Orwell captures what other writers can not, or will not. He isn’t afraid of recounting his vulgar times because he knows we are all vulgar; not afraid of sharing his weaknesses because he knows we are all weak.
He is the simplest profound writer to ever live. He has a vast understanding of the English language, but more importantly, his approach to writing is simple: be clear and say what you mean. A further strength that Orwell’s contemporaries lacked was his empathy; his writing is free from ego and distain, full of compassion and the unbiased search to understand. Orwell’s tips for any writer is the following questions:
“What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
The question is not should you read Orwell’s essays, but which should you read. There are more great essays by Orwell than you probably have time to read. So I have broken down my favourite into categories of inquisition.
For gaining a bit of earthly compassion, read:
- A Hanging
- Shooting an Elephant
- Down the Coal Mine
To improve as a writer, read:
- Why I Write
- Politics and the English Language
Unbiased, interesting reflections on well known people:
- Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool
- Reflections on Gandhi
- Benefits of Clergy (Dali)
To understand communism, totalitarianism and the ‘great’ wars:
- You and the Atomic Bomb
- England your England
My Reading Notes:
- Orwell’s writing shines through with empathy
- When we fail to love nature we have failed to have anything worth fighting for. What good will utopia be if we cannot enjoy it’s real fruits.
- We only seek revenge when we are powerless. Once the tables have turned and we are in power, we no longer feel the need for revenge but rather carry it out of respect our ego and sense of pride.
- It is easy to be an idealist when you don’t have to step over the dead bodies yourself.
- Shooting an Elephant
While it feels extreme to read this, it captures just how much of the worlds horrors have occurred for pitiful reasons.
- We are human. We have human weaknesses, but our weaknesses cause suffering far greater than what could be called human.
- We often think drastic action must come from drastic reasons. That just shows how little we understand about the feeble human mind.
- Many of the worlds worst events have occurred from “intangible” motivations: acceptance, respect, insecurity, fear.
- Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool
While reading this essay I noticed how quickly my opinion of someone could change.
- Why should I defend something so fickle as my own opinion.
- Men obsessed with the “truth” die a lonely death
- I no longer want to be a saint, I simply want to be a good man
- The best way to understand totalitarianism is this: Totalitarianism is replacing Law with Power. It is no longer what is considered rationally right and wrong, but whether the man with the upper hand wished it so.
- We view everything through the lens of our own experiences. Our view on totalitarianism is only as bad as our own experience of dictatorship.
- On Gandhi
The only way to become a saint is to completely abandon yourself. How can we admire such suicide?
- “The effect [of reading] is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives.”
- “[On idealist] So much of left-wing though is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”
- “Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.”
- “[On Henry Miller] He is fiddling while rome is burning, and, unlike the majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face towards the flame.”
- “And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we would let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.”
- “In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at lease while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts our that superior persons can remain superior.”
- “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying over-head, trying to kill me.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding me who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-p;laced bomb, he will never sleep any worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.”
- “Patriotism is always stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.”
- “A ‘tragic’ situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.”
- “Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.”
- “It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hard on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.”
- “Dali is even by his own diagnosis narcissistic, and his autobiography is simply a strip-tease act conducted in pink limelight.”
- “An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”
- “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that is shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman,’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.”
- “In ages which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance.”
- “If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia?”
- “So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going around the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
- “No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.”
- “If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way.”
- “Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless; as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.”