March 2013

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by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

1984 (1949) by George Orwell, is his worst book. It is trite, tired, and was force fed to us every other year or so in my public education in the 1960's. It has not one likable character; the protagonist, Winston Smith, and his vague love object, Julia, are both weak, selfish and superficial. The plot gives them no opportunity to be heroic; its no "Man's Fate", there is no noble, doomed act of resistance. Its deeply masochistic, almost on the level of "Histoire d'O", as Smith is morally stripped and humiliated on every possible level. Much of the detail is really illogical; one can barely imagine, even as metaphor, a world in which old newspapers are endlessly revised every day, as opposed to thrown away and forgotten. Why keep archives at all, if you have to change and reprint them all the time? Its really an awful book, and the people who foisted it on us had no sense of irony whatever, as in making us read it year after year, they were re-enacting some of the rituals the work describes, the propaganda meeting, the Two Minute's Hate.

The Pursuit of the Millenium (1957), by Norman Cohn, is a simple, clear history of the currents and ripples of millenarianism in the Middle Ages and on the verge of the Renaissance. Much of the associated mythology is extremely wack-a-doo by modern standards, but every once in a while something surprisingly and accessible and modern shines through, as peasants figure out they are being intolerably exploited by barons, and stand up to say or do something about it. Cohn writes well, with a minimum of obfuscation, and his psychological insights are good: I felt I understood the fundamentalists of our time better after reading his account of the ones who lived half a millenium ago.

Oliver Sacks' Hallucinations (2012) is exemplary medical mystery writing, explaining a wide variety of neurological phenomena which cause us to see things which aren't there, without psychosis. Along the way, Sacks explained many of the phenomena I have experienced while falling asleep and waking up. I learned that the imaginary people seen by schizophrenics tend to be mean and abusive; those seen by the partly blind, epileptics or those with damage to certain areas of the brain are much more benign--and most patients are sensible and well-centered enough not to believe what they see.

Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct (1994) is accessible and interesting speculation about where language comes from, whether it could have been produced by natural selection or was, conversely, an accidental by-product of some evolutionary change (bigger brains for another purpose?). It detours into topics such as the way children acquire language, and the often thoughtless and shallow misrule of the "language mavens", whom Pinker believes are wrong about most things.