In a world where you have more options for satisfying longform reading than ever, your friends here at Flavorwire are taking the time once a week to highlight some of the best that journalism and longform has to offer. Whether they’re unified by topic, publication, writer, being classic pieces of work, or just by a general feeling, these articles all have one thing in common: they’re essential reading. This week, we’re looking at the best of George Orwell, who passed away sixty-five years ago on January 21, 1960.
Orwell, the pen name of Englishman Eric Arthur Blair, is an essential writer best known for his classic works of fiction: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and his brilliant nonfiction, like Down and Out in Paris and London. He has changed the meaning of our language plenty of times — every time we refer to our dystopian present as Orweillian, with thought police and big brother watching us, we’re citing the power of Orwell’s work. Here are several choice essays, by Orwell and writers openly influenced by him, that wrestle with the world as Orwell saw it, both yesterday and today. For more reading, go here.
“Why I Write,” by George Orwell, Gangrel, Summer 1946
Here’s a classic, where Orwell details the lonely, sad childhood that led him on his writerly path, telling us that the writer’s subject “will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.” He illustrates how ego battles aesthetics and the politics and history of the age, and in this case, leading to one of the finest writers we’ve ever had.
“A Nice Cup of Tea,” by George Orwell, The Evening Standard, January 1946
Wherein a British man gives you instructions on just how to make a cup of tea. (We all, at some points, write for money.) It’s pretty controversial: “Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first… by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.” [This is the best thing ever — Tea Ed.]
“Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell, Horizon, April 1946
If you must read one essay by Orwell, this is it: an evisceration on how the decline of the English language can be used for sheer, meaningless political means. Feeling some thinkpiece fatigue? Sick of the buzzword of the week? Revel in how all our words mean nothing, due to the speed of our modern-day hackery: “By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.” Then think about the truly scary use of words and meaning during George W. Bush’s presidential administration. Mission accomplished, right? Orwell remains forever relevant and vital, like he was writing this essay yesterday.
“Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” by George Orwell, The New Republic, May 1946
Funny, Orwell’s cri de couer against the crucible of book reviewing sounds downright exotic in some spots, in comparison to the many arguments we have over declining space (that draws an audiene) for book reviews in this day and age. He writes vividly of the drudgery of wrting about books, coming up with a hypothetical writer who’s been pushed to the limit — “He is a man of 35, but looks 50” — and proposes a bright new future where we only write 1,000 words on the few books that will matter. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, as the book reviewer is better off than one other breed: the film critic, forced to attend matinee screenings and “expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry.”
“The Freedom of the Press,” by George Orwell, Times Literary Supplement, September 1972
This essay was a proposed preface to Animal Farm that first saw light in the seventies. Naturally, in this era of The Interview being pulled from theatrical release and made available on Netflix this weekend, it has some relevance. For Orwell, censorship isn’t always cut and dried — rather, governments and the press are always playing intellectual games, agreeing that there are some things (Soviet tolitarianism, for example), that we just don’t discuss, and how in time, that gentleman’s agreement becomes its own form of censorship.
“The Importance of Being George Orwell,” by Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair, August 2012
In his writing life, Hitchens was a great admirer of Orwell’s work. In this essay (which is also an introduction of an edition of Orwell’s diaries), Hitchens does a brilliant job of linking the experiences in Orwell’s life and how they gave vigor to Orwell’s undying ideas and theologies.