Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (4-5)

Before reading the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books (The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix), my opinion of the series was that it was quite good, but not quite what I would consider to be masterful work. I did quite personally enjoy the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the earlier two were of more academic interest to me: I enjoyed them, but no more than I would any average book.

For more on my thoughts, you can read the previous installment of my review and reflection.

Review

The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix (Amazon affiliate links) are a lot larger and darker than previous books, clocking in at a combined 1400 pages and featuring a lot more peril.

I read The Goblet of Fire in an old-school print format, but I switched over to reading from Kindle on my phone for The Order of the Phoenix, something which helped since the book got a little large to comfortably take with me and I was able to sneak constant little reads of the text.

When I was reading the first three books, my interest was largely satisfying personal and academic curiosity before developing into a desire to actually read the books for their own merit, but I’m happy to say that the fourth and fifth book strung me along quite well. It’s been a long time since I’ve devoted hours-long reading sessions to a book on multiple occasions during a day; I tend to break up reading between little tasks, but The Order of the Phoenix in particular led to a few occasions of me sitting on my couch, my cat in my lap (or beside me, or diligently ignoring me) for hours at a time.

A lot of this comes from how invested one has become in the characters by the time you get to the fourth and fifth books. They’re realistic, deep, and invoke sympathy and vicarious reactions. Even when they jump to wrong conclusions (a trope Rowling uses reliably but sparingly) and “pick up the idiot ball” to borrow an expression I’ve heard used frequently, they still feel like they’re making decisions because of their own motivations, rather than choices that drive the plot.

Much of what I could say about Rowling’s writing I have already said: I consider it to be very vivid and practical; it’s not quite the most deep prose, but for its audience it is sufficient, and I would argue that measuring writing by the depth of its prose is a poor metric. It is generally improved in the later books by any account, even though it did not necessarily need to.

Further, the stories get more archetypal depth as they develop; this is not only a consequence of extended length, but a reflection of the process of Harry and his friends growing more mature and becoming more aware of the reality around them.

Reflection

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the Harry Potter series is looking at the deep characters and how they’ve grown even deeper.

I mention archetypal characters a lot: through my Loreshaper Games stuff I’ve written a short series on role archetypes, the possible roles that characters can take in a story.

What I love about Harry Potter as I get deeper into it is that there are really deep interactions between the archetypes: Potter as the Hero, Hagrid as the Herald, Harry (and occasionally other characters, like Ginny, as the plot rolls on) as the Underdog, Dumbledore as the Mentor, George and Fred as the Trickster, Hermoine and Ron as the Ally, a plethora of characters as the Villain (at least one per novel, somewhat unsurprisingly), Sirius and Snape as the Shapeshifter, various characters as the Outsider (Harry, Hermoine, Sirius, Lupin, etc), and through it all Voldemort as the Serpent.

It’s patient and willing to develop these interactions and roles quite a bit, and it sets up a Hero’s Journey that is both divided into segments and then later into a longer complete saga of Harry growing up.

I know a lot of people have expressed concern about the darkness of the universe, but I think that this is actually a strength of the Harry Potter franchise. Children know that there are things in the world that they cannot see if they are sheltered from them (and if they are not sheltered, then there is no harm in what is contained in Harry Potter to begin with), but in the series they are directly uncovered and confronted allegorically through the role of the Hero and the development that Harry has to undergo.

Jung speaks of confronting the Shadow, the secret part of us that we choose not to look at, which holds both strengths and sins that we do not want to explore.

Harry Potter’s fourth and fifth book do that wonderfully; Harry is confronted by his own limitations but also his own potential and must rise up to meet the call that he has received. He makes mistakes, and there is real suffering that results both as a result of his action or inaction and forces that extend beyond his control, but his ability to be a compelling and noble figure is drawn from the fact that he strives, not that he always succeeds without loss.

There is death, sacrifice, and loss in these books, and also wanton deliberate evil. That may seem like a dark thing to contemplate, but it is also part of becoming fully human: one cannot accept themselves if they do not confront their Shadow, and cannot be good if they have not realized what it is to be evil.

There’s a point in The Order of the Phoenix when Harry is in a fight with a Death Eater, one of Voldemort’s servants, and he tries to use a Cruciatus curse to inflict unbearable pain on the Death Eater.

