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Why Orwell Matters
By Christopher Hitchens,
Basic Books, 211 pages, October 2002

Review by Paul McLeary

Christopher Hitchens gives praise grudgingly, and he has proven that he is not afraid to lay into someone he deems incorrect, or worse yet, ideologically or politically lacking. The obvious delight he takes in dressing down the likes of Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, The Nation magazine and most recently, good friend Martin Amis will more than attest to that. In Why Orwell Matters, he doesn't stray far from his established formula. While not so much defending Orwell as simply pointing out where others had gone wrong in criticizing him, he takes pains to illuminate the debt postwar intellectual life owes to the man who, Hitchens believes, got it right in tackling the three most important issues of the 20th century - imperialism, fascism and Stalinism.

Orwell lived and wrote as a contrarian; devoting his literary work and reportage to exposing what he considered to be the hidden (or ignored) truths about the political climate of his day. A fervent anticommunist, he broke with the accepted pro-communist leftist opinion of his time (much like Hitchens and his views on American foreign policy post 9/11) and attacked Stalinist Russia every chance he got, marrying theoretical conviction with positive action in becoming personally involved in printing and smuggling translated copies of his anti-Stalinist Animal Farm into eastern Europe at his own expense.

Other Book Reviews:

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Lightning Field
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It's a Free Country
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Some of the Parts
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- Jonathon Dee

The White
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Into the Buzzsaw
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- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
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Tempting Faith DiNapoli
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- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
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The Shape of a Pocket
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Media Unlimited
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Carter Beats the Devil
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Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
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Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
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Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
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Look at Me
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Them: Adventures With Extremists
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Tishomingo Blues
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Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor
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Shanghai Baby
Wei Hui
Shop Talk
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Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel
David Markson
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

But Hitchens is a critic first, and a fan second. As such, this slim book tends to bog down in Hitchens' insistence on nitpicking with Adorno about postmodernism and the objectivity of language, "…for Orwell, a common language with accepted and mutually understood rules was an indispensable condition for an open democracy.",(p.196) and taking writers such as T.S. Eliot, Norman Podhoretz, Claude Simon, Raymond Williams and Edward Said to task for misreading and misquoting Orwell at seemingly every turn. Odd as it is to see Hitchens so in love with his subject, the gleeful venom he has staked his career on spewing comes back in this instance to mar the overall effect of the book.

There is also a prevailing sense of pity running throughout the book, with Hitchens coming back time and again to Orwell's ill health, romantic failures and constant poverty as if he wishes he could have been there to help the guy out. Although he never dismisses Orwell's struggles with his antipathy towards gays, jews and women, Hitchens slightly downplays these apects of Orwell's intellectual life, not altogether convincingly.

Hitchens wraps up the book with a plea for style and the elucidation of the objective underpinnings of studied opinion over strictly ideological content, a struggle he feels Orwell ultimately won. What Orwell illustrates, "by his commitment to language" Hitchens claims, "is that 'views' do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them."(p.211)


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