to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
1. A Meditation on Roget's Thesaurus
I once read somewhere that English has only one pair of true synonyms: furze and gorse. This is one of those items that has rattled around in my head for years -- long after I have forgotten the source of it. So this week I decided to try to verify at least portion of it. I looked up "furze" in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Second Edition), which is still my favorite dictionary after the OED. Sure enough, the first definition was simply "gorse." And when I looked up "gorse," it gave a fairly complete definition, with a little picture and said, "also furze."
Neither "furze" nor "gorse," however, appears in Roget's International Thesaurus (sixth edition, HarperCollins). It is the first time I have found Roget's to perform no better than the laughable thesaurus under the "Tools" menu in Microsoft WORD. Well, maybe it performed a little better. If Roget's gave me nothing, at least it didn't insult me. When I tried to look up "furze" in Microsoft Word, the software suggested I actually meant to type "fuse." When I typed in "gorse," it wanted to substitute "gory."
That proved a theory I have long held: that software thesauruses are despicable, or at least not useful for serious writers. They are every bit as bad as those reprehensible dictionary-format thesauruses, the ones that occasionally appear on the shelves and are promoted as being easier to use than Roget's. Bushwa.
Peter Mark Roget, whose biography still appears in the front of the Thesaurus, was born in London in 1779. He moved with his family to Edinburgh at 14 and entered the university there, where he studied medicine. He graduated from the medical school at 19 and began to publish significant research papers on pulmonary consumption and the effects of nitrous oxide. In 1805, took a position as a physician at the Public Infirmary at Manchester and achieved some notoriety by giving a series of lectures on medical subjects. That was when he began compiling lists of words to help him achieve precision in his presentations.
In the course of a successful medical career, he discovered the optical illusion known as the persistence of vision and wrote a paper on it that ultimately inspired the creation of motion pictures. As the head of a commission to study London's water supply, he wrote the first report of its kind on water pollution (although its recommendations were not followed). He invented the slide rule. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society.
He retired at the age of 61, and eight years later took up a project to classify the words of English in the same way the biologists' taxonomy classifies organisms. Over the next four years, he brought to publication a book that organized much of English vocabulary into six general classes: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, and Sentient and Moral Powers. The book was originally intended, not as a synonym finder, but to help its user find a word when he or she knew the concept but not its label. At the eleventh hour before publication, however, Roget capitulated to his publisher's wishes and added an index. The index made the book emininently useful for finding synonyms, and that made it an immediate success. It went through 28 editions just in Roget's lifetime, most of which he edited himself. It has been continuously in print (although his original six classes have changed somewhat -- there are 15 in the sixth edition) since 1852.
Roget's Thesaurus recently observed the 150th anniversary of its first edition. The observance produced a spate of articles, some of which cutely and tediously played on the theme of synonyms. (I remember seeing the phrase "Roget has become a synonym for synonym.") I don't have any links for you, but you may be able to find some with a Google search, if you're a devotee of tedium.
The definitive American version of Roget's is from HarperCollins, and last year it went into its sixth edition. The new edition features more than 330,000 words and phrases in 1,075 categories, according to the publisher, "including the newest slang words and expressions that color and inform everyday language." Personally, I think it is futile to include current slang, which has a way of changing very quickly, in a reference book. But it's not a bad marketing strategy since it brings on obsolescence sooner. The last several editions have been under the care of editor Robert L. Chapman, but this new one is edited by Barbara Ann Kipfer under his guidance.
I wouldn't try to work without a Roget's, and my paperbound fourth edition, with its 256,000 words and phrases, has seen hard use since I bought it ten years ago to replace the hardback third edition (a high- school graduation present to my wife from her roommate's mother), of which the binding had disintegrated. My association with Roget's has spanned more than my entire working life, but as a youngster, I burned myself several times on imprecise synonyms I found in it. If I'd known back then to check for "furze" and "gorse," I probably would have realized an important truth about Roget's: all its synonyms are imprecise. The point of its classification system is to help you find the precise word you need. You should not use Roget's without a good dictionary at hand.