He tries, and ultimately fails, not because his execution of the spell was off, but because his heart was not in it: the Death Eater retorts that in order for such a spell to be effective, one must really mean it.

It’s a testament to his nobility, and one which shows this exploration of the Shadow in the most meaningful way: to be in a fight but not wish malice upon one’s opponent requires a control and willpower that is part of the Hero’s journey toward light and away from darkness.

Wrapping Up

I find the Harry Potter books to be growing on me as I read them more; this is probably because I am an adult reading them for the first time and their target audience definitely gets older as the books move on.

There’s a lot of good stuff in here, but it’s also an enjoyable read beneath that, which is quite a merit in its own right.

Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (1-3)

One of the books that I simply never read as a child was Harry Potter, and I never saw the films either. I wasn’t that far away from it in terms of advertising demographic: it was a big deal in my social circles when I was in 4th grade or so, but I’d already read the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia and was moving up to more difficult books.

However, I’ve been studying mysticism and alchemy recently as a way of trying to get an insight into the pre-modern mind, and since Harry Potter is theoretically aligned with that while also being l highly acclaimed and culturally influential in young adult literature, I figured I should jump in and see what all the fuss is about.

Continue reading “Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (1-3)”

The Rejection of Suffering

This morning I had a thought pop into my head when I first awoke. As such, you should take the following with a grain of salt; I’ve done some light research and I feel called to share this, but keep in mind that I am a lay person and my knowledge of scripture and history is probably flawed.

The thought that popped into my head has to do with two parts of the Bible: the scene where Jesus talks to the rich man and proceeds to tell his followers that it is difficult for the rich to enter heaven and the crucifixion of Christ.

Continue reading “The Rejection of Suffering”

Being a Hero

One of the things that I often struggle with is explaining to people why literature is important.

It’s not for lack of faith in the topic, or any particular hesitancy to share, it’s just a complex matter.

However, I’ve been doing some reflecting recently and I think I’ve come up with a good explanation.

Stories teach us how to be a Hero. Not a little-h hero, but a capital-H hero; someone who engages with the universe.

Continue reading “Being a Hero”

Review and Reflection: This Immortal (Roger Zelazny)

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Zelazny as a great sci-fi author, but I never actually read any of his stuff. Technically I still haven’t, because I listened to This Immortal (affiliate link) on Audible, but I’m going to count that as reading for the sake of this review.

Continue reading “Review and Reflection: This Immortal (Roger Zelazny)”

Review and Reflection: You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

James Duane is actually a fairly well-known law school professor because of his YouTube video simply entitled “Don’t Talk to the Police” in which he gives the reasons why you should, generally, not talk to the police if they ask you questions.

While he may not be a household name, he does have a couple million views on YouTube just from that video, and he wrote a book on the subject.

Video Courtesy of Regent University School of Law

You Have the Right to Remain Innocent (affiliate link) is basically a longer, more detailed explanation of the legal principles summed up in his lecture.

Basically what it says is to never talk to a government official without a lawyer (who can ask better questions than a potential suspect can about what exactly is going on), and if you are asked questions you should always insist on answering in writing after getting the advice of your lawyer.

It’s an interesting book: well-written, full of case studies, and a little alarming. I can’t attest fully to the legal quality of the work, but Duane seems to know what he’s talking about and he’s gotten praise from judges and law professors across the country, so I’ll take their word for it.

The actual read itself is tremendous. It’s incredibly fluid and elegant, despite the matter of its subject, and it manages to go into nuance almost like a conversation would. It does a good job of sticking to its key point while developing each detail, with the following message: If you try to be helpful, you may only hurt yourself.

The case-studies throughout the book are varied in origin, but reflect both serious and minor crimes that people have inadvertently gotten themselves convicted for despite their probable innocence.

The only down-side I can see to it is that there’s a very singular focus, and the basic information that it contains could be presented more quickly. However, since the reason for this is that Duane gives a tremendous level of detail and background to tell the reader why his suggested course of action (immediately ask for a lawyer and comment only in writing) is important.

