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Why George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn't feel like history

British journalist Dorian Lynskey talks to Russell Baillie about marking the 70th anniversary of Orwell’s dystopia.

This year marked the 70th anniversary of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and next January will mark the same of its author’s death. The book didn’t even need a commemoration of its seven decades for a recent spike in sales – it returned to the bestseller lists in early 2017 after Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway introduced the phrase “alternative facts”.

The anniversary has been marked by two books – earlier Orwell biographer DJ Taylor delivered On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography in which the novelist-critic revisits the writing of the book and its literary history. But dragging Nineteen Eighty-Four into the 21st century is British music journalist Dorian Lynskey. His The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 examines not just how the author’s life led to his vision of dystopia but also the work’s recurring cultural impact and influence, whether it be on the novels of Margaret Atwood, the songs of David Bowie, the advertising campaigns of Apple, the privacy settings of Facebook or the tweets of Trump. It’s the best book about a book of the year.

The Listener caught up with Lynskey somewhere on “Airstrip One”.

Read more: Dorian Lynskey's biography is featured in the Listener's 100 Best Books of 2019.

So, you already had the idea for the book under way before the Trump bump for Nineteen Eighty-Four’s sales. Still, it must have helped …

It was nice. It was bad for America and the world, but it was quite good for somebody writing a book about Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Dorian Lynskey. Photo/Supplied

And the age of alternative facts and fake news, as well as a tech and social-media landscape where people’s lives and data are being hoovered up, also feels Orwellian.

There’s been a lot more reporting just in recent months about surveillance capitalism and about the Chinese government’s use of technology that, in the West, we think of as fairly benign … and that is being used in a kind of quasi-totalitarian way. So, there’s always new stuff. Current events dictated some of the choices I made. Certainly, if I came across a quotation in his work that felt particularly resonant to now, I would sort of be drawn to it.

As you point out in the introduction, Orwell said the books that you read when you are young stay with you forever. Was that the case with you?

Yeah, I probably first read it in my early mid-teens like a lot of people, but I realised as an adult what a mistake it was to assume that because it’s so impactful, because it’s so famous, you don’t need to revisit it. As I tried to demonstrate, it’s much more dense and complicated and sophisticated both in its ideas and its structure and its tone than certainly I would have realised at the age of 14. So, it’s a book that works brilliantly as a bucket of cold water in the face when you’re young, and it’s well worth rereading because there’s so much going on inside it.

Did your view of Orwell change in researching and writing the book?

Obviously it expanded hugely. I read everything, and that’s 20 volumes of almost two million words. It’s almost like getting into a musician or a band where you know you’ve got the hits or you’ve got The Best of Bob Dylan and then at some point you just think, “I’m going to listen to every single song that he recorded.” And then, of course, you realise that there’s all this fascinating stuff going on in the less successful work.

For instance, I never knew that Orwell was a film critic, because his film reviews aren’t very good and therefore they didn’t end up in the general compilations. But they were fascinating because of what they revealed about the way he thought. He had such a strong world view. He was so opinionated that, whatever he was writing about, his opinions would come through, even if the opinions actually led him astray and he would just end up completely misunderstanding a film. It really struck me that there were phrases that appeared in Nineteen Eighty-Four that you could find in a throwaway film review from 1940.

So, greatest novel of the last century?

Well, it depends on what you’re after. It was the most culturally pervasive. As I was writing my book, I thought, “I can’t think of anything else that has the same impact.” The great and important books, such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, are very famous, sure. But this establishes dystopian literature as a genre; it is the first popular theory of totalitarianism; it predates Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and it introduces a lot of people to the psychology of totalitarianism. It introduces so many phrases and concepts to political language, which, even by the mid-50s, were kind of almost like clichés, certainly in the British Parliament.

It inspired famous albums, famous adverts, famous novels – the things that it influenced became really important in their own right. It had this immense power so that everything that drew from it ended up becoming powerful and significant in its own right.

THE MINISTRY OF TRUTH: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, by Dorian Lynskey (Picador, $38)

This article was first published in the November 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.