'1984' today

The stock price in dystopian literature has had a banner last few weeks. As the daily revelations on the magnitude of government-sponsored surveillance in the United States have come to light — along with wall-to-wall media saturation of government contractor Edward Snowden's accusations of Big Brother run amok in the interest of national security — a British man named Eric Arthur Blair is one of the unlikely benefactors. Blair is best known by his pen name, of course, George Orwell. His greatest-known work is the seminal dystopian novel "1984."

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The full-court media coverage of the National Security Administration scandal sent sales of "1984" skyrocketing. Faster than one can utter the words "Red Light Camera," the book flew off store shelves in both virtual and brick-and-mortar retail operations. Sales of the 1949 novel rose nearly 6,000 percent on Amazon, landing the book in the online site's "Top 100." (As of writing this, "1984" was the second best-selling "classic," behind only "The Great Gatsby" — chalk that up to the power of cinematic adaptations).

"I can confirm that there is renewed interest in the book," said Sky Anderson, a sales associate at the Book Cellar bookstore in Lincoln Square. "I think it reflects how people are embracing their paranoia."

Paranoid or not, Americans have been accused of being a nation of nonreaders. A 2004 National Endowment for the Arts study entitled, "Reading at Risk," posited that nearly half of American adults no longer indulged in "literary reading." What with the proliferation of Redbox, Xbox, Netflix, smart phones and apps for every whim, it is no wonder that the good old book (particularly those works that challenge us to ponder) have been facing their own dystopian days. Many in the literary community have been sounding the alarms about the demise of reading for years.

And this is why the brisk sales of "1984" are so darned interesting. As Americans grapple with the conundrum of security versus privacy — that vexing line between civil liberty and safety — they are turning in droves to the Orwell masterpiece.

I first read "1984" in my ninth grade English class, as many did. Orwell is a staple of middle and high school curricula. I found the book to be a bleak and grey vision of an imaginary world, a dystopic world far detached from the landscape of my own upbringing. I grew up in the 1980s, a decade perceived by many as time of beneficence, of excess, the "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall" era.

Orwell's own 1980s, the tale of Winston Smith, a minion within the ruling Party in London in a fictional nation known as Oceania, was pure fantasy when I first approached it. The novel tracks Winston's waxing disdain for the oppressive totalitarian government, the omniscient "Big Brother" who watches its citizen's every step. Go out of your house? You would be watched via "telescreens." Freethinking and freedom of expression? Illegal. Everywhere Winston goes, the propaganda posters beckon:




Upon first encountering Orwell's muted world, reading it at the dawn of the decidedly unmuted MTV era — I narrowly missed literally reading the book in 1984 by one year — I looked at the book as a cautionary satire of what could happen if government abused its power and if technology continued to gain a foothold into our daily lives. But when I read it, I didn't think it would happen. Orwell's book was more speculative fiction than contemporary truth, an unlikely political warning. But, like many Americans, apparently, the recent events of the U.S. government accessing records of our phone and computer usage recently prompted me to reconsider the prophetic nature of Orwell's book. So I decided to revisit "1984" to see if, in any way, its author's prognostications are coming to pass. I also hoped to better understand why so many others were turning to the book during a time of unprecedented government intrusion into our daily lives.

And so, armed with a 60th anniversary edition of "1984," I found myself with a flight delay at Midway Airport. I had no sooner opened the novel than a friendly woman sat down next to and looked at my book.

"That story is becoming more true every day," she said.

An hour later on board my flight, my seat mate, an emergency room nurse from Cincinnati, looked at the novel in my hands and echoed the sentiment:

"Well!" she said. "That's timely."

Certainly, as the authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury (I have written two books on the author and co-edited another), I am well versed in the field of dystopian science fiction. Along with "1984," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and Bradbury's own timeless examination of the totalitarian state, "Fahrenheit 451," make up a sort of mid-century triumvirate of fictional dystopic classics. But while "Fahrenheit 451" looks at the proliferation of mass media in our culture and its adverse impact on our cultural curiosity and intellect, I quickly discovered in rereading Orwell's book that "1984" is a much more piquant indictment of government's watchful eye into our every day movements. "1984" is a prescient ponderance of one working man's awakening from the doldrums of the proverbial office cubicle and his yearning for individuality. Protagonist Winston Smith was Orwell's anti-Soviet, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist response to his own time. Curious, then, in some ways, that so many hold the book to the light and declare its relevance to 2013.

Certainly, the similarities to the present are uncanny. Orwell's Oceania is in a constant state of war — while our own War on Terror seems likely to be infinite. Orwell's surveillance state relies on technology to monitor citizens; Internet companies in our world are being asked to hand over user records. In Orwell's haunting vision, Big Brother claims to act in the best interest of the people, just as our own Patriot Act — agree with it or not — is employed as a protective measure in the post-9/11 landscape. Winston Smith, is employed in the fictional "Department of Truth," a beauracracy responsible for propaganda and revising history to cast Big Brother in a better light. Smith's very job is to rewrite newspaper articles to alter the historical record.

The rise and misuse of technology? A prying government? Altering facts to advance a wartime political agenda? No wonder so many are snatching "1984" up in numbers that would make Dan Brown envious.

"Fahrenheit 451" and "1984" were published just four years apart. And, as all good speculative fiction endeavors to do, the books examine contemporary ills through the prism of the future. In rereading Orwell's classic, I am ever more convinced of its subconscious influence on Bradbury's own masterwork. (Bradbury told me it was an influence, but not a heavy one.) Both books are paranoid, cautionary works that use satire to look at serious political themes. Both works center upon a minion (Winston Smith in "1984"; Guy Montag in "Fahrenheit 451"). Both books have a shadow resistance lurking in the background, looking to overthrow the totalitarian state. Both books speak to the rise of technology — most notably television. And both works speak to the power of the individual to change the system.

The fact that "1984" is enjoying a rebirth in sales is not surprising. Perhaps more interesting is the notion that in times of rising censorship, infringement on civil liberties and the intrusion of big government, our citizens are turning to books. The hallmark of any work of speculative fiction is its transcendence from the generation in which it was written and its ability to reach across lines to a new generation. And perhaps books like "Fahrenheit 451" and "1984" will not provide answers, but, instead, only reinforce our fears. But that is what authors such as Huxley and Bradbury and, most certainly, Orwell hoped to do: They set out to warn us.

Sam Weller is the author of "The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury."

Books discussed:

→"1984" by George Orwell (1949)

→"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury (1953)

→"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley (1932)

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