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Summer reading for 2014 is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Social theorist Erich Fromm, in his 1961 afterword to the novel, claimed that it raised the central political question of the modern era, “[C]an human nature be changed in such a way that man will forget his longing for freedom, for dignity, for integrity, for love—that is to say, can man forget that he is human?” (Plume Centennial Edition, 329) While Fromm’s use of “man” as an inclusive term may be dated, his understanding of the central point of the novel is not.
The novel is set in what for Orwell was the near future, when the world had been divided into three geopolitical zones that were in a perpetual state of war. It follows the trials of an ordinary citizen, Winston Smith, who is employed by the Ministry of Truth. In the course of the novel we discover that all mid-level citizens are under constant observation and that on a daily basis the history of the nation is rewritten so that the past can be used to preserve the position of those in power. Winston and his lover, Julia, strive to remain human under these trying circumstances.
In 2014 (thirty years after Orwell’s fictitious setting), the NSA’s use of large scale spying in its efforts to track down potential terrorists has made international news. Internet companies like Google collect data from users for both profit and potentially other purposes without express permission from those users. These conditions make Orwell’s imagined world strikingly familiar, but there are many parts of our society he did not foresee. The contrast between what he foresaw and what he did not imagine is interesting in itself.
Under these conditions we think a new look at Nineteen Eighty-Four will be enlightening.
We hope the novel will help you begin exploring questions that are essential to a liberal arts education: What does it mean to be human? What rights do all human beings have? What is freedom? Can the powerless and oppressed really be free? How does power affect those whohold it? What kind of a society develops among people constantly preparing for or at war?
Order your copy of Nineteen-Eighty Four from the Luther Book Shop.