Big Brother IS Watching: 1984 and Summer Reading 2013


In the two weeks before the opening of school I have the students who will be entering my class read George Orwell’s 1984. It is the perfect prequel to the first two books we read in class, Brave New World and A Handmaid’s Tale. (We start out with a big dose of dystopia.)

Well, one of my more ambitious students has already done all his summer reading and e-mailed me about 1984. Orwell was pretty clever, he wrote, but he doesn’t think that that kind of thing could really ever happen.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Signet Classic's cover of 1984

Signet Classic’s cover of 1984

Boy, did he pick the wrong summer to make that statement.

The other day, I saw the trailer for a film, Closed Circuit (see bottom of post). It is a terrorist-mole-investigative reporting-shady government department type of thing. And it looked very good. But, as I was telling a friend, one of the major players in the film is the network of 1.85 million close circuit cameras mounted throughout Britain. ( That is roughly one camera for every 32 people. Of course, that ratio is a lot smaller in urban areas than in rural.

George Orwell saw it coming.

And then of course, the major news story of the summer was the Snowden leaks. (As Yossarian said in Catch-22, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?”) For many, the actions of Snowden, his search for asylum, the international posturing and subsequent tensions have been the most riveting part of the story. What seems to have trouble staying in the foreground, however, is the fact that the U.S.government has been spying on its citizens, collecting data from their e-mails, their texts, their cell-phones, and their search engines. The citizens have been assured that the NSA is not going to use this data, but is simply archiving it. “For what?” is a sensible question.

George Orwell would have certainly asked it.

And the technology just gets better and better. Even the most naive teenager knows that his computer searches and activity are catalogued and sold to marketers. So it is not surprising that if the day after you search on-line for an umbrella for your father, you see umbrella advertisements popping up on your screen. (And depending who you are, where you are, and how often you searched, the price for the same umbrella will fluctuate.)

Well now this same marketing scheme has been adapted by the brick and mortar stores through face-recognition technology. Higher-end stores are testing facial-recognition technology which will alert store clerks immediately when someone (usually a celebrity) walks into the store and what his or her buying preferences are. At the moment the focus is on celebrities because their photos are already available in their databanks.

But it won’t be long. Walk into your favorite department store, spend some time in the men’s shoe department, and you might find an advert for men’s shoes pop up the next time you click on your device. They already know what you think you want.

Google has the technology for you to snap a photo of someone on the street, upload it, and learn everything you want about them. They have refrained from releasing it so far, mainly due to the legal tangle that Facebook is finding itself in.  Facebook’s ‘”tagging” photos capabilities is a subtle way to create an enormous facial-recognition database. And that database is available not only to you and your friends.

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once famously claimed, privacy is no longer a “social norm.”

George Orwell would find it all familiar.

If things go right, the first few days in school should have a lot of interesting discussions.

I hope so.

Here’s the trailer to Close Circuit. It looks like it could be good.


1984Brave New World…and Phillip K. Dick????

It is perhaps the most iconic novels of the 20th century.  George Orwell’s 1984 is the dystopian novels of all dystopian novels.  We all know the phrases “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thought-police”; their ominous overtones and insinuations are recognized even by those who have never read the book. The deadening conformity and mind-control that Orwell writes about are the fears often invoked by those who fear totalitarianism in any form–in governments or corporations.

Apple–now a mighty corporation in itself–famously advertised its new Macintosh computer by pitting itself against the corporate giants of the computer world in a magnificent television commercial that echoed the world of 1984–and Apple’s defiance to its conformity.  (The ad was seen only once on television during the American Superbowl and then subsequently was shown in theaters.)

The novel is bleak and that bleakness is broken only briefly by a wonderful love affair and the main character’s misplaced hope.  Indeed, my favorite image from the book is one that perfectly captures the grime, the incompetency, the substandard level of life, when Winston Smith, the protagonist, goes to unclog a sink in a neighbor’s apartment. As he looks at her, he notices the dust that has gathered in the lines of her face.  I always remember that–a pretty powerful image.

Orwell wrote his novel in 1948 (that’s really the only significance of the novel’s title: it’s the year he wrote it reversed). But nearly a quarter century earlier, another British writer also wrote a powerful dystopic novel: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

And where Orwell’s world is one in which a film of oil lies on the gin and ready-made cigarettes fall apart in your hand and where sex is frowned upon (because one should really only love Big Brother), Huxley’s novel is the opposite.

Huxley saw his dystopia as a world in which people are perfectly happy–indeed where they are conditioned to be happy. There is no disgruntlement–people have been conditioned to accept and love their station in life. (A station that has been pre-decided by the artificial generation process.) Promiscuity is greatly encouraged and sex is varied and plentiful. And if for some reason, one might feel a little blue, there is SOMA, a mood-enhancing drug that is given out in vast quantities to all the classes.

