1984

1984, written by George Orwell, was published soon after World War II and imagines a dystopian future in which “Big Brother” a figure-head of a totalitarian government controls the piece of the world that the main character, Winston Smith, lives in. The world is divided up into three divisions Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia with something like large swaths of populated no man’s land in between. Much of the book is spent describing the concepts and strategies of the totalitarian government as well as the details of the people and places in this dystopian world.

The Power of Fear & Pain:

  • The listener is provided an internal view into the protagonist mostly, so assumptions must be made about the internal feelings of the other characters. However, one thing immediately recognizable in this audiobook is the fear present in the people controlled by their government. Fear seems to prey on the survival instincts of the characters by encouraging them to do whatever they must to survive. Citizens of Oceania seem jovial when traitors are caught and deposed through jail and/or death, but it’s hard to believe that the citizens can truly feel jovial and secure in such a controlled environment. Much like the main character, Winston, other citizens of Oceania may be may internally be on edge and seeking to improve their loyalty to “Big Brother” by their enthusiasm towards the capture and conviction of comrades found to be disloyal to the party.

The Power of Words:

  • The citizens are always being watched through “telescreens” (something like a TV set that both records and displays visual and audible information) what now, perhaps not in the 1950’s, seems feasible. Besides the “telescreens” there’s the “Thought Police” who monitor any signs (e.g. speech, body language, facial expression, etc.) of disloyalty to the party. There’s also “News Speak” or the effort by the government-controlled media to limit the amount of words used in Oceania’s language. The concept of “Newspeak” seems to emphasize the importance of education and language in expressing human individuality and promoting intellectual growth and freedom. In his book, Orwell seems to be emphasizing that words are powerful, and a society that diminishes the power of words diminishes the power of its people.

The Essence of Freedom:

  • The underlying tone of 1984 seems to be related to the destruction of freedom. As the book progresses it becomes clear that freedom exists solely in the mind, in the realm of human choices. One may be physically overpowered, locked up, or chained, but there is still the freedom of thought and choice. Though the sum of a person’s thoughts and decisions may be simply the totality of his or her genetics and environment, but choice is what makes people free. In order for one person or a small group to rule a multitude, there must be a way to control people’s thoughts and choices.

Misunderstanding Professed Beliefs &/or Their Implications:

  • In 1984, the ruling minority seems to be largely successful, and most citizens seem to take the viewpoint that ignorance is bliss if not fully buying into the regime’s propaganda. One character makes an effort to give the appearance of “orthodoxy” or conformation to the regime’s ideology without truly understanding the implications and true nature of the ideology. This character’s ignorant dedication to rules and beliefs reflects an attitude that some people may embrace in life. It may at times be easier to embrace beliefs that have been inherited from family or conform to societal expectations and standards without really examining the merit of those beliefs. Furthermore, one may not even understand how to live out those beliefs in the proper way.

The Importance of Authenticity:

  • While some people may struggle to live out their beliefs due to a lack of understanding, others like Winston in 1984 may be afraid to reveal who they really are. While Winston hides his true beliefs out of a fear of imprisonment and death, individuals in modern society may hide who they really are out of a fear of disapproval or relational rejection. Failure to meet societal expectations can prevent people from being authentic. As Winston confesses both the positive and negative aspects of his inner self, he shows us a valuable part of his humanity. In a society that expects perfection, or at least the ruling party’s definition of it, Winston comes to grips with his imperfections.
  • This serves as a lesson to individuals of modern society. The individual must determine for herself what is right and wrong and judge herself by that standard. The governments of the nations in which that individual chooses to reside will hold that individual to a collective standard of justice along with the rest of the individuals in those nations. That individual will likely judge herself imperfect by both the standards of those societies as well as her own standards. However, that realization aids in understanding the necessary responsibilities and privileged liberties of living in a mutually beneficial community. Realizing one’s imperfections is an essential part of what it means to be human.

The Existence of Absolute Truth:

  • Late in the book Winston goes into a self-reflective monologue about the insecurities of truth. He wonders if two plus two really equals four. He asks what truth really is if it exists in our minds and our minds are only a perception of our surroundings. Winston turns to the fundamental laws of the world around him such as the law of gravity to help reinforce his belief that truth exists outside of his own mind.

1984 may be an uncomfortable book to read or listen to at times, but Orwell covers some important concepts. The questions and challenges that arise from reading a book like 1984 are more beneficial than the story and its characters. The details of this book need not be remembered as long as the general ideas and questions relating to choice, community, and truth are internalized. Are people really free to choose? What is the individual’s and government’s role in a community? Is there such a thing as abso lute truth? Those are some of the questions that bleed through the dialogue of 1984.

 

 

 

The Audacity of Hope

While it may be natural for politicians to share personal stories in the hope of becoming more relatable, President Obama’s book seems especially personal. When he talks about interacting with his daughters or his dating relationship with First Lady Michelle Obama, the picture he paints is lovely but practical. He mentions the difficulty of managing his family and political commitments, and he praises Michelle for her strength as a mother and grace as a wife. President Obama admits some of his shortcomings and emphasizes the value of the seemingly little but nonetheless important acts involved in raising a family.

The 44th President’s optimism is engaging. His work as a Senator and exposure to the benefits and beguilements of government bureaucracy did not corrupt his positive outlook. The slow-moving aspects of legislation and pressures of such a public life could easily dampen a one’s spirits, especially one so keen on changing society for the better. The President’s attitude towards the future in spite of the complexities of age old arguments and thickness of partisan lines was one of reason and hope.
There are, of course, political policy issues covered as President Obama wrote this book in preparation for his campaign for the Presidency. Whether or not one agrees with his political positions, it’s clear that his opinions in this book were well thought-out and fashioned over years of personal experiences and public engagements. While much of his opinions seem rightfully diplomatic, he does talk about the absence of “white guilt”, the dangers of polarizing media, and the importance keeping any one religion from driving government policy. These hot topics and the history of President Obama’s terms in the oval office have the potential to turn many people towards or away from this book. Regardless of one’s opinions, reading this book provides a better understanding of the 44th President of the United States while encouraging U.S. citizens to look forward to a bright future.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

 

 

President Barack Obama’s history may not be well-known to most people. Is he from Hawaii or Chicago? What is his connection to Kansas, Kenya, and Indonesia? Most interestingly, what life experiences shaped the 44th President of the United States?

Written after his graduation from Harvard Law school in 1991 and originally published in the summer of 1995 (months before his mother’s early death), Dreams from My Father is personal throughout and at times poetic as it exposes the man Barrack Obama Jr. was before coming into senatorial and presidential power. In Dreams from My Father, President Obama reflects on a variety of topics (e.g. racism, family, religion, politics, poverty, community, etc.) and personal experiences (e.g. growing up in Hawaii in the absence of his biological father and in Indonesia in the presence of his step-father, going to school in New York before working as a community organizer in Chicago, and journeying to Kenya to discover his paternal roots) that have helped to shape his life. Well-performed and well-paced, the audiobook may lose one’s attention during some in-detail recounts of personal history or genealogy, but for the most part the narrative is concise with multiple compelling statements that reveal the balanced and diplomatic prowess of the 44th President’s worldview.

Regardless of one’s political opinions, this autobiographical account from the 44th President and 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner is well worth a listen for the historical context and provoking questions the it provides to the listener.