Books of My Youth
The first books I remember reading as a child were baseball biographies. Stories of baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. I also have a fond memory of reading a book about the favorite baseball player of my youth titled: Ken Boyer: Guardian of the Hot Corner. (Why do such trivial things makes such impressions?) The first novel I remember reading was Across the Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. It was a short novel about the American civil war that I read when I was about ten years old. Amazingly, it is still on my bookshelf! In high school I read Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and many others.
In college I remember reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, and I was particularly moved by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.
No doubt the memory of reading many other books has long since evaporated from my mind, and there are thousands of wonderful books that I’ve never read.
But the novel that influenced me the most was George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984. ( It was the Boston Public Library’s choice as the most influential book of the twentieth-century.) It is the most personally transformative novel that I’ve ever read. No one who understands the book can ever see the world the same. Orwell removes a curtain that hides reality behind it—a reality so different from its portrayal by the voices and images that proceed daily in front of us. These voices and images are designed to mislead and control rather than inform, they make a mockery of truth. In Orwell’s world The Ministry of Truth lies; The Ministry of Peace wages war; The Ministry of Love tortures. In our own society, a few corporate conglomerates control the news, the plutocrats control the political system; the Department of Defense wages war, and the CIA and the penal system torture. (We live in a real fascist state—an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.)
It is as if Orwell allows us peer past Kant’s phenomenal world to the neumonal world—to the way things really are. To a social and political reality so bleak and barren that even love cannot thrive. In the end Winston and Julia betray each other because, contrary to what I’ve written in previous posts, love is not stronger than death, at least its very hard for it to be in this world. (Just as it is hard to love in a society which pits each person against others.) Here is Winston and Julia’s conversation after both have been emptied of their most noble inclination—the inclination to love another.
“I betrayed you,” she said baldly.
“I betrayed you,” he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something—something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”
“All you care about is yourself,” he echoed.
“And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”
If Orwell is right, life is bleaker than we usually let ourselves imagine. If Orwell is right, life may be even bleaker than we can imagine. Power and the lust for it largely remove the color, beauty and love from the world. Orwell taught me how the world really is. Let’s hope that is not how it has to be.