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English teachers weigh in as ‘1984’ sells out on Amazon

George Orwell's novel "1984" is back on the bestseller list.

George Orwell's novel "1984" is back on the bestseller list.

Sales of “1984” first surged on Tuesday, when it jumped to number six on Amazon’s bestseller list. By Thursday, the book was completely sold out on the online retailer.

The book, originally published in 1949, tells the story of Winston Smith, a man struggling to overcome the oppression of a totalitarian regime in the fictional nation of Oceania.

Social media users began sharing quotes from Orwell’s novel last week after Kellyanne Conway, adviser to President Donald Trump, used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview regarding the Trump administration’s statements on inauguration attendance.

The phrase drew heavy criticism, many people comparing “alternative facts” to the “1984” concepts of “Newspeak,” the language Oceania’s rulers implemented to restrict free speech, and “doublethink,” which Orwell defines as “holding two contrary beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

UNC English lecturer Hilary Lithgow, who teaches Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in every class she teaches, said she believes there is a direct connection between alternative facts, the “fake news” crisis and a sudden widespread interest in Orwell.

“This worry that news and facts can be distorted sends us back to the drawing board in terms of who’s talked and worried about this in the past,” Lithgow said. “And Orwell has worried about it.”

Lithgow called Orwell’s novel a powerful indictment of problems with political language, adding that Orwell’s critiques don’t favor one party or belief system over another.

“No one can claim Orwell as being on their side,” she said.

According to student Rebecca Herring, people have been trying to “claim Orwell” since his book was first published.

Herring, an English major, recently wrote a research paper on the ways political parties of all ideologies have selectively quoted, used and misrepresented Orwell’s ideas to support their own beliefs.

“A lot of people seem to read ‘1984’ as a vision for whatever political idea, party or movement they think is going to destroy the world,” Herring said.

Although the political leanings of the book’s current readership are unknown, America has a history of delving into Orwell’s writing in times of political strife.

English lecturer Henry Veggian read the book for his high school English class during one of the most politically worrisome times in American history: the Cold War.

Veggian recalled being taught to read the book a certain way, as a criticism of the Soviet Union. But he said that by reading “1984” through a specific ideological lens, readers miss the point of the book — which, more than anything, condemns totalitarianism and the restriction of independent thought and speech.

“If you go into a book with that mindset, whether you’re a right-winger or a left-winger, you’re going to miss the power of that book,” Veggian said. “If you reduce ‘1984’ to just allegory of what’s happening around you, you’re missing the point. In fact, you might be committing the sin that the book is warning against.”

Veggian said although “1984” is receiving a lot of attention right now as people seek ways to process change, it is always being read for its persistently relevant testimony on the dangers of dishonest speech.

“Sometimes a crisis is required to remind us of the importance of great books.”


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