The Book Cook Look Club is a small Australian based book club combining three much-loved activities: reading, cooking and films. Declan, a member of the club, will be recapping his experience each month right here on The Nerd Daily!
BOOK | One person selects a book for everyone to read over the next month.
COOK | The book selector hosts a dinner party with a themed meal related to the book.
LOOK | We compare the film adaptation to its source material.
There are few political writers of the 20th century so well recognised as George Orwell. It only takes a mention of Big Brother or talking pigs to send anyone reeling into flashbacks of high school English. But while 1984 and Animal Farm are fine novels, they are simply fictional expressions of the ideas he first expressed in essay form.
These essays were hugely influential in my own formative years as a teenager. Some of his ideas were articulations of half-formed ideas in my mind; others were completely new concepts that changed my perspective of politics, society, and culture. Both were equally valuable, and were reason enough for me to bring his essays to the book club this month.
As the group settled down to the tunes of Glenn Miller, we tucked into a meal of bangers and mash fit for a proletariat. Due to the sheer number of essays written by Orwell, I chose a few for the book club to read so that we all had a common understanding of the subject matter.
Realising five minutes before dinner that Scott hadn’t read any of them yet, I threw my book at him and told him to read The Sporting Spirit, a nice quick essay suitable for light reading. It really did feel like high school all over again—cramming right before an exam, committing key ideas to short-term memory. And to top this off, Scott spoke about it quite impressively, as if he had been preparing his analysis for weeks when it had in fact been minutes.
In this essay, Orwell’s focus is on the brand of nationalism that divides humans, rather than unites them. Orwell’s definition of nationalism goes beyond state borders and races. It encompasses culture, religion, class, politics, and yes, even sporting teams.
His opinion of sporting events is pretty scathing, but he certainly has a point. Our passion for sport is so ingrained in our culture that we are reluctant to criticise it—but that’s exactly the point. When we get so caught up in the heat of a great sporting rivalry, our primary desire is to see one side triumph over the other, often at the expense of rational thought. If there is a tough call for a referee to make, the crowd will invariably side with whatever decision benefits their team, regardless of rules or logic. We prioritise our own pride over any attempts to unite opposing teams in friendly competition.
This is where we left the sport discussion, and we hadn’t even started to touch on the violent behaviour that often comes as a result of sporting rivalries.
So if people’s passion for conflict can arise from something as arbitrary as a sports team, then how savage can we get when divided by something more culturally significant—politics, for example?
There are infinite examples of this from modern society that could demonstrate this, but Jillian touched on just one: the national anthem protests in American football games. What started as one man’s protest against racial inequality snowballed into a movement that has even further polarised the left and right wings of American politics. What one side interprets as a stand for social justice, the other views as a degradation of core American values. And a lot of this can be attributed to political discourse—that is, how we take completely different meanings from a common symbol.
As our main meal started to wrap up, I brought out a bread and butter pudding, a British dessert popular among the working class for its use of basic ingredients. During this course I wanted to segue into the more linguistic side of Orwell’s work through Politics and the English Language.
One of Orwell’s central ideas in Politics is very reassuring: if you have ever read a wordy, pretentious piece of writing and do not understand it, don’t feel stupid. There is a high chance that is probably just bad writing. It is often the case that when an author has no solid point to stand on they will hide this fact with long words and confusing phrases.
Being dedicated book lovers, we were careful to clarify here that Orwell isn’t just trashing fancy words for the fun of it. He is simply stating that the function of writing is to communicate an idea from one person to another. So if the intended reader can’t understand what you have written, what exactly is its purpose? Sure, be liberal and original with your writing, but don’t try to cover up a weak idea with unnecessarily long words and clichéd idioms. Get to the point, and be succinct.
Having said that, don’t feel guilty for enjoying books that aren’t of an astounding literary quality. I wanted to highlight this to the rest of the book club, because Orwell makes it his focus in Good Bad Books, as a counter to his more perfectionist tendencies.
As special as the Harry Potter series is to me, J.K. Rowling’s writing is objectively less elegant than that of Victor Hugo’s in Les Miserables. Despite this, Orwell argues that this doesn’t mean books like Harry Potter shouldn’t hold cultural and sentimental value. Instead, we should learn to understand the merits of both escapist fiction and literary masterpieces.
This is the essence of Orwell. He appreciates quality literature and the need for rational thinking in this political age, but he also has a realistic understanding of human nature with all its flaws. Rather than seeing his “rules of writing” as restrictions, they should instead be used as tools to combat ignorance and encourage freethinking. Orwell doesn’t speak for a single culture or time period; he speaks for humanity and its entire course of history.