REVIEW: 1984 in the 21st Century from Riverdale Avenue BooksMay 4, 2017
When I started journalism school, I felt completely and entirely out of place. I came to Oregon, home to temperate rain forests and real-life Portlandia, from a world of high desert mesas and Mormons. I was sometimes one of maybe two or three other students in a hundred person lecture without a MacBook. I didn’t understand how rain could make the edges of my pants wet literally all day. The liberal political posters in all the coffee shop windows were at once shocking and exciting.
I adjusted, as everyone does their first year away at school, but I’d be lying if I told you it was of my own volition. For my first few months, while on the bus to campus, I read Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The chaos encircling Alice and her insistent cool-headed (although sometimes also air-headed) demeanor in the face of it helped ease my transition. This is not surprising. Books have often served as guides in times of uncertainty. As an American under the pernicious and unpredictable leadership of President Trump, I find myself again turning to literature for some kind of solace. And I am not alone.
In 1984 in the 21st Century from Riverdale Avenue Books, edited by Lori Perkins, 25 writers take on their relationship to 1984, the sci-fi classic by George Orwell, and how they feel it relates (or doesn’t) to the modern day zeitgeist. The essays range from personal narratives about the importance of the text over a lifetime, to the power of fiction, to how we have finally arrived to a future in which Big Brother is real (and there’s a good chunk of that last category).
The anthology is structured well in that it lends itself to a reader randomly picking it up and flipping to any essay to read, which, as I understand it, is generally the goal of a good anthology. Unfortunately, I read the first half straight through and found myself mildly irritated that each and every author wanted to introduce the plot and concept of 1984 to me (sometimes I don’t make the best decisions).
Additionally, 1984 in the 21st Century offers enough different takes and view points that I found myself nodding along and agreeing with one author and then disagreeing in a deep rage with the next. For someone who enjoys chewing on opposing viewpoints, if only so I don’t get too comfortable in my own, this was a great experience.
But regardless of how far I read, David Jester’s essay from the very beginning of the anthology, “1984 Was the Catalyst of Our Conversation,” stuck with me the strongest. Jester talks about how several key phases in his life impressed upon him the importance of 1984. One day, he meets a gentleman who tells him, unprompted on a ferry, “That book saved my life.” Jester’s conversation partner believes in Orwell’s message so strongly that he repeatedly purchases copies of the Orwellian novel to give to strangers in the hope that they’ll read it. Having been “saved” on more than one occasion by someone pressing a book into my hands, this guy resonated with me.
Overall, 1984 in the 21st Century accomplishes the important and necessary action of looking at a thing from every side, including the context in which it was created and now exists. Or, to put it plainly, if you’re a politics and history nerd, pick up this book. It may help you adjust to the madness we’re staring down.