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Time to Stop Reading George Orwell?

Darryl Campbell's essay for The Millions, "Orwell and the Tea Party," examines the legacy of the increasingly misquoted George Orwell. Campbell is fairly upset that the pamphleteer has been co-opted (with what he sees as insufficient attention to context) by the likes of the Tea Party. If a lot of people are misreading Orwell, Campell wonders, does that mean it's time to stop reading him?

Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent.


There is a hilarious perversity to Orwell's words being appropriated for posters and slogans. And Campbell's bit about our culture's lazy use of the adjective "Orwellian" is a delight. But although historical study will indeed enrich one's understanding of literature—and quotation outside of context can be a toxic practice—the assertion that there's a right and wrong way to read an author might benefit from more nuance. The misinterpretation of Orwell is less about his obsolescence than it is an indicator of something complex finding a large audience.

Photo "1984" (cc) by Flickr user Mushroom and Rooster

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