But what about that index? Since 1852, the index has helped untold numbers of people to fetch the not-quite-right word. Simon Winchester believes this has corroded our language and weakened its users: "Roget has become no more than a calculator for the lexically lazy: used too often, relied on at all, it will cause the most valuable part of the brain to atrophy, the core of human expression to wither." Winchester is well known as the author of The Professor and the Madman, an intriguing account of the creation of the OED. His article about Roget's appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in May, 2001. You'll find it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/05/winchester-p1.htm.
Winchester's long article is persuasive, but it only looks at our language from the perspective of cooperative use. Yes, if English were merely a common enterprise to which we all contribute for the good of effective communication, then Roget's has been, on balance, a bad influence. But the users of English are more than a community. We are individuals, and we have aspirations, goals, careers, and even selfish desires. When English is viewed as a competitive weapon, or at least a tool for personal improvement, Roget's (used in conjunction with a dictionary) is both a friend and reliable companion. What it can do is make your papers, articles, and presentations better than the next guy's. And isn't being better than the next guy most of the reason we write papers, articles, and presentations? In writing an article about how Roget's makes your brain atrophy, is Winchester subtly disarming his competitors?
The way to use Roget's is not as a crutch to help you walk a well-worn path but as a machete to clear undergrowth in new territories. Don't use it to locate a word to express an incumbent thought, but as a means to nurture the candidacy of fresh ones. When, for example, you look up "synonym" in the index and it directs you to 526.1 (the first group of nouns in the category 526, "Word"), don't just pick a term and make off with it. Read all 22 groups in the 526 category, then have a look at category 527 ("Nomenclature") and category 525 ("Imperfect Speech"). You'll find not just new words but new ideas. And instead of picking a color, you'll get the rainbow itself.
You can find a brief biography of Roget at the BBC site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/roget_peter_mark.shtml. There was a book-length biography, Peter Mark Roget: The Word and the Man, published in 1970 and written by D. L. Emblen. It is out of print, and I have seen used copies on the web in the $50 to $10 range. To see a picture of a page from Roget's original manuscript, check this out: http://www.rain.org/~karpeles/rogetdis.html.
2. Guest Article: Trading UP? by Tom Owen
Nowdays the bookstore chains can dictate print runs, and to submit to one major publisher is to submit to a dozen because they're owned by international conglomerates who trade staff and selections back and forth. So it's reassuring that there are still places that publish books simply for being interesting if not quite saleable.
I don't mean small press or to publish-on-demand (the new home of vanity publishing in many cases), but to those old standbys, the university presses (UP). While some may grumble about their tax dollars supporting a publish-or-perish class (hereafter referred to as the pops), the broadness and quirkyness of UPs is entertaining. After all, who else would print a study of tonal quality in the White Hmong language (Northern Illinois UP) or the punctuation of John Milton's Paradise Lost (see the editor).
They don't only print dry erudite tomes either. John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Confederacy of Dunces, was done by Lousiana State University Press, and Tom Clancy's first book, The Hunt for Red October, was done by Naval Institute Press (a sort of UP) and the first work of fiction they ever did (but not the last). Indeed, the idea of publishing such best-sellers haunt the dreams of UP publishers and editors like Christmas sugar plums. This has produced some agonizing in the field. There has even been a whole book (God & Mammon -- Marsh Jenneret, University of Illinois) devoted to the lust for big-selling, high-profit titles at university presses.
But for the collector and the dealer (such as yours truly), UPs generally have a few good attributes: unusual subject matter (or a different slant on a popular subject), high-quality production, and small print runs. Combine all these and you have some rare, perhaps highly sought-after works that can be pleasing to the eye and the pocketbook. As a matter of research, Lazy River Books is doing a survey of university presses to see what lines and titles might be worth leaping on when out buying books everywhere.
For my first subject I chose a local operation, Northeastern University Press, based here in Boston. This is a rather young press, founded in 1977, but their website (http://www.nupress.neu.edu) lists over 400 available books. Their mission statement says they do books on American History, New England Studies, Criminal Justice, Law & Society, Political Science, American Studies, Women's Studies, African American Literature, and Music. They also distribute publications of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. They don't do original fiction and only publish one poety title a year.
