On the Magic of Books

For the first time on Monday, I will get to fulfill one of my life long dreams: I get to teach 1984 by George Orwell to a class.

(Yes, I have simple dreams, what of it?)

This is a dream that began long ago, long before I ever even dreamed of being a teacher, long before I had even really had the language necessary to put into words the desire I had to share this book with someone else for the first time.

That’s how a great book is, isn’t it? As soon as we’ve finished one, we really want to share it with someone else. For me, that list of books is fairly long. With almost every book I read and finish, I find myself thinking, “I know who needs to read this one!”

My obsession with 1984 begin quite early. I believe I was 13 when the copy that I’m planning to teach from next week was given to me. Books are wonderful that way, aren’t they? (And yeah, I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to books.)

This copy was given to me by the wife of a young couple who attended for a short while the church that I grew up in. They left shortly afterwards to be missionaries.

In hindsight, this was a remarkably subversive act as my church didn’t really embrace critical thinking; this book had much to do with my learning to question authority later in life.

When she handed the book to me and suggested that I read it, she said, “Read this. It’s a great book, but beware that when you get to the ending, it’s going to make you mad. When I got to the end, it made me so mad that I threw it across the room.”

This was unheard of territory for me. I couldn’t imagine at the time getting so worked up by a book that I would want to throw it across the room. Honestly books had and still have a sacred quality for me that the idea of throwing one seems hard to imagine.

I was, at a minimum, intrigued.

So I read it as quickly as I’ve ever read any book. And while I didn’t throw it across the room, the ending did make me angry.

Thus, book that I’ve been reading regularly since I was about 13 years old, I get to teach to a class of students beginning on Monday night.

The edition I’ll be teaching from was published in 1975 in the UK, and wasn’t supposed to be sold in the US. It’s the same book I read in 1981. It was the same book that was thrown across a room by a young future missionary who surely had no idea what a whole new world she was opening up for a young boy from a little town in Southeast Georgia.

It’s the same book that has every passage I’ve ever underlined, still underlined and waiting for me to share it with a class starting this Monday. (And yeah, I can actually read my own handwriting.)

Some of those quotes include:

Why was it that they could never shout like that about anything that mattered? He wrote: Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.

And on being a minority of one:

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun: to-day to believe that the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him: the horror was that he might also be wrong.

And the beginning of Thought Crime being putting pen to paper in a diary:

The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would deb punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced labour camp. . . . To mark the paper was the decisive act.

And the true nature of power:

‘We are the priests of power,’ he said. ‘God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: “Freedom is Slavery”. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone – free – the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. The second thing for you to realize is that power is power over human beings. Over the body – but, about all, over the mind. Power over matter – external reality, as you would call it – is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute.’

And finally:

I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.

And so from 1975 when this book was purchased by a young future missionary, to 1981 when she passed it on to, of all people, a 13 year old boy growing up unconsciously in the deep south, to Monday when I use that same book to help my students to understand the power of marking the paper, to be comfortable with the idea that when they’re a lone voice calling out it isn’t the worst thing to be thought of as crazy, and to see the importance of understanding why and not just how, 1984 will continue, if I’m a decent teacher, to change lives and as a result our world.

Maybe, just maybe, the world will become a bit more conscious as a result.

“Books,” as Stephen King likes to say, “are a uniquely portable magic.”