Books v. Cigarettes is the second volume of essays written by George Orwell in Penguin’s Great Ideas series that I’ve read – the first one being Some Thoughts On the Common Toad (review here). Between the two, Books v. Cigarettes is easily the superior selection. As you would expect of Orwell, there is some talk of politics and totalitarianism, but he also writes about working at a bookstore and his time as a young boy at St Cyprian’s school for boys. …That said, the essay about his school days still ends up being about class differences, snobbery, and indoctrination, because of course it does. Orwell has a lot of feelings about social mobility, you guys.
This collection is part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, which I am steadily working my way through (read my review of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” here). I adore these little publications; the cover designs by David Pearson are some of the best he has ever done, and the full series is a great overview of some of the most influential essays and manifestos in (mostly) Western history.
Some Thoughts On the Common Toad is one of four George Orwell collections included in this project, and contains eight articles written between 1944 and 1947. Spoiler alert: the titular essay is not actually about toads – it’s about capitalism.
I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of American history is spotty at best – only the bare minimum is covered in Dutch schools – so if you had asked me one year ago who Alexander Hamilton was, I probably would have said something along the lines of: “That name does ring a bell… One of the founding fathers, I think? Maybe. I don’t know.” One little Broadway cast recording later, I found myself diving headfirst into Thomas Paine and picking up the 800-page biography that started it all. The combined popularity of Chernow’s book and the juggernaut of a musical it inspired has brought Alexander Hamilton right back into popular consciousness in a major way, and I have been watching this development with great interest. What happens when a controversial historical figure gets dusted off and put back into the general public’s spotlight two hundred years after his death?
Memes, of course.
Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
I’ve been reading “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine
So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane
You want a revolution? I want a revelation!
So listen to my declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident
that all men are created equal,”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson
Imma compel him to include women in the sequel!
Yes, I did pick up this pamphlet because I am obsessed with the musical Hamilton (what can I say, I can relate to men thinking that you’re intense and/or insane), and I am so glad that I did. Common Sense is a remarkable read that holds up incredibly well and is worth reading for anyone interested in history or political philosophy. Who’d have thought that an eighteenth-century political essay would make me laugh out loud multiple times?
“The Crimson Field” still.
The second installment in my series of World War One reading lists (see: poetry and fiction). These non-fiction works range from interviews and letters to memoirs and diaries, written by both established writers and ordinary people, trying to figure out how to live in a world that was crumbling underneath their feet.
Thanks to the centenary I have caught the WWI bug and I have started working my way through Great War literature. After Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, I figured it was time for a non-fiction account and decided on this collection of letters and diaries, edited by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf. The selection is varied, including not just British documents but also German, Russian, and Indian voices, plenty of women (much appreciated!), and mostly “ordinary people” with the occasional familiar name thrown in (Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and so on). The fragments are not in chronological order, but have been organised by place and theme instead: ‘Hearing and imagining from afar’, ‘experience at close quarters’, ‘how the war divided us’, and ‘searching for what is lost.’ We get stories from all over Europe, ranging from published articles to letters from loved ones.
I bought this book over two years ago, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently. The cover design of my edition, bright purple with a pink swirly font, combined with a title that sounds like it was ripped straight from the headlines of a gossip glossy really put me off initially (although come to think of it, the gossip columns played an important part in the lives of the Wildes). Still, curiosity got the best of me in the end, and I’m glad it did. We all know what happened to Oscar Wilde, but the story of Constance is one that is seldom told and deserves to be heard.