They certainly have some interesting books in those fields: from biographies of jazz singers (Billie Holliday) to autobiographies of opera singers (Eileen Farrell). In Law, they have several books on the death penalty in America, including one by a prison warden who gave the order to execute (Death at Midnight). Their Black Studies books are wide-ranging -- from the pre-Revolutionary War to Rodney King -- while the Women's Studies go from present day to Louisa May Alcott (lots of that). And recalling those dreams of best-sellerdom, this is the place which currently publishes Peyton Place (it's New England Studies, really). This is a site worth checking out if you are interested in any of those areas, but we were originally researching its collectability and prices. Perhaps because of the press's youth, there isn't too much. Research on the Internet for titles selling over $50 turns up a small number, and quite of few of those are still being offered on the university website at lower prices (bad research or a damn-the-market attitude by some dealers).
So what are the gems to look for if you're out browsing shelves somewhere? A couple of art books are worth noticing: William Partridge Burpee, American Marine Impressionist by Roger Howlett goes for $35 to $85 currently, and The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Era by Trevor J. Fairbrother ranges from $50 to $150 (this is actually from the Museum of Fine Arts). The Art of Translation edited by Rosanna Warren is a surprise at $50 to $60. An oddball title, Restitution: The Land Claims of the Mashpee, Passamaguoddy, and Penobscot Indians of New England, is at $85.00 for only 148 pages. Recall my mention of Rodney King. Well Beyond the Rodney King Story from only seven years ago ranges between $19 on Half.com to $50 at other places. Finally, the heart attack is a volume by Michael Murray titled Marcel Dupre: The Work of a Master Organist. This is being offered for $225.00 online. If you ran across one of these titles at a yard sale or a thrift shop and it was in Very Good condition with its dustjacket, then you might grab it, assuming you have or dream of having your own bookselling operation. But always remember James Joyce's advice, slightly paraphrased: A bookdealer is a clever fellow who buys low and sales dearly.
Overall, that isn't many titles, but as I mentioned, this is a young press. You may be best off simply keeping an eye out for the always popular subject categories, such as music, and oddball items of history from them. In any case, good hunting.
Tom Owen has worked for decades at Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury Street in Boston. He is also the proprietor of Lazy River Books, a mail-order bookseller of unusual fiction and nonfiction "in every field and genre" (http://www.abebooks.com/home/LAZYRIVER/.) Please don't contact the editor with questions about the punctuation in Paradise Lost. Tom's reference to it is an in-joke alluding to a short story, written by your editor in 1973.
3. Production Notes
I apologize for missing the August issue. I have a quantity of excuses, which fall into three general categories: my novel, my direct marketing work, and my teaching.
My Novel. The novel interfered because I was able this month to finish (more than three years after starting it) the first draft of Dark Plantation. I think it needs only one more draft before I am ready to seek commercial representation and publication for it.
My Direct Marketing. The direct marketing interfered because the business appears to be slowly recovering from the one-two punch of the anthrax scare and a recession. That's not to say the recession is over, but marketing efforts often precede a recovery. Marketing types will tell you they cause it. If you want to know about my work in direct marketing, visit the website of the ad agency Baier Stein Direct (http://www.directcopy.com ).
My Teaching. I also teach novel-writing online for Gotham Writers' Workshop (http://www.writingclasses.com ), and this past summer I had the most enthusiastic class I have ever seen. Enthusiastic classes are both rewarding and fun, but they can be a little more time-consuming than others. I learned more about teaching and about my craft this summer, but I had to put some things off to keep up.
Over the next few months, I hope to move At The Margin to a different server, where I will be able to implement a web-based signup system. If I am able to do it right, you will notice nothing different except a new explanation for signing up at the beginning of each issue. But I thought I ought to warn you in case I botch things, and the system sends you all a strange message or something. I also intend to develop some kind of arrangement that will let me link to an ordering page from any book mentioned, new or used. This is my plan for generating some financial return through this newsletter, which I do otherwise just for fun. The fun is great, but whenever paying work comes in, this newsletter gets pushed aside.
