"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What I'm Reading Right Now: 1984

I've just started 1984 for the first time, and I only have one major quibble, which is: why didn't he write the book as the contents of Winston's diary? I assume there's some turn in the plot later in the book that makes this impossible, but I think it would have been a very good choice for the first bit of the story at least.

There's something very immediate and high-stakes about reading a story as it unfolds in a character's diary account, instead of with the hindsight of standard narration. There's a wonderful section of The Woman in White (which I still haven't finished, but will soon) told through a diary, and it's incredibly exciting and suspenseful.

A diary also obviously puts us in first-person territory, which I think would have been ideal for Winston's story, because, as he says, the only space he has to himself is the several cubic centimeters inside his head, and most of the book so far is just thoughts, thoughts, thoughts because that's all he has. So why not first-person, which would make us, like him, feel trapped inside that head, possibly the only freely-thinking head in the world.

Finally, were the book written as a diary or even just in first-person, Orwell would have been forced to do the exposition a little less expositorially, which I think is the one weakness of the opening. I really was crawling through the book until about page 50, when we had finally established everything we needed to know about Oceania. Then, suddenly, plot and character started happening, and when I got to the end of part one, where I'd planned to stop, I could not resist turning the next page to see what happened.

My other main reaction so far is surprise at how obviously Orwell references Communism and Soviet Russia and at the words and references that have entered common culture but that originated in this book - the most obvious example being Big Brother. It's like reading a piece of history, which is interesting in light of what Orwell is writing about, too. All in all, so far, it's not been a pleasant read (especially coming right after Waugh's hilarity), but I believe I'm now hooked.

As a side note, when I was looking for a cover image to include in this post, I came across a huge range of them (which just goes to show how important this book is, or how important people think it is). Here are some of my favorites:

Political satire or dime romance? I especially like the tag line at the top.

This, on the other hand, makes it look more like a noir or a contemporary sci-fi best-seller.

I like the grittiness of this one, and the face that it looks like there are fingers reaching out of the mouth instead of teeth. Creepy.
I especially like this last one because of its simplicity and those striking those black lines coming out of the four. It also suggests to me the layout of a map, and architecture and physical space are so important in the book, especially in the contrast between Winston's space of work and sleep and the world of the proles, with its winding streets and hidden corners. I also just like the idea of covers that continue front-and-back.

No comments:

Post a Comment