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A Collection of Essays Paperback – October 21, 1970
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Imagine any of today's writers of "creative nonfiction" dispatching a rogue elephant before an audience of several thousand. Now, imagine the essay that would result. Can we say "narcissism"? As part of the Imperial Police in Burma, George Orwell actually found himself aiming the gun, and his record--first published in 1936--comprises eight of the highest voltage pages of English prose you'll ever read. In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell illumines the shoddy recesses of his own character, illustrates the morally corrupting nature of imperialism, and indicts you, the reader, in the creature's death, a process so vividly reported it's likely to show up in your nightmares ever after. "The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing.... Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth much more than any damn Coringhee coolie."
This essay alone would be worth the cover price, and the dozen other pieces collected here prove that, given the right thinker/writer, today's journalism actually can become tomorrow's literature. "The Art of Donald McGill," ostensibly an appreciation of the jokey, vaguely obscene illustrated postcards beloved of the working classes, uses the lens of popular culture to examine the battle lines and rules of engagement in the war of the sexes, circa 1941. "Politics and the English Language" is a prose working-out of Orwell's perceptions about the slippery relationship of word and thought that becomes a key premise of 1984. "Looking Back on the Spanish War" is as clear-eyed a veteran's memoir of the nature of war as you're likely to find, and Orwell's long ruminations on the wildly popular "good bad" writers Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling showcase his singular virtues--searing honesty and independent thinking. From English boarding schools to Gandhi's character to an early appreciation of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, these pieces give an idiosyncratic tour of the first half of the passing century in the company of an articulate and engaged guide. Don't let the idea that Orwell is an "important" writer put you off reading him. He's really too good, and too human, to miss. --Joyce Thompson
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This is recommended but keep in mind that the best essays in the volume are in the middle and towards the back, not at the front.
The essays included may be loosely categorized by the two Orwells: the political Orwell and the literary Orwell. "Politics and the English Language", like the omitted essays, is the full Orwell, the combination of the two categories. There are a couple which touch on colonial themes, namely "Shooting an Elephant" and "Marrakech". The classic Orwellian insights await the reader.
In "Marrakech", Orwell nails the colonial psychology: "When you walk through a town like this -- two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in -- when you see how people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The poeple have brown faces -- besides, there are so many of them!" (p.181). The ugly, dehumanizing character of the master-slave relationship implicit in colonialism, so famously discussed in "Shooting an Elephant", is extended in "Marrakech": "Every afternoon a file of very old women passes down the road outside my house, each carrying a load of firewood. All of them are mummified with age and the sun, and all of them are tiny. It seems to be generally the case in primitive communities that the women, when they get beyond a certain age, shrink to the size of children. [...] But what is strange about these people is their invisibility. For several weeks, always at about the same time of day, the file of old women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them. Firewood was passing -- that was how I saw it" (p.185). `Right under your nose', indeed.
Had "Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War" not been included, I would have given this collection a 1 star review. Always recommended, and I would also recommend the fuller account given in Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Along with the omitted essays and "Politics", it is this essay which best explains the themes of 1984 and Animal Farm.
"Such, such were the Joys" is the longest essay in the text; it is a classic documentation of the cruelty of the contemporaneous public schools. For moderns who are the beneficiaries of reformers in education like Russell and Dewey, it's difficult to understand just how pathological and deforming such conditions were.
Then there are the literary essays, including two on Dickens, some on `vulgar' literature like the `penny dreadful' - a borrowing from Chesterton. "Inside the Whale" is a blend, describing the literary climate of the time, its intersection with political ideology, and the problems of book reviewing.
So this collection is worth buying - assuming one wants a print copy of essays which are available online. It decently presents the full Orwell. Hence the 3 stars. But one hasn't experienced Orwell the essayist without the omissions. Hence the 3 stars.