4. Blue Underlined Words
Interesting items I've found on the web this month, not always related to books.
Hermit for a Weekend
Fans of Augustan poetry may know it was once de rigeur for an English estate to feature a hermit living in a cave. To recreate this 18th century fashion, the Staffordshire county council public arts project hired one to spend the weekend of September 21-22 in a cave on land owned by The National Trust. The ad ran in four publications and attracted nearly 150 applicants.
The Regulation of Creativity
Cave-dwelling hermits are probably the only people who aren't aware that our culture is being subjected to an enclosure movement. Corporations use their ownership of Congress to extend their ownership of "intellectual property," and we are all the poorer for it, since cultural development and innovation occur chiefly in the commons. Standford Law professor Lawrence Lessig has argued tirelessly on behalf of what he calls free culture, but he seems to finally be tiring out. This page is a transcript of his keynote address to the 2002 Open Source Convention, which he says is probably his penultimate speech on this subject. "One more," he says, "and it's over for me." Good news for corporations. Bad news for anybody who creates or consumes art.
Treasures of the British Library
History buffs know the Library of the British Museum as the place where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital. It is now part of The British Library, created by an act of Parliament in 1972 that combined several national libraries. It holds over 150 million items from every age of global civilisation. The John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of The British Library (which is what this link points to) features the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, the first published edition of Alice in Wonderland (Alice's Adventures Under Ground), and Jane Austen's History of England (written when the author was 16), among other treasures.
Powers of Ten
"Science, Optics & You" is a page of the Molecular Expressions website. It uses a Java applet to offer you successive views of an oak tree just outside the buildings of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida. The view starts at 10 million light years and goes down to 100 attometers (a size at which quarks can be distinguished), an order of magnitude at a time. It's remarkable that the views at 10,000 light years and 10 picometers are very similar. Very educational, and great for putting your personal problems in perspective.
This site provides practical techniques for personal growth, including the achievement of inner peace and the conquest of addictions. It features the work of Jerry Dorsman, author of How to Quit Drinking Without AA, since 1991 a bestseller in three languages. Dorsman is also the author of How to Quit Drugs for Good and the co-author, with Bob Davis, of You Can Achieve Peace of Mind. Your editor counts both Dorsman and Davis lifelong friends.
How to Clean a Cat
This isn't what you would call intellectual humor, but it made me laugh out loud.
5. E-mail to the Editor
Editor's Note: The messages we receive here at ATM often take on the character of a dialogue or conversation with the previous issue. You can find that issue on the web: http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM32.html.
Annotations on Petard
Thanks again for an entertaining edition of ATM.
The ultimate origin of "petard" is from the French and Indo- European roots that mean "fart." Knowing Shakespeare's love of double- entendre, I have to believe that he was thinking both of engineers being exploded and people being lifted up out of their chairs by their own farts.
A Google search for "petard fart" will find a hundred or so entertaining discussions of the origins of petard, but I haven't found one that concludes that Shakespeare did it on purpose.
In France, around the Fourteenth of july, the word pêtard is commonly and frequently used to mean "fire cracker."
Besides firecracker, it means a scandal (ruckus), and in the gangster slang it simply means a gun. The verb pêter, from which the word petard comes, means to fart. It also means to explode, to burst, to fail, to miss (according to circumstances). The word pet, which means a domisticated animal in English, is the word for fart in French (pron. pay).
Une petarade is a series of loud, bursting noises such as you may hear at a fireworks display.
A minor addition to your first item: I've read that the rear-firing performer called "Le Petomane" derived his stage name from the word "petard."
[Editor's Note: in addition to being a fount of information, the ATM audience also harbors a number of luminaries. Genevieve Chartier is the author of the novels La Fille des Michettes (1993) and Diplomatic Pouch (1995). Marc Abrahams is the editor of Annals of Improbable Research (see http://www.improbable.com/). His publication sponsors the annual IgNobel(r) Awards, for which the ceremony will be held this year on October 2 at Harvard University. My favorite every year is the Peace Prize. Last year, it went to Viliumas Malinauskus of Grutas, Lithuania, the founder of the amusement park, "Stalin World."]
