publication date: 2002
Two historical writers were presented in Christopher Hitchens’s “biography” – it’s really more of a collection of essays – about George Orwell. Orwell, the subject of the work, was most famous for his anti-totalitarianism books Animal Farm and 1984. The book also displayed Hitchens, who was most famous, perhaps, for his support of the Iraq War after 9/11 and his screed against saintly Mother Theresa.
According to the title, one of the purposes of the book was to explain why Orwell and his writings were still relevant to the 21st Century. If that was Hitchens’s goal, he didn’t always succeed. And, in fact, he went about it in a very odd way. Hitchens spent much of the book analyzing others’ opinions of Orwell. Often, these opinions were dated and obscure, which made Hitchens’s analyses of them even more dated and obscure.
For example, in the chapter “Orwell and the Left,” Hitchens attempted to show how Orwell’s ideas have interacted with the ideas of those who think of themselves as left of center. To do this, he focused on negative quotes about Orwell and why these quotes were wrong. Perhaps that could be a worthwhile exercise, but the quotes he chose were from decades before this book’s publication. The earliest was from 1955 and the most was recent was from 1984. This meant that the people and topics discussed were esoteric, as even Hitchens admitted. For example, here was one of Hitchens’s “take downs” of an anti-Orwell quote from 1960, which contained names and subjects that I should have Wikipedia’d, but didn’t:
To Edward Thompson one might respond – arcane though the argument now seems – that if George Orwell had not mentioned him in about two dozen essays, the very name of Tom Wintringham might very well have been forgotten.
As astute as this observation by Hitchens might be, it didn’t really demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Orwell.
One thing the text did well was present Orwell in an objective or judicial light. Although Hitchens thought that Orwell was often correct, he wasn’t afraid to discuss when Orwell was wrong. Hitchens emphasized Orwell’s unacceptable aversion of homosexuality. Hitchens also recognized Orwell’s ungenerous attitude toward women, at least as it was expressed in Orwell’s novels. As succinctly summarized by Hitchens:
Every one of [Orwell’s] female characters are practically devoid of the least trace of intellectual or reflective capacity.
Generally, Hitchens’s commentary, whatever its stripe, was less interesting than the Orwell passages he quoted. So, although Hitchens’s analyses were not always compelling, I was still struck by the relevance of Orwell’s decades-old prose. In fact, I began rereading 1984 the day after I finished this book. As for Why Orwell Matters, I’d give it a
3/6: more good than bad
other reviews of the book: