The stock price in dystopian literature has had a banner last few weeks. As the daily revelations on the magnitude of government-sponsored surveillance in the United States have come to light — along with wall-to-wall media saturation of government contractor Edward Snowden's accusations of Big Brother run amok in the interest of national security — a British man named Eric Arthur Blair is one of the unlikely benefactors. Blair is best known by his pen name, of course, George Orwell. His greatest-known work is the seminal dystopian novel "1984."
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The full-court media coverage of the National Security Administration scandal sent sales of "1984" skyrocketing. Faster than one can utter the words "Red Light Camera," the book flew off store shelves in both virtual and brick-and-mortar retail operations. Sales of the 1949 novel rose nearly 6,000 percent on Amazon, landing the book in the online site's "Top 100." (As of writing this, "1984" was the second best-selling "classic," behind only "The Great Gatsby" — chalk that up to the power of cinematic adaptations).
"I can confirm that there is renewed interest in the book," said Sky Anderson, a sales associate at the Book Cellar bookstore in Lincoln Square. "I think it reflects how people are embracing their paranoia."
Paranoid or not, Americans have been accused of being a nation of nonreaders. A 2004 National Endowment for the Arts study entitled, "Reading at Risk," posited that nearly half of American adults no longer indulged in "literary reading." What with the proliferation of Redbox, Xbox, Netflix, smart phones and apps for every whim, it is no wonder that the good old book (particularly those works that challenge us to ponder) have been facing their own dystopian days. Many in the literary community have been sounding the alarms about the demise of reading for years.
And this is why the brisk sales of "1984" are so darned interesting. As Americans grapple with the conundrum of security versus privacy — that vexing line between civil liberty and safety — they are turning in droves to the Orwell masterpiece.
I first read "1984" in my ninth grade English class, as many did. Orwell is a staple of middle and high school curricula. I found the book to be a bleak and grey vision of an imaginary world, a dystopic world far detached from the landscape of my own upbringing. I grew up in the 1980s, a decade perceived by many as time of beneficence, of excess, the "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall" era.
Orwell's own 1980s, the tale of Winston Smith, a minion within the ruling Party in London in a fictional nation known as Oceania, was pure fantasy when I first approached it. The novel tracks Winston's waxing disdain for the oppressive totalitarian government, the omniscient "Big Brother" who watches its citizen's every step. Go out of your house? You would be watched via "telescreens." Freethinking and freedom of expression? Illegal. Everywhere Winston goes, the propaganda posters beckon:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Upon first encountering Orwell's muted world, reading it at the dawn of the decidedly unmuted MTV era — I narrowly missed literally reading the book in 1984 by one year — I looked at the book as a cautionary satire of what could happen if government abused its power and if technology continued to gain a foothold into our daily lives. But when I read it, I didn't think it would happen. Orwell's book was more speculative fiction than contemporary truth, an unlikely political warning. But, like many Americans, apparently, the recent events of the U.S. government accessing records of our phone and computer usage recently prompted me to reconsider the prophetic nature of Orwell's book. So I decided to revisit "1984" to see if, in any way, its author's prognostications are coming to pass. I also hoped to better understand why so many others were turning to the book during a time of unprecedented government intrusion into our daily lives.
And so, armed with a 60th anniversary edition of "1984," I found myself with a flight delay at Midway Airport. I had no sooner opened the novel than a friendly woman sat down next to and looked at my book.
"That story is becoming more true every day," she said.
An hour later on board my flight, my seat mate, an emergency room nurse from Cincinnati, looked at the novel in my hands and echoed the sentiment:
"Well!" she said. "That's timely."
Certainly, as the authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury (I have written two books on the author and co-edited another), I am well versed in the field of dystopian science fiction. Along with "1984," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and Bradbury's own timeless examination of the totalitarian state, "Fahrenheit 451," make up a sort of mid-century triumvirate of fictional dystopic classics. But while "Fahrenheit 451" looks at the proliferation of mass media in our culture and its adverse impact on our cultural curiosity and intellect, I quickly discovered in rereading Orwell's book that "1984" is a much more piquant indictment of government's watchful eye into our every day movements. "1984" is a prescient ponderance of one working man's awakening from the doldrums of the proverbial office cubicle and his yearning for individuality. Protagonist Winston Smith was Orwell's anti-Soviet, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist response to his own time. Curious, then, in some ways, that so many hold the book to the light and declare its relevance to 2013.
