You know me. I enjoy a challenge as much as the next man. But is this a challenge too far? After all, I still have many of Agatha Christies and Paul Bernas to read, and James Bond films to watch, let alone keeping up with old travel and theatre memories. And George Orwell? Really? Is this wise?
I had no idea this was going to happen until a few weeks ago when a friend said he had ordered Animal Farm and 1984 from Audible and was looking forward, finally, to getting to know these famous stories. My instant reaction was to feel oh you lucky thing, getting your first taste of Orwell’s best known and probably best-loved books. I also wondered if they were his best-written books; then it occurred to me that it had been ages since I read them myself, let alone Wigan Pier, Catalonia, Down and Out and so on. In fact, there are plenty of his works I’ve never read. I’ve not read Burmese Days or A Clergyman’s Daughter; and I have no memories of Coming Up for Air or Keep the Aspidistra Flying, even if I have read them. I’m convinced that I was too young and certainly too green and immature to appreciate much of what he was trying to say, so I think the time is right to revisit them. However, a quick glimpse at his bibliography on Wikipedia reveals a mass of essays, reviews, articles, pamphlets and so on. There’s no way I can read all those. I’ll be doing it when I’m 100.
But I am very tempted by the prospect of taking Orwell in chronological order, reading his works and then putting virtual pen to paper to record my thoughts. This will be a very different kind of challenge from the others, because there are already reams of learned and insightful critical appreciations of his books written by people far more academic and brighter than I could ever dare to be. So there’s no point in my adding unoriginal and slight insights into a well-established canon of critiques. I also don’t have to provide synopses, like I do with Berna (because no one else has done that) or thrill assessments and marks out of ten like I do with Christie (because it just wouldn’t be appropriate). So instead I will just read, absorb and record my emotional responses and personal reflections on what Orwell is telling me. It could be as dull as ditchwater – in which case, I’ll stop.
Orwell wrote six novels, three non-fiction books and endless other essays and articles. I’m going to read all the books, and a good number of the essays. Taking them in chronological order, he wrote a few essays in French for Le Progrès Civique publication, but I’m not going to tackle those because a) I’m too lazy to translate them and b) I feel reading someone else’s translation would create a barrier between me and him. His first published essay in English appears to be The Spike, but this is later reworked into Down and Out in Paris and London, so I’m also going to ignore that. Instead, the first piece I will read will be A Hanging, an essay written in 1931, published in The Adelphi magazine, and also in the 1950 volume Shooting an Elephant. I have it as one of the essays in the Penguin 1975 collection, Decline of the English Murder. I’ll let you know how I get on! Wish me luck!