It's 'A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.' I know it was a quotation -- maybe you missed out the 'sic'?
[Editor's Note: No, I just missed it. Thanks for the correction.]
On the Naming of Cars
The section on cars and names in the last ATM amused me. Also reminded me of a comment my daughter, Denali, made when she was about 3. Someone had remarked that GM had just named a new truck model after her, and she replied, as if this were the most ordinary thing in the world, "Yes, they named a car after me and a mountain before me."
Keep up the good work.
Thanks for your little bit on my book, Letters to J. D. Salinger. Here's my offer for your "cars called author's names" thing:
Drive the Salinger, because wax and olives matter.
The First Line: Orwell's 1984. This was given to us as an example of a perfect science fiction opener in a lecture by SF writer Colin Greenland last year. I remembered the line but it took my writing friend, Vana, to remember which book. 1984 was just too long ago for my brain. In so many ways.
On Travelling and Books: Tony and I each took a stack of books with us to Provence this month, but neither of us ended up reading much fiction. Tony read William Shawcross's Deliver Us from Evil: Warlords and Peacekeepers in a World of Endless Conflict. This contained a scathing analysis of American [especially Clinton's] involvement in Bosnia and being that we have an Anglo-American marriage, I heard most of that read aloud, whether I wanted to or not.
I read a tome on Japanese aesthetics and culture that I had been trying to get through for months. Being on holiday, away from all the normal demands on brain activity, is a real plus for reading. Go on, ask me how the 14th century concept of 'yugen' in Noh theatre relates to later developments in the concept of 'sabi' in the Tea Ceremony.
I also read Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative, "the only known novel written by a female African-American slave." Who let Henry Louis Gates, Jr, the purported editor, loose on this? Or rather, why didn't they glue him to it until he had actually edited it? Gates decided that we all wanted to see it in a form as close to the original manuscript as possible, so it is littered with crossed-through words and mispellings. I'm sure Hannah would have appreciated a sensitive red pen treatment.
[Editor's Note: Another luminary. Bonnie is the Cambridge, England-based ceramist and sculptor Bonnie Kemske, who is also your editor's sister. She's the only one who answered my request in the our previous issue for information about holiday reading.]
At The Margin has 1,225 subscribers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 1,224 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (firstname.lastname@example.org).
6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a book by a famous writer that is at least 10 years old. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to email@example.com. Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.
This Issue's Sentence
There could be no doubt about it; the new nameplate was crooked.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Nineteen readers offered answers for this one. All were correct but two: one guessed The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber (good guess!) and another suggested it was the first line of a newspaper account of his wedding, which took place at thirteen hundred hours on April 6, 1946 (good try, Jess!). The others correctly identified it as the first line of Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell. Correct answers were submitted by Allison, Arabella, Vance Atkins, John Byford, Shonna Froebel, Lauren Halicki, Elizabeth Hogan, Bonnie Kemske, David Kunian, Bryan & Homer & Sampson McEnroe (counts as one -- Homer & Sampson are cats), Angela Murphy, Joshua Paulin, Marvin Schneider, sonny, and Paul Spiteri.
There were also two nontraditional answers. Dirk Godshalk pointed out that you could enter the entire sentence at the search engine Google and get the answer. And Tom Owen offered this answer: "Thirteen O'clock: A Novel of George Orwell and 1984 by Thurston Clarke, sort of a lost manuscript historical mystery. It has several pages of historical notes and other material at the beginning, including a page with that line. One can argue if that constitutes a first sentence, but I think anyone who submits it should get double points."
Tom, of course, gets double points.
