The first of two volumes of the British author’s essays, compiled by journalist George Packer.
Orwell (1903–50) was no Flaubert closeted in aesthetic concentration. He was a vigorous participant in the chaotic life of his time, traveling to dangerous places (Burma under British rule, Spain fragmented by civil strife) and venturing into the culture of poverty—in his documentary masterpiece Down and Out in Paris and London and in such memorable transcriptions of personal experience as reports on his day spent in a filthy workhouse (“The Spike”) and a similar adventure in a festering prison (“Clink”). Readers familiar with Orwell’s work will not be surprised to find the aforementioned, or a kindred depiction of “Marrakech” as a swamp of poverty, overpopulation and disease, or a thoughtful if embittered retrospective essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” which forms a bridge to his great nonfiction book Homage to Catalonia. Some may be surprised, however, to encounter a memoirist who displays a quirky affection for the minutiae of the quotidian (“The Case for the Open Fire,” “In Defence of English Cooking,” “Bookshop Memories”) and a keen observer who always zeroes in on the broader ramifications of a simple subject (e.g., describing English football in “The Sporting Spirit” as “an unfailing cause of ill will”). The journalistic virtue Orwell does not possess in abundance is, oddly enough, objectivity. Readers will feel his inquiring, combative, judgmental sensibility lurking everywhere in his best work: bitter self-criticism in the twin classics “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant”; stoical courage and depressive exhaustion in his immensely detailed “War-time Diary” (1940); his need “to make political writing into an art” in “Why I Write”; and the salutary indignation that enlivens his justly famous remembrance of public-school experiences (“Such, Such Were the Joys”).
A generous display of the great English journalist’s distinctive honesty, clarity and reverence for the pertinent fact and the perfect phrase.