I was first introduced to George Orwell, like most Americans, in High School English class. Unlike many of my classmates, I not only completed the readings we were assigned, but I also enjoyed most of them. I did have one teacher–in an “advanced placement” class–who disliked some of our assigned readings and didn’t always require us to complete them, rather she would show us the movie to appease us and to satisfy the required “reading.” One book that comes to mind, specifically, that we watched the movie instead of reading was The Grapes of Wrath. Had I been a better student, I might have read it anyway.
I was lucky enough to have a father that read and enjoyed reading. What he hated was shopping, particularly in shopping malls. When I was young, having been raised in a town with the nearest stop light an hour away, we would occasionally travel to a small college town two and a half hours away to shop for clothes or other non grocery items. Invariably, mom and the older girls would want to go to the mall and see what JCPenney or Sears had on the rack. In that mall there was only one store my dad could tolerate and it was the book store (back before even Waldenbook–RIP–was around). We’d spend an hour or more perusing books while the others shopped. I don’t remember any specific books from this time but I do remember the feeling and the smell of books.
I would say the book that first got me hooked on reading was Beverly Cleary’s, Ribsy. I don’t know what it was but I was hooked. I followed this with a second home run in one of my all time favorites, Caravan to Oregon (this is a particularly pleasant smelling tome). During those early years I read such great books as Sign of the Beaver, The Great Brain series, The Wizard of Oz, The Blue Sword, A Wrinkle in Time, and Bridge to Terabithia. I was introduced to Louis L’amour in fourth grade and still enjoy many of his titles today. Calvin and Hobbes also became a regular read and re-read.
In sixth grade I was lucky enough to have a teacher who broke with convention and saved us from reading in a mind-numbingly awful collection of sixth grade reading drivel called Beacons. This wonderful teacher obtained permission from the school district to read classic literature with us as students. Here I was introduced to The Hobbit, The Wheel on the School, Summer of the Monkeys, and Banner in the Sky. Though this wasn’t where my love of reading began, the year certainly fanned the flames and propelled me into an appreciation of the reading I would be assigned in high school.
Seventh-grade was even better. Miss John allowed us to read anything we wanted, the only stipulation that we had a reading journal we had to write each week and we were graded on the quality of thought we put into the material we read. This was the year I fell in love with my favorite author, Gary Paulsen. A prolific purveyor of young-men-coming-of-age prose, Paulsen made me feel deeply about the characters, showing me the power of written words to change our world view. Some of my favorite books are still Paulsen’s and I reread them frequently. My poor librarian couldn’t order enough to satiate me, and I’m sure even Mr. Paulsen would have struggled to keep up at the time. Harris and Me, Hatchet, The Winter Room, Foxman, The Cookcamp, Woodsong, Canyons–just to name a few. I read them all. Up to the age of 16 I read everything he wrote.
I don’t remember much of freshman English, though I think that was the year of Romeo and Juliet. I do remember some grief my sophomore year when I was put in the class of the “rouge” English teacher who selected for our readings the alternately approved classics. Something of a scifi nut, while other teachers were reading Lord of the Flies and The Heart of Darkness, he had us read Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and other such works. I should have learned from my sixth grade experience, but I was angry at first. Now, I look back with appreciation.
Somewhere during junior and senior years, I was introduced to George Orwell with Animal Farm. This was the time of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Johnathon Livingston Seagull, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities (Regrettably, this title also fell prey to an uninterested teacher and fellow students ending up with The Grapes of Wrath as a title I took in only in movie form) and The Old Man and the Sea. Despite the strangeness of Seagull, the hopelessness of The Pearl, and the tragedy of Of Mice and Men, (and of course, the rich language of Shakespeare that quickly and unfortunately lost my interest at that time of life) I enjoyed nearly all of it. I have deep impressions of several of these books though I struggle to recall many details. Of Mice and Men is probably the most memorable to me which means to me that in some way I must have identified with George and Lenny. I felt as much sadness for George as I did for Lenny. I may be the first time that a book caught me by surprise in such an appropriate and awful way. It is definitely a book that has made me think about it ever since.
Animal Farm was a real pleasure. I think any child with exposure to Charlotte’s Web would enjoy Animal Farm for similar reasons, even without the profound allusions to the human condition. Of course, arguably the most famous line in the book, “Ask not what your country can do for…” Just kidding. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” sticks with all of us. I think even the most superficial reader would have to be impressed by this blatant hypocrisy. But really, that is what I took from Animal Farm. I was really too ignorant to grasp any more than that.
