1984, by George Orwell: An Authoritarianism Book Club Review

This is not the first time that I’ve read 1984. But now, the world of Oceania, of purge and Newspeak and Airstrip One and betrayal and IngSoc, doesn’t seem all that far off. It is April 5, 2017, and the clocks are just striking thirteen.

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1984, by George Orwell (Signet Classics)

George Orwell elected to build his world carefully. Where this novel is superior to predecessors like We and Brave New World is not just in Orwell’s peerless writing. Writing in the late 1940s, and coming off the success of Animal Farm, Orwell was concerned with the future of Britain as a nation just getting over the trauma of the Second World War. Atomic weapons had been used against civilian targets to end the war in the Pacific, and pessimistically Orwell saw no reason to think that they wouldn’t be again. War seemed to be the new normal state of the world, so there was no reason why the Peace should not be lost in favour of constant combat. The logical outgrowth? How do you keep a formerly democratic society — albeit a flawed one — involved in a state of War for thirty, or fifty, or a hundred years? Obviously, that would require a corrosively powerful totalitarian state, one which would combine the very worst tactics of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In short, it would require a state like the fictional Oceania, once given over to a Socialist ideology, but soon converted into a totalitarian regime paying half-hearted lip-service to English Socialism, or IngSoc. With this basic foundation constructed, Orwell could proceed to details.

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On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder: an Authoritarianism Book Club Review

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is a deceptively small book. You will be surprised to get it in your hand. But really, it doesn’t need to be all that much larger. It shouldn’t take most people more than an hour to read. But in that time, if you are an American who has been paying attention since November 2016’s election, you will be shaken to your core. In short discussions written in language simple enough for even the porridge-headed voters of today, Snyder has explained what could be coming as a result of a minority making a stupid, selfish, bigotry-driven and wrong-headed choice at the polls, and what, if anything, we can do about it.

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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books, 2017)

On Tyranny is part warning from history, part meditation for today. Its concision suits people for whom the subtleties of politics and history might be too much like doing homework. As we have found, not a lot of people read anymore, and fewer still read with depth and comprehension of complex issues. This book is the antidote to that; it is short enough for even the non-reader, and general enough for the non-expert. However, if you are a reader, or if you haven’t stopped learning despite having left school, On Tyranny is an excellent introduction to the issues at hand. Although it is mainly geared toward the unique and perilous state of America in 2017, readers abroad may find it helpful to understand these issues, especially in light of other obvious attempts by the hostile forces of the Kremlin to undermine Western solidarity, whether in the case of the folly of the Brexit vote, the Dutch elections (at which they fortunately failed), or the upcoming French and German elections. If hacking and misinformation are the new version of “war continued by other means,” then there can be no doubt that such a war is under way. Knowing what to watch for next can only serve the cause of liberal democracy and all that it promises.

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Authoritarianism Book Club Review: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I honestly don’t enjoy reading about disfunctional, dystopian worlds very much. I find myself consuming more coffee than tea, and being commensurately edgy and perturbed. Honestly, I’d rather be back to detective stories, history books, poetry, and works of popular science. But the state of the world right now demands that we talk about other things, at least, sometimes. So here we are.

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We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Penguin Books, 1993)

Zamyatin’s We, readers are informed by translator Clarence Brown’s introduction to the Penguin edition (1993), was originally composed roughly between 1920-21, early in the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw the brutal deaths of the Tsar and his family. But due to the climate, We was first published in the United States by Dutton in 1924, in France in 1929, and finally in Russia in 1988. The English and French translations both worked from Zamyatin’s Russian-language original, but there were evidently some minor defects in that manuscript which led to a few minor issues with translation. However, the book was a minor success, and was claimed, perhaps most famously, by George Orwell as the direct progenitor of his own classic novel of a distopian future, 1984.

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Books in Groups: Fit the Fourth, or, The Madness Continues

Please don’t mistake me for a rational human being. At least, not when it comes to books. If you’ve ever thought that someone using the term “bibliomane” for their blog must be exaggerating somewhat, well… let me explain.

Having spent the late afternoon trawling through charity shops, when my wife suggested dinner and a bit of shopping, I couldn’t resist. A half-hour’s drive later, via a sneaky route (when in doubt, I always opt for the sneaky route), we arrived at a near-ish shopping plaza. I mentioned self-medication before, and yes, watching the civilised Western world fall apart has been taking a toll on me, now that you mention it.