One of the interesting things that it points out is jurisprudence regarding the use of the constitutional rights guaranteed under the fifth and sixth amendments. I had the luxury of sitting in on a law class during my undergrad studies, and I’ve noticed that both Duane and my own professor (the late Dennis Karjala) have strong responses to judges’ rulings that often seem to be biased against potentially innocent individuals, for the obvious moral reason of wanting to protect the innocent.

Duane’s number one point is that you need to be clear with demanding a lawyer and saying nothing else until the lawyer has arrived. This seems like it’s a little suspect (after all, this is what smart bad guys on crime dramas do), but apparently due to precedents set all the way at the Supreme Court failure to cooperate can be seen as evidence of guilt.

Reflections

I’m not a lawyer and I can’t give legal advice (nor, technically, does Duane), but the practical advice from the book seems clear: the system no longer really presumes evidence.

I think that’s a shame, but I’m not going to go too far into polemics or politics. Rather, I think that it’s an important reminder to us as individuals to set the cultural tone that we want to see in the world.

It’s very easy to assume guilt, especially if the “legal process” has unfolded, but we also need to remember that things that look criminal often aren’t, and allegations and evidence need to be considered impartially (to say nothing of interviews by prosecutors and law enforcement, who have a stake in putting people away and are able to present information provided by defendants freely, while defense lawyers have a limited ability to do so).

It’s not a happy book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I think it gave me some good information. I don’t plan on tangling with the law, since I’m pretty mild-mannered, but that’s perhaps something that puts me in Duane’s target audience: the people who haven’t done anything, but might accidentally give details that falsely incriminate themselves if speaking without a lawyer present.

I really recommend reading this book; it’s free on Kindle Unlimited, and a mere $0.99 otherwise, and the potential benefits are fantastic.

Review and Reflection: Man and His Symbols

Recently I finished reading Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols (affiliate link), and it’s been one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read, albeit a difficult one.

I’m going to start off with a review of it, then move into my more personal thoughts to better organize them.

Review

I read Man and His Symbols on Kindle, and it was well-formatted and organized. All the illustrations appeared clear and there were no perceptible typographical issues.

Looking at a book like Man and His Symbols it is hard to give a definitive review because of its nature. It is an overview of a lifetime of work, compiled not only by Jung himself but also by Joseph L. Henderson, M.-L. von Franz, Aniela Jaffé, and Jolande Jacobi.

The foreword by John Freeman is also of interest, and helps quite a deal in preparing the reader for what they should know about Jung.

Man and His Symbols is the first book by or about Jung that I have ever read, so I approach it as a novice who had some knowledge of Jung’s analytical psychology, but not strictly speaking all but the briefest of understandings. My knowledge was influenced more heavily by people like Joseph Campbell and Carol Pearson who have built on Jung’s ideas but approached them in a much different direction.

So with that said, many of the concepts were at least familiar to me, though my understanding of them was far different from what Jung’s intent was, colored as I was by casual discussions and partial understandings.

Actually reading Jung’s work first-hand in a manner intended for novices like myself changed my understanding of his philosophy and understanding of the psyche dramatically.

Each of the writers featured in the book has their own approach and intent, but the core concepts remain the same. In this way, I think that Man and His Symbols may actually be an ideal introduction to the work of Jung; Aniela Jaffé’s interpretations of symbolism in art particularly helped me break down some of the concepts.

Through drawing on the various authors, Man and His Symbols becomes a conversation as much as it is a statement, and it is much better for it.

I have launched into Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul in audiobook format, and the comparison of the two perhaps best presents an opportunity to describe Man and His Symbols in a way that makes sense.

Man and His Symbols is a survey of Jung’s ideas. It’s deep nonetheless, but the traversal into this depth is assisted by the various inflections that the different contributors to the volume add. It benefits from having a vast array of inputs, including connections to mythology and legend as well as anecdotes and examples of psychoanalysis in practice. This give an opportunity to fully express the notions it contains, but not necessarily to explore them fully. It is a starting point for further reading, either of Jung or those who were inspired by him.

There were things in Man and His Symbols which I understood the concept of, but not all the nuance of. Jung’s explanation of the collective unconsciousness, for instance, didn’t really click for me: I understood what its role was, but not what its essence was.