Fast forward from 1998 to 2014. I’m going through a significant crisis of faith in the religion of my upbringing. To keep it short, I found a great deal of solace in the words, writings, and language of Christopher Hitchens. A master of euphony, irony, and principled thinking, Hitchens words struck a resounding chord in me. I wanted to know everything about him to know what made him think, write, and speak the way he did. This exploration involved learning about those who had influenced him.
This leads us to George Orwell.
Don’t think me arrogant enough to speak for Hitch, but it seems he had three or four profound influences among dozens of significant ones. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, P.G. Wodehouse, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh,and George Orwell to name a few. If I put three at the top they would be Paine, Jefferson, and Orwell. I made my first real dive into understanding Mr Hitchens influences by reading a book he mentioned several times and that, for some reason, sparked my interest by title alone.
This book was George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air.
It wasn’t what I expected yet I found that I enjoyed it in a way I didn’t anticipate was possible. You see, after high school most of my reading was in fantasy. Tolkien, Hobb, Feist, Jordan (soap opera with pubescent whiny brats), Rothfuss (my personal favorite), and Harry Potter (I really kicked against the pricks on this one, but I am very glad I relented and read and enjoyed them). As I grew older I developed a keen interest in biography, history, social commentary, and behavioral psychology books. Isaacson’s Steve Jobs; Krakauer’s, Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Eiger Dreams; Christopher McDougall’s, Born to Run; Susan Cain’s, Quiet; Ann Coulter’s, Demonic; John Stossel’s, No We Can’t–as you can see, the best sellers at airport book stores. I thought many had a profound influence on me but now, having read Orwell as an adult, I see just how little they did for me in comparison.
Orwell gives us characters to whom we can relate. They are real and honest. I can’t help but think he is speaking through his characters rather than creating a purely fictional hero (especially this book where it has a somewhat autobiographical tone and a main character named, well, George). And very often his characters, as much as they try to be heroes, end up the tragic victims. Unlike Winston in 1984, George Bowling is the victim of his own choices who finds himself feeling powerless to change amidst the commercialization of society and the expansion of corporate industry into the genteel life of rural England.
I identified with George Bowling because of his intense nostalgia. If I were to pick one theme from the book it would be the power of nostalgia. Unfortunately, this sentimental, hopeful emotion is crushed by external influences. There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades the narrative as England draws closer and closer to war. Occurring between WWI and WWII, the impending, pressing fear of war is just around the corner. Still, in the midst of it all, George goes on a trip down memory lane to the sweet simplicity of childhood. I didn’t count but if I had to venture a guess, I would estimate that this remembrance involves two-thirds of the book.
A lesson I learned before reading this book was that nostalgia is both therapeutic and dangerous. Thus, for me, it is both a strength and a weakness. Sweet memories are a salve to a weary, wounded soul. Obsession over better times in the past creates bitter resentment for the chains of the present and the fear of the future. But as a kid, we don’t have that fear of the future. We just enjoyed the present without a past to compare it with. Perhaps that is why nostalgia is almost always associated with our childhood. When, but as a child, can we truly enjoy living in the now? This reminds me of some Wordsworth:
To her fair works did nature link, the human soul that through me ran
And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.
We really are the architects of our own misery as we move into adulthood.
George Bowling’s memories of his youth are beautiful and charmed. He goes to great lengths to express his love of fishing and how important that activity was for him. He recalls with longing the small store his father owned and the care taken to provide a good, reasonably priced product for his customers. He recalls school and fights and friends. He even recalls WWI with some fondness, not for the culture and climate of war but for the life he led before marriage and the responsibilities of making a living. He spent a great deal of time during the war in some remote posting in West England, far from any danger and in a place where he was getting paid to sit on his rear and read and learn whatever suited him.
Through it all, George maintains a grounded perspective.
It’s quite true that if you look back on any special period of time you tend to remember the pleasant bits. That’s true even of the war. But it’s also true that people then had something that we haven’t got now. What? It was simply that they didn’t think of the future as something to be terrified of. It isn’t that life was softer then than now. Actually it was harsher. People on the whole worked harder, lived less comfortably and died more painfully. The farm hands worked frightful hours for fourteen shillings a week and ended up as worn-out cripples with a five-shilling old-age pension and an occasional half-crown from the parish. And what was called “respectable” poverty was even worse.”
His marriage, it seems, is the source of a great deal of George’s anxiety. He seems to really despise being married. I’m not certain if the man would hate marriage in general, if his wife in particular is the problem, or if it is a combination of both. But his wife maintains a despairing attitude with a particular fear of not just the future, but of the present.
We’ve lived all our life together to the tune of “Next week we’ll be in the workhouse.” It’s not that Hilda’s mean, in the ordinary sense of the word, and still less that she’s selfish. Even when there happens to be a bit of spare cash knocking about I can hardly persuade her to buy herself any decent clothes. But she’s got this feeling that you ought to be perpetually working yourself up into a stew about lack of money. Just working up an atmosphere of misery from a sense of duty.