This novel apparently has a lot of meaning for some ATM readers. Several readers, when offering guesses, said they hadn't read the book since high school and yet recognized it anyway. Two had recently re- read it. Bryan McEnroe (goaded by his cats, no doubt) challenged me for not using the book's last sentence: "He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother." John Byford offered this brief description of his attachment to George Orwell: "It was the second George Orwell I read as a teenager (Animal Farm the first) though strangely haven't re-read Nineteen Eighty-four for many years. A wonderful writer, it's the essays and letters that continue to draw me to the man. Favourite full-length book varies from year to year: Homage to Catalonia just shades it with Coming up for Air a close second. If you're ever in Paris the place where he lived while working as a plonguer is easy to find off the Rue Mouffetard, a wonderful street market; well worth a detour." And Angela Murphy, another of ATM's UK readers, happens to know the landscape in which the book is set: "An interesting titbit for you (one of the many useless pieces of information I carry around with me) -- I studied and work at the University of London in the UK, and as you may or may not know, Senate House, the official building of the University, is where Nineteen Eighty-four was written. The Ministries of Big Brother are based on this building -- it's very imposing, grey and frowning and dominates the skyline around the area, and is actually a lot nicer on the inside than it looks from the outside!!"
George Orwell is the pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair (another fact known by several of our readers). He was born in Bengal, India in 1903, to a sahib family that was not at all well-to-do. His father was a minor civil servant. His mother was the daughter of a failed teak merchant from Burma. At the age of one, he moved to England with his mother and sister. He was later enrolled in a preparatory school, where he was considered an outsider for his poverty and his brilliance. His childhood misery is documented in an autobiographical essay (published in 1953), "Such, Such Were the Joys." Then he studied from 1917 to 1921 at Eton, where Aldous Huxley was one of the masters.
He did not go on to university, but in 1922 went to Burma, where he served as assistant district superintendent in the Indian Imperial Police. If you want to know what this was like, I recommend an essay he wrote called "Shooting an Elephant," which was published much later, in 1950. Perhaps one of the best essays in English, it is on the web: http://englishwww.humnet.ucla.edu/Individuals/turbo4/orwell_text.html (that's just one location for it, and it's not a particularly well edited instance of this essay, but it has about a dozen useful annotations). He found life as an agent of British imperialism to be miserable, and when he went back to England on leave in 1927, he decided not to return to Burma but to take up writing.
Trying to unburden himself of the shame he'd felt as a beneficiary of caste in the colonial service, he took up life as a pauper. He dressed in ragged clothes, lived among laborers and beggars in the East End of London, became a migrant laborer in the hop fields of Kent, and finally went to the slums of Paris, where he found work as a dishwasher in restaurants and hotels. Out of this life, he wrote Down and Out in Paris and London, a memoir published in 1933. His first novel, Burmese Days, was published the next year. I haven't read it yet, but he said himself it is unlike his other novels: "I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their own sound."
His writing did not support him financially, and he taught at a private school. He married a doctor's daughter, and he wrote two more novels: A Clergyman's Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Then, on a commission from a publisher, he wrote a political treatise on unemployment called The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). He was already in Spain, reporting on the Civil War, by the time this book reached print. In Spain, he was shot in the throat by a Francoist sniper, and this wound was said to have subsequently given his voice a compelling softness. When Spain dissolved into chaos, he escaped with his wife back to England. His Spanish Civil War book, Homage to Catalonia (1938), includes a chapter defending the Trotskyists who had been accused by the Stalinists of plotting with Franco. He came away from the Spanish experience with a lifelong hatred of Communism, writing later, "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism as I understand it."
George Orwell (it just seems more comfortable to call him that than to use his real name) believed there were four principal motivations for a writer: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Writers may be driven by any of these motivations, he said, or even all of them in some combination. It was not part of his nature to be motivated by political purpose but he said that the time in which he lived demanded it. He was, then, a political writer by accident of circumstance.
His wife died in 1945. They'd had only one child, a boy they adopted during the war.