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A few pieces of light reading from Barnes & Noble, plus one that was waiting on my porch when I got home…

Dinner completed, we stopped in at the nearby Barnes & Noble, on pretext of looking for the most recent New Yorker (sold out, have to get the online copy). Nevertheless, there were a few other items of interest there. For a start, on a whim, I decided to see if I could find a copy of William Shirer’s classic work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I don’t read a lot about the Second World War as a rule, my interest in history being somewhat more antique than that particular vintage, but I’d been reading the Kindle edition for a while before getting frustrated with keeping track of what was going on, and wanting to look back at earlier passages without having a physical copy. Do you want to be appalled by something? A new trade paperback 50th anniversary edition of that book sells for $30. Fortunately, I had some coupons to apply to it. Probably still should have picked up a second-hand copy.

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Books in Groups, Fit the Third: Self-Medication at the Charity Shop

There are two nearby charity shops that somewhat make up for the complete absence of proper bookshops anywhere near to my home. I don’t go very often, but when I do, I usually find something to make the visit worth my time.

Yesterday, I managed to hit both, with mixed results…

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Five hardcovers in the latest haul…

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…and thirteen paperbacks, with various lurid covers.

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The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

Before you begin this book, assuming that you are not intimately familiar with the towns of Wroxham, Acle, Thurne, Barton Turl and the like, do yourself a favour and take a brief excursion round the internet. Search for “Norfolk Broads map,” or follow this link, if it still functions at time of reading. Alternately, select your own, as long as it gives the major towns, rivers, and lakes of the region (collectively, “the Broads,” specifically, the Norfolk Broads, as the Suffolk ones do not really come into play in the story). For more on the region itself, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start. There is also some excellent information in an old book that I happen to own, called The Norfolk We Live In (yes, dangling participle, I know), so if you stumble across a copy of that it’s worth picking up. In whatever circumstance, you’re looking for a map of the area north and east of Norfolk, so however you accomplish it, do what works best for you. Print the map out and tuck it into your copy of The Worsted Viper, to refer back to as needed. Now read on.

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The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell (Minnow Press, 2010, Reprint)

As you will have guessed, geography, unsurprisingly, plays an important role in this 1943 novel by Gladys Mitchell. I don’t say that you will be unable to follow and enjoy the book without knowing the area, but I do humbly suggest that you’ll enjoy it a good deal more if you have a nodding acquaintance with the lay of the land. Norfolk is a wide, largely flat stretch of coastal plain, and the Broads are a series of interconnected rivers (including the Ant, the Bure, the Thurne; further south lie the Yare, the Chet, and the Tas) and lakes. These waterways make for enjoyable, calm boating holidays, and in The Worsted Viper, they are central to the plot.

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Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut: A Baroque Dithyramb

All of this happened, more or less. Anna Jean was real, and that was almost her name. Babette was real, but that wasn’t her name. I guess I’m more afraid of upsetting Babette than Anna Jean, even after all of these years. The two kids are real too, but I won’t name them, to protect their anonymity and mine, as anonymity’s a precious commodity too easily sold these days. The explosion in the quarry really happened, too, but in Kansas City, Missouri. It killed six firefighters. Buck Drumstick is real too, but he won’t ever read this. Not because he’s dead, no. It’s just because even if he knew that I was alive, and had written this, he wouldn’t give a fuck. So it goes.

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Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (Dell Laurel Edition, 1988; first published 1969)

There are blackbirds and sparrows calling outside my open French doors as I write these words, and the news is full of worrying tidings. Robert Kennedy will have been dead fifty years soon, so for him, the early 21st century is a dawdle. He had just died, Vonnegut tells us, as he, Vonnegut, was nearing the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, as he tells us at the beginning of the final chapter. He doesn’t have to worry about the maddest faux-President since Nixon (although that’s unfair to old Dick, as he was actually elected), the renewed threat of Global Disaster, and the insanity of attempting to undo the rational, scientific application of good government by a bunch of sociopathic lunatics. The two kids are two kids that I know. Not in a sinister way. They don’t work for me, or arrange my speaking appearances. No, they just go to school and, when I pick them up twice a week so they can visit us at home, they occasionally give me little insights into things in their lives, like an old lady in a park hands out breadcrumbs. They’re reading Slaughterhouse-Five, by the much-missed Mr. Kurt Vonnegut, in their English class. Slaughterhouse-Five is an American novel written in the late 1960s. It’s about a lot of things. Mostly it’s a savage attack on war, conventionality, and being abducted by aliens. Mr. Trumpkin probably hasn’t read it, since it doesn’t seem like he’s read much, but it’s a good read. He might learn something from it (well, that’s doubtful, but we can live in hope, as that hasn’t been made illegal yet), and he’d probably like page 209 (in my edition at least), because there’s a drawing of a pair of tits there. So much for the dignity of the presidency.

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