Writers & Company

Why George Orwell's 1984 still matters, 70 years since publication

To kick off its 30th season, Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel speaks with British author Dorian Lynskey about the dystopian classic's lasting impact on society.
The Ministry of Truth is a nonfiction book by Dorian Lynskey. (Doubleday, Alexandra Dao)
Listen to the full episode1:01:28

George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984 was published 70 years ago, on June 8, 1949. The novel was an immediate success, selling more than a quarter of a million copies in the first six months and spending 20 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. A grim depiction of an authoritarian future, it was compared to an earthquake, a bundle of dynamite and the label on a bottle of poison. 

1984 is the story of two lovers, Winston and Julia, set in a brutal state of fear, perpetual war, mass surveillance and distorted reality. It has inspired many adaptations, including a 1949 NBC radio drama, a 1954 BBC teleplay and a popular 1984 movie, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. 

In 2017, the expression "alternative facts" — used by the office of U.S. President Donald Trump — prompted renewed interest in 1984. At the same time, English writer and critic Dorian Lynskey was working on a new book about the novel. 

In The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984, Lynskey traces the events in Orwell's life that shaped the writing of 1984. He also explores the novel's immense cultural influence — on politics, language, music and advertising — and how its relevance has shifted over the decades.

Dorian Lynskey spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from the CBC's London studio.  

George Orwell, pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair, was a British novelist and essayist, journalist and critic. (Penguin Canada)

An ode to Orwell

"The idea for this book came about because I was interested in the history of dystopias, but I didn't know exactly how these dystopian tropes evolved. My research took me back to the utopian fiction boom of the late 19th century. From there, I thought the way to tell that story is through 1984.

"My book, The Ministry of Truth, however, goes in a different direction and becomes much more interested in Orwell's biography. As a journalist, I was drawn to Orwell's essays and some of his other nonfiction."

Definitive dystopia

"The book 1984 is one that tends to have a visceral effect on the reader, especially when you're young. It's so bleak. It's so vivid. But there's so much information in it that you can't really process. It certainly introduced me to the genre, particularly since there wasn't a lot of popular young adult dystopian fiction at the time.

"It was my introduction to the idea of dark futures. Even now, it's the quintessential dark future. As an adult revisiting it, it's very rewarding to discover how rich and complicated the book is. It doesn't necessarily strike you that way the first time you read it."

As an adult revisiting 1984, it's very rewarding to discover how rich and complicated the book is. It doesn't necessarily strike you that way the first time you read it.

Orwellian thought process

"He was a uniquely gifted essayist because he was able to get across quite complex ideas with the utmost clarity. He had this particular voice where he always seemed like he was on your side; he was just writing what a 'normal common sense guy' would think if that 'normal common sense guy' was uncannily articulate. I did read everything he wrote: The Complete Works of George Orwell is a twenty-volume series, which is estimated to be around two million words. So there's a lot. 

"I became very drawn to his honesty and his trying to tell the truth while being aware that you can never tell a purely objective truth. His quest was to constantly acknowledge his biases, understand his mistakes and always to think more clearly. 

"That's inspiring as a writer. It's also inspiring as a citizen in politically difficult times. It's about the attempt to try and prevent your brain from lying to you, which is, of course, one of the great themes of Orwell's work and a theme of 1984 — how you deceive yourself without necessarily needing anybody else to do it for you."

A boy reads a book next to copies of British writer George Orwell's 1984 at Hong Kong's annual book fair on July 15, 2015. (Aaron Tam/Getty Images)

Dorian Lynskey's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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