Certainly, the similarities to the present are uncanny. Orwell's Oceania is in a constant state of war — while our own War on Terror seems likely to be infinite. Orwell's surveillance state relies on technology to monitor citizens; Internet companies in our world are being asked to hand over user records. In Orwell's haunting vision, Big Brother claims to act in the best interest of the people, just as our own Patriot Act — agree with it or not — is employed as a protective measure in the post-9/11 landscape. Winston Smith, is employed in the fictional "Department of Truth," a beauracracy responsible for propaganda and revising history to cast Big Brother in a better light. Smith's very job is to rewrite newspaper articles to alter the historical record.
The rise and misuse of technology? A prying government? Altering facts to advance a wartime political agenda? No wonder so many are snatching "1984" up in numbers that would make Dan Brown envious.
"Fahrenheit 451" and "1984" were published just four years apart. And, as all good speculative fiction endeavors to do, the books examine contemporary ills through the prism of the future. In rereading Orwell's classic, I am ever more convinced of its subconscious influence on Bradbury's own masterwork. (Bradbury told me it was an influence, but not a heavy one.) Both books are paranoid, cautionary works that use satire to look at serious political themes. Both works center upon a minion (Winston Smith in "1984"; Guy Montag in "Fahrenheit 451"). Both books have a shadow resistance lurking in the background, looking to overthrow the totalitarian state. Both books speak to the rise of technology — most notably television. And both works speak to the power of the individual to change the system.
The fact that "1984" is enjoying a rebirth in sales is not surprising. Perhaps more interesting is the notion that in times of rising censorship, infringement on civil liberties and the intrusion of big government, our citizens are turning to books. The hallmark of any work of speculative fiction is its transcendence from the generation in which it was written and its ability to reach across lines to a new generation. And perhaps books like "Fahrenheit 451" and "1984" will not provide answers, but, instead, only reinforce our fears. But that is what authors such as Huxley and Bradbury and, most certainly, Orwell hoped to do: They set out to warn us.
Sam Weller is the author of "The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury."
→"1984" by George Orwell (1949)
→"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury (1953)
→"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley (1932)
As they do the exercises below, have them continue to add to the chart. Then, whether they’re writing a final essay or doing some other culminating project, they can draw on these lists of detail, quotes, observations and ideas they’ve recorded.
Pair Some Recent Times Articles With the Novel
Our first choice: Michiko Kakutani’s essay “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read.” It begins:
The dystopia described in George Orwell’s nearly 70-year-old novel “1984” suddenly feels all too familiar. A world in which Big Brother (or maybe the National Security Agency) is always listening in, and high-tech devices can eavesdrop in people’s homes. (Hey, Alexa, what’s up?) A world of endless war, where fear and hate are drummed up against foreigners, and movies show boatloads of refugees dying at sea. A world in which the government insists that reality is not “something objective, external, existing in its own right” — but rather, “whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.”
How many of the parallels that she notes are already on your students’ lists? What new ones would they add?
As the essay reminds us, the specifics are only those as of Jan. 26, when the piece was published — and “of course, all of these developments are being constantly updated, with regular flurries of news and denials and counterdenials — a confusing state of affairs that itself would not have surprised Orwell, since he knew the value of such confusion to those in power.”
Another useful read: “Why Nobody Cares the President Is Lying,” by Charles J. Sykes, a former conservative radio talk show host. It begins:
If President Trump’s first tumultuous weeks have done nothing else, at least they have again made us a nation of readers.
As Americans grapple with the unreality of the new administration, George Orwell’s “1984” has enjoyed a resurgence of interest, becoming a surprise best seller and an invaluable guide to our post-factual world.
On his first full day in office Mr. Trump insisted that his inaugural crowd was the largest ever, a baseless boast that will likely set a pattern for his relationship both to the media and to the truth.
Mr. Sykes writes that “All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.” Do your students agree with his analysis, and his worry that, in the Orwellian age of Donald Trump, “the battle over truth is now central to our politics”?
For more on this, you might also check out our recent lesson plan, Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News.
Ask Essential Questions
Essential questions, as most teachers know, are questions that can be applied far beyond one novel or historical period. The best of them, in fact, are questions with which the world is still grappling.