The society works efficiently and happily. Yet Huxley sees the snake in the garden–the lack of freedom to be wrong, to be sad, to disagree. Even to be alone.  It is when a “savage” is brought back from a reservation in the southwestern part of the U.S. is the society and its beliefs challenged–but not for long.

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By the way, click here for a letter that Huxley wrote to Orwell upon first reading 1984. It is this very discussion of dystopia comprising great suffering or constant happiness:

Huxley to Orwell letter

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Aldous Huxley

I teach Brave New World as the first book of the new school year.  I will have thirty very bright 18-year-old students enrolled in my class. I know that half of them read 1984 last year with the one teacher they had. The other half did not. (And 1984 is such a great companion piece to any discussion of Brave New World.) So I assigned it as “summer reading.” But only to half of them. I looked for another “dystopian” novel to give the class that had already read Orwell’s novel.
And so I assigned Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Now, I have never been a big fan of science-fiction. I have just never gotten into it. In fact, I have never seen a Star Wars movie!

I’ve read some of the standards–Bradbury, Welles, Asimov, and, if we are stretching, Vonnegut.  But it’s something I just never made a connection with.

And Dick’s novel did nothing to change my mind!? Despite it being anointed a “classic” by so many and being the source for the beloved film, Blade Runner, it left me very flat.
Again we are dealing in a world different than our own–a post-apocalyptic earth where most of the able bodied people have emigrated to Mars.  Nuclear fallout from World War Terminus has made much of Earth inhabitable. The government’s enticement for people to emigrate is a free android that will work as their personal servants.

However, some of these androids have returned to earth and must be killed. And the only way to distinguish between the androids and the humans is the lack of empathy in the androids–a lack that can be tested.

Phillip K. Dick

The plot, entails the main character, Rick Deckhard–an android bounty hunter–attempting to increase his bounty numbers so that he can buy some real animals, instead of the “electric sheep” he now owns. Animals, he feels, encourage empathy in humans.
I am not sure how I will squeeze this into our discussions of Brave New World and 1984.  I am not sure if it can be squeezed into dystopic literature.  Post-apocalpytic maybe–most of my kids have read or seen The Road and I am Legend–but it doesn’t really fit in with totalitarianism and its evils.

And then, maybe it won’t be all that important to the discussion anyway. Or better yet, maybe it’ll throw us all in a different direction completely.

Summer Reading


It is traditional in the U.S. for schools to give students a list of books to read during the summer.  The concept is twofold: one, keeping a student’s mind engaged while absent from most intellectual interaction; and two, trying to excite a student to the pleasure of reading.  So the trick is to find titles that are both stimulating and enjoyable and thoughtful.

So in the school I work at, the “Summer Reading List” has just been published. Here are the titles:

For 9th Graders:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Enders’ Game by Orson Scott Card
Ishmael: An Adventure of Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

For 10th Graders:

Four mandatory short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and four other Hawthorne stories of the student’s choosing.
Four mandatory short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and four other Poe stories of the student’s choosing.

For 11th Graders:  There are two levels of books. The first level has a wide choice. They MUST read the first two and then choose ONE of the remaining six:

Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne Du Maurier   by Daphne DuMaurier and Patrick McGrath
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre

Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos  (HOW GREAT A TITLE IS THIS!!!!!)
The Devil in the White City  by Erik Larson
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The other group of 11th graders read these:

Watership Down by Richard Adams
HIGH FIDELITY by Nick Hornby
Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levit

Those in 12th Grade read:

Zeitoun by David Eggers
Like You’d Understand Anyway by James Shepherd

Those in Advanced Placement 12th Grade have a large list to choose from. Some are mandatory and some are choice, but they end up reading 5 titles in all (and for one, reading the book AND watching the film.) They are:

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
1984 by George Orwell
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
A Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
Demian by Hermann Hesse
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Obasan by Joy Kogawa

King Lear by William Shakespeare and the 1985 Akira Kurosawa film Ran
Educating Rita by Willy Russell and the1983 film by the same name
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and the 1994 film by the same name
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle and the 1991 film by the same name
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and the 2000 film by the same name
Equus by Peter Shaffer and the 1977 film by the same name
The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West and the 1975 film by the same name
The Color Purple by Alice Walker and the 1985 film by the same name
Beloved by Toni Morrison and the 1998 film by the same name
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck and the 1937 movie by the same name
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and the 2010 movie by the same name

I must admit, I haven’t read (or watched) all of these titles, but I have read most. It’s a pretty eclectic list…and certainly stimulating. I have my own favorites–Zeitoun for anger, The Commitments for fun, The Hours for tears, The Color Purple for the extraordinary… I could go on, but won’t.  Have fun. Choose something for yourself, if you have the time.

So whether it’s been one year since you’ve been out of high-school or fifty-one years, give the list a look over and maybe you’ll find something to get you through the hot summer days that are already well on their way.