I found myself excited for George’s return to his childhood home. I couldn’t wait for him to get back to his roots. Orwell adeptly builds up George’s anticipation for many small but significant things. He is so excited as he comes over the rise in the road to see the small town he remembers; he can’t wait to see downtown and find his parents’ store; he sees a woman he used to date; he finds the old fishing hole he’s been dying to try out that he never did as a kid. Nothing is as he remembered it. Nothing. This may have been the most discouraging thing of all. He says early on in the book, as he recounts the death of his mother that:
Don’t think I didn’t feel for Mother’s death. I did. I wasn’t in the trenches any longer, I could feel sorry for a death. But the thing I didn’t care a damn about, didn’t “even grasp to be happening, was the passing-away of the old life I’d known.
His mother’s death notwithstanding, the point that we don’t notice how significantly our lives change at these moments is something I fear.
My favorite place to go as a child was my grandmother’s home. There was love, play, candy, and all the sweet memories tied into smells, sounds, and feelings. Even now, recalling the sensation of it all makes me yearn for it. In retrospect, I could have gotten happily stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of reliving those times. When my grandmother passed away years ago, I remember feeling grieved at her death but also an immeasurable sense of loss for the life I had once lived in her home. Though I was grown and married, it had never struck me, until her funeral, that those days were long gone–even though they had already been long gone for a decade!
Consider this quote from Andy Bernard on The Office television show:
I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.
That’s what is so magical about childhood, as I mentioned earlier. We have this great ability to live in the present without fear of the future or regret/yearning for the past. The present is all that matters. Sure, we adults shout “Carpe Diem!” at the top of our lungs but we don’t do it. We get overwhelmed with debt, responsibilities, jobs, kids, keeping up with the Jones’, back trouble, you name it. We suck at seizing the day. We get stuck in a rut and stop changing, stop learning, stop trying to understand the world beyond our physical, emotional, and indoctrinated reach. George Bowling makes this observation of a teacher he knows and visits whom he refers to as Old Porteous:
Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that. Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste—but he’s not capable of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.
Kids are always ready for something new, to embrace new ideas, to see from a different angle. Sure they don’t want to try a vegetable they aren’t familiar with but their minds are moldable.
But it is the world that can jade us, make us slaves to fear, fortune, and societal expectations. Take John Krakauer’s, Into the Wild. I read this book on a whim. While traveling back from Alaska on a dental school internship, I found this remarkable read in the airport bookstore. I always carry a book with me but shelled out the seventeen or so dollars and started reading. I don’t remember what book I was reading that I gave up on, I only remember that I couldn’t put down Into the Wild. If you haven’t read it, I strongly encourage you to do so.
When I finished the book, however, I felt like he was the only sane person in the world and everyone else was troubled. He rejected expectations and learned to live in the moment, enjoying the present with no other concern. His youth involved a significant betrayal that surely contributed to his need to find meaning in life. Still, he was an intelligent, honors student with the world of prestige ahead if he wanted it. Ironically, in rejecting society, with his death he has likely influenced far more people and to a far deeper degree than he probably would have done as a lawyer or businessman.
Back to Orwell, this simple life of living and breathing and focussing on the here and now are platitudes we don’t understand as adults, even inasmuch as we preach them and think we believe them. “Carpe Diem” has become a vestigial sentiment we utter with reverence and vigor but seldom put into effect in our lives with any degree of significance.
Coming Up For Air captures this struggle in one man and contrasts it with the apathy of the world around him, a world that has outpaced him as he loses himself in nostalgia and anxiety. Like much of what I’m learning from Orwell, his writing has a fatalistic zing. Life will overcome us. But within that, there is a hope for a return to simpler times. There is a yearning and expectation for mankind to learn to live again in the present. Also, I think there’s a resignation to the inevitability of the future. His disappointing return to the town in which he was raised seems to say, “Sometimes memories are better left memories.”
So now I have taken in many of Orwell’s thoughtful essays on writing and politics. While his intellect truly shines in these commentaries, it is in his characters that his philosophy and admonition really gripped my mind. Empathy augmented my capacity to learn from him through an honest individual, even a pig on two legs. This quality is more rare in essays and for that reason I realize the power of fiction to move us and influence our point of view, changing our paradigm in a way perhaps no other medium is capable.
I’ve just finished 1984 and loved it. That ought to be the subject of my next blog entry.
I don’t think Coming Up For Air is a book for everyone but, like high school assignments, I found myself thoroughly enjoying what others spurned and ridiculed. If you have read it or do read it, let me know what you think.