June 13, 2013

Thanks, NSA: Americans are reading again (or maybe they’re just reading 1984)


Big Brother is reading your emails while you read Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nineteen Eighty-Four first came out 64 years ago this week, and thanks to the NSA, George Orwell‘s dystopian novel is doing better than ever. Sales on Amazon have risen by more than 7,000% since news of the secret surveillance program broke. And if you happen to have a first edition cluttering up your office, best to unload it now, as they’re spiking in value.

President Obama referenced the novel on Friday when he defended the Prism program. “In the abstract you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance,” he said.

So the president wouldn’t call the situation Orwellian—but Orwell’s biographer Michael Shelden would. “Throwing out such a broad net of surveillance is exactly the kind of threat Orwell feared,” he said.

Orwell had good reason to fear. In 2007 MI5 released their file on the writer, whose activity they had closely monitored for over twenty years.

A Scotland Yard Special Branch reported in 1942, “This man has advanced communist views and several of his Indian friends say that they have often seen him at communist meetings. He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.” But MI5 never deemed Orwell a significant threat, noting in the report that he had “undoubtedly strong left-wing views, but he is a long way from orthodox communism.”

Over at The Guardian, Stephen Moss sided with Obama, hesitating to link the recent scandal with Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Readers who pick up Nineteen Eighty-Four because of the current worries over the Prism programme would be wrong just to see it as a novel about the dangers of overweening technology. The all-seeing telescreen in the corner of the room is an important device for allowing the state to exercise control, but Orwell’s real concern is about far more insidious threats to liberty. The Big Brother state aims at nothing less than the control of language and thought. According to the slogans repeated by the Ministry of Truth, “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” Deprive people of the words with which to resist, and you will crush resistance.

But people are picking up Nineteen Eighty-Four because of Prism—in droves. Maybe this thing isn’t really a new Big Brother on the block. Maybe it’s just a big push to get high schoolers reading the books on their summer list?



Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.