Book Reviews: We the Living by Ayn Rand and 1984 by George Orwell
Did Ayn Rand and George Orwell Predict the Future?
I’ve been re-reading some of the classic fiction that captivated me when I was a teenager. We the Living by Ayn Rand, a novel about one woman’s attempt to keep her identity in the new Soviet Union. I’d read it several times when I was 16. At the time, I wept for Kira, the lead character, as she watched her world fall down around her.
But before I say more, I want to add that this book should be read in its proper context. When We the Living was published in 1936, very little was known about everyday life in the Soviet Union, nor, for that matter, when I read it first in the 1970s. Much propaganda was being pushed out by the Soviet government; visiting delegates came away with false, rosy pictures of proletariat life.
Rand, who grew up in Russia at the time, was one of the few who stood up against the propaganda – and that is partly what made it a shocking story. She dared to expose a much darker side of Soviet life that was largely unknown outside the country and the events in her novel have since been fortified by several non-fiction histories about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
Kira’s story loomed large in my memories, but I wasn’t as moved by this story as I expected to be this when I re-read it. True, I’m older and have many more books under my belt, and that may have tempered my reaction, but I think the Internet also has something to do with it too. In today’s world, where we are blitzed with online stories and video clips of stifling and corrupt government throughout the world, Rand’s seems almost simplistic. But that’s just my opinion. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in gaining more insights into Any Rand as a writer and a philosopher.
The classic novel, 1984 by George Orwell had the opposite effect on me. Within the first few pages, Orwell succeeds in creating a tense, frightening world that seems even more real to me now than it did when I read it years ago.
At the time it seemed almost contrived, as though conceived to serve as a backdrop to amplify the main character’s inner turmoil and awakening rebellion against his stifled existence. The omnipresent sense of being watched and overheard in Orwell’s story is scarily closer to the hyper-connected world in which we live in today.
Beyond the all-seeing, all-hearing aura that takes over your mind as you read, Orwell has also created a gray, drab world in which things that we take for granted – chocolate, sugar, shoes, razor blades – are long gone, replaced by badly done substitutes or nothing at all. At first, this deprived world seemed contrived or dated – until I thought of modern day North Korea.
Read by Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick and you realize that Orwell’s world can be found here and now, in North Korea. In this non-fiction book, Demick shows us what life is like for the average North Korean, told through the stories of six people who eventually defected to South Korea.
Even more frightening, the government has managed to create a world where “Big Brother is Watching” without the use of electronics, driving home the point that it’s the people who create the system, not the system that creates the people. It’s an unforgettable read that will stay with you for a long time.
Next up: Man’s Fate (La Condition Humaine) by Andre Malraux. Will it be as riveting as I remember?