According to Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, who explored the concept in “Understanding by Design,” they are also:
questions that are not answerable with finality in a single lesson or a brief sentence — and that’s the point. Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions, including thoughtful student questions, not just pat answers. They are provocative and generative. By tackling such questions, learners are engaged in uncovering the depth and richness of a topic that might otherwise be obscured by simply covering it.
Here are just a few one might pose in studying “1984” — or while reading the news on the front page of this morning’s New York Times. We welcome your additions to this list. Invite your students to choose one or more and discuss, debate or write about them as they apply to the novel and to their own lives.
What is power, and how is it gained and used?
What constitutes an abuse of power?
Can individuals change a society?
What are the dangers of government-controlled media?
What can citizens do if power is abused by a ruling group or government?
How is technology changing our understanding of privacy?
What Is more important: our privacy or national security?
Can changing language change thought?
How do governments balance the rights of individuals with the common good?
Why do some individuals take a stand against oppression while others choose to participate in it?
Apply Quotes from “1984” to the News Today
Challenge your students to choose one or more of the lines below and apply them to life in 2017 in as many ways as they can — starting, of course, by finding Times articles with which they resonate. (Even if, or maybe especially because, Orwell also once wrote, “Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.”)
Big Brother is watching you.
Double-think means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.
Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.
The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.
For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?
Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.
The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.
One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.
Understand the World of 1944:
What was happening when Orwell was writing “1984”?
Though it was published in 1949, Michiko Kakutani writes in “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read” that “Orwell had been thinking about the novel that would become ‘1984’ as early as 1944, when he wrote a letter about Stalin and Hitler, and ‘the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible führer.’ ”
Invite your students to read Orwell’s letter, then use Times Machine to get a more visceral sense of the time period. The site allows readers to page through any day’s edition of The New York Times, from 1851 to 2002, and see it as it was originally published. For example, the famous event in the headline above comes from the edition of June 7, 1944. (Remember that events usually become headlines in a print newspaper the day after they happen.)
What would it have been like to be read the daily newspaper as the world was at war? What “sinister symptoms” that “bring totalitarianism nearer,” as Orwell phrased it in his letter, are hinted at in the headlines? And which headlines from the era are especially resonant in light of things happening in 2017?
Create Something New to Show the Novel’s Relevance Today
In our 2010 lesson, “Big Brother vs. Little Brother: Updating ‘1984,’” students first compare “1984 vs. Today”, then create a treatment for a modern film, print or stage adaptation that revolves around current technologies.
Use ideas from that lesson plan, such as pairing up to write and record podcasts in which one plays an interviewer and the other George Orwell, who answers questions about the novel and reacts to the modern world.
Or, consider a few more:
• Here are 42 different covers that have been used for the novel over the years. What might a 2017 update look like?
• “1984” is coming to Broadway. Your students might imagine they are the costume or set designers. What decisions might they make that would visually reinforce the book’s relevance to today?
• This famous commercial, shown during the Super Bowl in January, 1984, advertised the Macintosh computer. How could students use ideas, images or quotes from the novel to advertise something today, whether a product or a public service?
• “1984” isn’t the only suddenly-topical classic flying off the shelves. Invite your students to read about the other novels that seem newly resonant to many, then create a reading list or display for your school library of both fiction and nonfiction that might address what is happening in the world today.
• Our lesson plan “Beyond the Book Report: Ways to Respond to Literature Using New York Times Models” suggests many more ideas, including creating soundtracks, maps, photo essays and more.
Debate How Widely This Book Should Be Taught
After they’ve finished the novel, invite your students to debate whether “1984” should be taught widely right now, perhaps in lieu of other books on the curriculum — or whether it should even be considered for the kind of “one book, one city” initiative in which all citizens in certain place read the same work of literature. (The image above is from one such conversation, the Journalism Education Association’s 2017 #JEAOneBook discussion of “1984” on Twitter.)
At a time when Americans are deeply divided politically, what effects might this have?
In “Teaching “1984” in 2016,” a piece for the Atlantic written in November, Andrew Simmons writes that he is “ecstatic to be a teacher at this time in American history.” He writes:
I have a responsibility — not to transform every liberal parent’s progeny into a slightly sharper copy or radicalize future voters skeptical of politics, but to shore up their critical faculties, to make them more skilled readers, writers, and thinkers. And to also make them decent, compassionate, alert, engaged truth-seekers, neither callous, fearful Party enablers nor complacent, dead-eyed Proles who poke their iPhones and scoff at memes and chirp their discontent in brief blips of coherence. Bravery is something that people can be taught. Books may be the best teachers for what to do when the fireworks veer too close.
Do your students agree? This teacher works in Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Do they think teachers in more conservative places would feel the same? Why or why not?
The full text of “1984”
Recent Articles From The Times:
“Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read”
“Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics”
“Trumpian Characters Are the Stuff of Fiction”
Recent Articles From Around the Web:
The New Yorker | “Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Trump’s America”
Wall Street Journal | “Trump: The Reader’s Guide”
The Guardian | “My Dad Predicted Trump in 1985 – It’s Not Orwell, he Warned, It’s Brave New World”
On Orwell and “1984,” from the Times Archives:
1949 Book Review | “Nineteen Eighty-four”
1950 Obituary | “George Orwell, Author, 46, Dead”
1981 | “‘Big Brother’ Is Racing ‘1984’ Deadline”
1984 | “The message for today in Orwell’s ‘1984’”
1984 | “Soviet Says Orwell Vision is a Reality in U.S.”
1985 | “John Hurt in ‘1984,’ Adaptation of Orwell Novel”
1991 | “Decreasing Our Word Power: The New Newspeak”
1998 | “Literary Pilgrimmages: George Orwell”
1998 | “George Orwell’s List”
2003 | “Simpler Terms; If It’s ‘Orwellian,’ It’s Probably Not”
2008 | “What George Orwell Wrote, 70 Years Later to the Day”
2011 | “This Isn’t ‘1984’”
2012 | “George Orwell and the N.C.A.A.”
2012 | “George Orwell’s Diaries”
2010 | “Why Orwell Endures”
On Privacy and Other Orwellian Themes:
2013 | “Judge Questions Legality of N.S.A. Phone Records, Describes as ‘Almost Orwellian’”
2013 | “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls”
2013 | “U.S. Confirms That It Gathers Online Data Overseas”
2013 | “Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited”
2013 | “In U.S., News of Surveillance Effort Is Met With Some Concern but Little Surprise”
2013 Op-Ed | “Intelligence for Dummies 2013" | Op-Ed | “Peeping Barry”
2013 | “Teacher Knows if You’ve Done the E-Reading”
2013 | “Staying Private on the New Facebook”
2012 | “‘Big Brother’? No, It’s Parents”
2012 | “How Big Data Became So Big”
2011 | “Court Case Asks if ‘Big Brother’ Is Spelled GPS”
2011 | “Questions for Amazon on Privacy and the Kindle Fire”
2011 | “You’re Mad! You’re On YouTube!”
2010 | “Little Brother Is Watching”
2010 | “Officials Push to Bolster Law on Wiretapping”
2010 | “Little Brother is Watching”
2010 | “The Web Means the End of Forgetting”
2010 | “How Privacy Vanishes Online”
Related Learning Network Lesson Plans
“Big Brother vs. Little Brother: Updating Orwell’s ‘1984’”
“Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News”
“Dark Materials: Reflecting on Dystopian Themes in Young Adult Literature”
“Where to Draw the Line: Balancing Government Surveillance With the Fourth Amendment”
“Teaching About Cybersecurity: Taking Steps to Improve Online Safety and Prevent Data Breaches”
“Who Are You Online? Considering Issues of Web Identity”
“Literary Pilgrimmages: Exploring the Role of Place in Writers’ Lives and Work”
“It’s All an Allusion: Identifying Allusions, in Literature and in Life”
Related Student Opinion Questions and Student Contest Winners:
“What Is More Important: Our Privacy or National Security?”
“Should Schools Put Tracking Devices in Students’ I.D. Cards?”
“Do You Wish You Had More Privacy Online?”
“How Careful Are You Online?”
“Do You Worry About the Lack of Anonymity in the Digital Age?”
“Editorial Contest Winner | Americans Should Defend Their Digital Privacy”
“Student Reading Contest Winner | Internet Surveillance”
More Learning Network Literature Collections
We have many more collections like this one that match Times articles with often-taught authors and works of literature, including:
“To Kill a ‘Mockingbird”
“The Great Gatsby”
Mark Twain and “Huckleberry Finn”
“The Grapes of Wrath”
“The Hunger Games”
“The Kite Runner”
“The Scarlet Letter”
“The Catcher in the Rye”
“Death of a Salesman”
“Lord of the Flies”
“Of”Mice and Men”
“A Raisin in the Sun”
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”
“The Glass Castle”
“The Book Thief”
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