The holidays brought me so many books this year. I finished up Marlena and The Underground Railroad just before my winter break, and then received Crimesong, Sing, Unburied, Sing, and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves.
I wasn’t able to start any of these books, however, because I was set to teach Nineteen Eighty-Four in January and I’d never read it. I have many holes in my reading history (most of them are Dickens and Melville-shaped) and try to get through a previously untouched or abandoned classic about once a year. I rarely enjoy the process, and wish that I could count those hours toward my 16 hours of yearly PD. On the Road was a disaster of a time, as was The Master and Margarita.
Though I’d never read the actual words of the book, it’s an inescapable story in America. Newspeak, Big Brother, Thought Police, and the Memory Hole were already familiar concepts even though I had no previous contact with the book. I’d seen enough clips of John Hurt’s Winston Smith skulking around a red and gray bombed-out London to piece together a typical dystopian story for myself.
I regularly teach stuff I don’t love, though, and while I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, I was definitely stoked about teaching it this year. Given my own political confusion, interest in rhetoric, and love of Black Mirror, I knew that my students would appreciate the opportunity to delve into complex issues surrounding current threats of war, language regulation, and invasive technology.
I bought a nice deckle-edged trade copy of the book because I imagined the contents to be unconsciously racist and depressingly sexist a la Richard Matheson or Robert Heinlein, and I wanted something nice to hold while I questioned my life choices.
It’s hardly news that I was wrong about the book. First of all, it’s kind of a page-turner. Second of all, it’s not unconsciously racist. It appears that race has been eliminated completely, indicating that white people, like the rich people, have come to power through war, oppression, and manipulation. So, very consciously racist.
And Julia suffers from exactly the same kinds of characterization mishaps that Winston does, which is to say that neither character works as a fully realized human being. The over-arching oppression that hangs above both Winston and Julia have warped their senses of self in all kinds of ways, and it will be interesting to offer students a project that invites them to view Julia’s relationship to Big Brother’s world through current feminist ideologies.
What classic novel will I find surprisingly palatable next? Maybe I will try The Jungle again.