Posts Tagged ‘george orwell’

Usually, I equate George Orwell’s name with visionary, serious political fiction. But Books and Cigarettes allowed me to add good humour and frank self-examination to the list of things I like about his writing. This itty-bitty (126 pages) book is one of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. It’s a collection of essays, all of which were originally articles published towards the end of Orwell’s life.

As to the short and sweet titular essay, the text of which you can read in full here; finally — the quintessential question resolved! For the record, I have been in the ‘books’ corner from the cradle (and, I suspect, will be until the grave), though I’m perhaps not a good judge, never having been tempted even once by those lethal little sticks George Orwell proposes as their adversary. Don’t expect a treatise on the virtues of both. This essay leans more towards economic analysis, with Orwell challenging the old excuse that books are too expensive to enjoy regularly.

Other essays in the collection deal with the experiences of lumpen schoolboys at British preparatory schools (ghastly and hilarious), public hospitals in France (just plain ghastly), and freedom of speech (people don’t seem to know what it is). In most of the articles, Orwell draws from his own experiences. My favourite of the compositions was, of course, ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, an ostensibly hypothetical dissection of the horrors of that profession. It contains the following gem:

Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not
discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of
ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’,
while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book
does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were
paid to’.

(You can read some of Orwell’s reviews here.)

I, unlike most non-professional readers, rarely allow myself the pleasure of discontinuing an acquaintance with even a very bad book. First, savaging the end product of a highly objectionable writing/marketing/publishing process is sometimes worth the pain. Second, well, I paid my money. And third, I like to see things through until the end. But ‘Confessions’ and ‘Bookshop Memories’ (which details Orwell’s experiences working in a second-hand bookshop) show that Orwell regarded professional engagement with the publishing industry as a killer of passion for books.

Though I can sympathise with being tired of handling endless books and the people who love to love them more than you and other quirks of the industry, I disagree that such attitude-deterioration is inevitable. Obviously, considering that I review and edit written material even in my spare time. But I can definitely agree to reading Orwell’s non-fiction writing any day.

George Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair and Eric Blair once lived on the streets. This is a true fact, and here is a true-ish book about it. You can have a look for free here. Down and Out in Paris and London is a clever mash-up of Orwell’s experiences and observations while slumming it in the restaurants of Paris and tramping the streets in London.

Since Orwell had family and friends who were well off in both cities, there’s nothing near the desperation of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. What we get instead is an experimental, but pragmatic breakdown of the minutiae of poverty. And it’s not pretty; we’ve got bugs, sexual harassment, social ostracism and a neverending diet of bread and tea. But on the other hand, there is resourcefulness, mateship and Orwell designs a basic blueprint for a commune that would benefit the English poor, whose hardship Orwell concludes is essentially perpetuated by the state. A wonderful book that will make you think and squirm.

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