Just when you thought the world’s literary level had gone down the proverbial toilet with books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey becoming best sellers, George Orwell’s 1984 jumps in sales. The fact that behind this is President Obama referencing the novel in his defence of PRISM, indicates that the increase in book sales owes a lot to the president.
Considering that the National Security Agency and its surveillance program has brought the issue of personal privacy to the fore of public debate, it is no surprise that Orwell’s classic novel of a future dystopia which helped to coin the phrase “Big Brother” has leapt up a staggering 29 percent in sales figures. This leap made Orwell’s 1949 vision of the future appear on Amazon’s “Movers and Shakers” list and moving from its former rank of 821 to 209 on Tuesday.
Last Friday, President Obama made reference to the novel in his defense of the PRISM program. It was apparently his inclusion of the book in his statement that increased interest in the book. In case you missed it, this is what the president said, ”In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok,” Obama said. “But when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”
The phrase “Big Brother” was established in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which describes a totalitarian surveillance state in the future. The book, which celebrated its 64th anniversary on June 8, invented the terms “Big Brother” and “Orwellian” and introduced them into mainstream language to describe police states and secret surveillance.
As more information is unveiled about the American government’s far-reaching net of surveillance data, readers could be curious to learn just how closely the U.S. agency parallels the 64-year-old book.
Or, they could be purchasing the book for use as a sort of training manual.
After Microsoft’s admission that they have been supplying information about their customers to the NSA and the reveal of their new Xbox One that, rather ominously, must always be hooked up to the internet (something which the company is now saying is incorrect) it mirrors the world of Orwell’s dystopian paranoiac existence even more closely than before.
Consider this description of life in the future, “The telescreens (in every public area, and the quarters of the Party’s members), have hidden microphones and cameras. These devices, alongside informers, permit the Thought Police to spy upon everyone and so identify anyone who might endanger the Party’s régime; children, most of all, are indoctrinated to spy and inform on suspected thought-criminals – especially their parents.”
Reading the above paragraph and recalling the Xbox One reveal caused goosebumps to run down my spine. Though the book follows the love affair and its aftermath of Winston Smith and Julia, the prevailing theme is government control and the depth’s of it.
In a telling scene, after Smith and Julia meet again after being forced to admit their “crimes” each one acknowledges that they betrayed the other. Mainly because of the horrid tactics practised by the authorities, while Smith and Julia talk he has a song stuck in his head:
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me—
It is disturbing to realise that the president thinks his government has “struck the right balance” between Orwell’s future and ours. Considering how the book turns out perhaps it couldn’t really be referred to as an instruction manual, it may prove to be more of a survival manual.
In terms of book sales, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four does owe a debt to President Obama. But it is a debt that, despite the good news of our national literary level apparently going up, is disturbing because of the reason for the books “revival.”
By Michael Smith