In 1945, he was made famous by the publication of Animal Farm, which he called "a fairy story." This novel is a reasonably faithful but allegorical account of the rise of Stalinism and its betrayal of the revolution, set on an English farm. The book made enough money for him to buy a remote house on the Hebridean island of Jura, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life, except for hospital stays to treat his tuberculosis. Animal Farm is a political book, and one of its finest achievements is its ridicule of political propaganda. When, for example, Napoleon the pig first walks on two legs, the sheep (who had always bleated, "Four legs good, two legs bad!") are on hand to bleat about it, "Four legs good, two legs better!" And the pigs' corruption of the farm's original slogan to "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" encapsulates the tendency of revolutionaries to betray their revolutions. Animal Farm, incidentally, was rejected for publication on behalf of Faber and Faber by T. S. Eliot, who seemed to think Orwell had not treated the pigs fairly. The pigs, Eliot said, were the most intelligent animals and the ones best qualified to run the farm. "What was needed was not more communism but more public spirited pigs." It could as well be a diagnosis for our own age: we need more public spirited pigs.
Orwell married again in 1949, to a magazine editor. And that was the year Nineteen Eighty-four was published. The novel has been an enormously influential book. It has inspired two films and at least one television commercial (broadcast during the 1984 Superbowl). It was by no means the first dystopian novel (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, to name only one, had appeared nearly 20 years before), but it set such a standard for the form that it might as well have invented it. Since Nineteen Eighty-four, people have been more likely to believe the world is headed ultimately toward totalitarianism. And, in fact, almost everything we know about totalitarianism comes -- directly or indirectly -- from this book.
In the novel, one man struggles to maintain his sanity in a society run by a brutal organization known as The Party, which keeps itself in power by maintaining a state of war with one of the other two totalitarian states (it doesn't matter which one -- the enemy changes regularly), by rationing, by constant surveillance of citizens, and by summary imprisonment or execution of nonconformists. The Party has three slogans: "War Is Peace," "Freedom Is Slavery," and "Ignorance Is Strength." But The Party's control is not limited to surveillance. Its goal is to control citizens' actual thinking. To this end, it employs the Thought Police (whose function is obvious from the name). But its main strategy is based on controlling all information. Of course The Party dictates what is published in newspapers, magazines, and on the telescreen, but it also changes anything that was previously published to align history with its current goals. The novel's protagonist, Winston Smith, daily rewrites news stories for the archives and destroys the originals (by dropping them in the "memory hole"). Smith is horrified by this work. Orwell's own preoccupations are probably revealed in the novel's appendix, "The Principles of Newspeak," an outline of The Party's strategy to continually reduce the scope of the language to make certain areas of thought literally unthinkable.
As a dystopian novelist, I can tell you that dystopian novels do not necessarily try to be predictive. So it doesn't take anything away from Nineteen Eighty-four to point out the year 1984 came and went without the realization of its vision. In a larger sense, however, Orwell got it wrong. He was so appalled by the idea that language might be an instrument of control rather than communication that he assumed the adoption of Newspeak would require police truncheons and summary executions. But he underestimated the amount of effort required to control a modern population. Many people would willingly give up half of the English language if it meant they only had to think half as much. And if you're after extra privileges for a tiny elite, then state ownership, in the era of the modern corporation, is too much bother.
In Nineteen Eighty-four, The Party organizes "Hate Week" to pump up hatred and build mass loyalty. But Orwell didn't imagine the sheer joy that many people take in hate and didn't anticipate the possibility of staging the equivalent of "Hate Week" every afternoon on talk radio. And who needs Newspeak to reduce the scope of the language when you have the sound bite? Yes, we continue to have political debate, but much of it sounds remarkably like "Four legs good, two legs bad!"
For a certain segment of the electorate, ignorance is indeed strength.
Orwell died in 1950 of tuberculosis, three months after marrying for the second time.
You can find his wonderful essay, "Why I Write," on the web at http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/whywrite.html. And try The Chestnut Tree Cafe (http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~allport/chestnut/ ), a site whose name is an allusion to Nineteen Eighty-four. And here's a short bio: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/gorwell.htm. For an opinion piece on how Nineteen Eighty-four's methods of totalitarian control are being used today, see http://www.tompaine.com/feature.cfm/ID/6243. Orwell's complete works were published in 1998 in 20 volumes, and I saw a used set of this work quoted on the web at over $1,300. But his essays are all over the web, and used copies of his novels are readily available. I recently bought a single hardbound volume, published in 1980, that includes six of them, and I got it for under $5.
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