Modern Man in Search of a Soul is a different sort; it is a very detailed study of one particular topic, and while it too draws from mythology, anecdotes, and psychoanalysis in practice it is much more deep: if it were the first work of Jungian analytical psychology that I had read I would be greatly distressed by trying to understand it, but as a follow-up to Man and His Symbols it is quite interesting.

So, in short, my review of Man and His Symbols is best summed up in the following: If you want to know more about Jung and you are willing to spring further into reading, Man and His Symbols is invaluable. If you want a survey of Jung followed by interpretations by his followers, Man and His Symbols is incredible. If you are already familiar with Jung and understand his work, but you want to dive into the deepest depths of Jung’s works, Man and His Symbols contains interesting overviews. It is not that it is shallow, but it is merely scratching the surface of the depth and complexity of Jung’s total work.

Reflection

Man and His Symbols is an interesting book, to say the least. As far as reading books for the purpose of self improvement, it’s definitely in the top five or so books that I’ve read, and I know for a fact that Jung influenced Jordan Peterson, whose 12 Rules for Life I not only enjoyed but also benefited personally from; Jung’s work is also referenced in Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, which I have been reading on-and-off for a longer amount of time than I care to admit to (admittedly, it is a rather voluminous tome).

While finishing up reading Man and His Symbols I also listened to Johnathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, though I did not write reflections on it and I don’t currently plan to. However, there is an interesting intersection here.

One of Jung’s teachings is the collective subconscious, and while Haidt’s work seems at first to dissuade from such an assertion (after all, he finds that moral judgments are generally culturally instilled), he has also found moral foundations that seem to underlie these moral decisions.

In essence, what people value, and how they perceive the outcomes of actions, influence their tastes. The moral foundations seem to be themselves tied to some sort of universal human mode (assuming, of course, that they are not hogwash) of thought. This seems to line up well with the notion of Jung’s collective subconscious, and help to explain theories of the mind and how it interacts with archetypes.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have put off writing this reflection for almost a week, and in that time I have also listened to a good portion of Modern Man in Search of a Soul, which means that my reflections are therefore colored by both Haidt’s work and further readings of Jung.

Since reading Man and His Symbols, I have become very conscious of my dreams. I do not mean that I am hyperaware of them, though I think I may remember them better than I used to because I have placed an increased importance on them, but rather that I spend more time reflecting upon them.

The results of such a self-assessment can be both encouraging and discouraging. On one hand, I have been able to reduce my stress and give myself a more positive outlook on life (though the portion of my life that I have entered into is the happiest of my life, and God willing it will remain so), but on the other I ask more questions, more deeply.

In this sense, reading Man and His Symbols has created for me a small conundrum, namely that of self-analysis, which carries dangers in and of itself (Shakespeare is not errant when he writes that the eye sees not its own reflection), but it has also practically helped me to sort out some of my anxieties. As someone familiar with Pearson’s work, the concepts of the shadow and the archetype are not novel to me, but Jung’s explanation is derived from his fascination with the mind, rather than the more practical slant that Pearson takes.

A year ago, I would have disdained Jung as being quasi-mystical. I don’t deny that there is an element of the mystic in him, but my perspective on that aspect of his life has changed. Jung is clearly in awe of that great unknowable, ineffable, uniquely human element of the mind-psyche-soul that blends conscious and unconscious.

Reading Jung, one is struck by how much less we have learned than we think we have. Haidt writes about people who have suffered injuries to the parts of the brain that are associated with emotion, and how they are paralyzed by analysis and make worse decisions than their uninjured counterparts.

Jung presents the unconscious in a way that one cannot help but draw parallels to the role that emotion plays. The subconscious is powerful and we cannot understand it (at least at present, but probably we will never understand it). As someone who is religious, this doesn’t particularly bother me, since my own personal belief is that the subconscious is potentially a connection to God and things beyond ourselves, and this seems to mesh with Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious

The anima and animus concept were known to me at a very basic level before I read Man and His Symbols, but I didn’t really understand them until after reading (or, at least, understand them as well as I now do). I think that it’s an interesting thing to consider, especially when looking at characters and how they’re portrayed/developed in fiction.

Part of what I really enjoyed about the book and is probably more personal than broadly applicable is the way that it really helps draw connections between symbols. I spent a lot of time studying literature before I ever really learned to identify symbolism, and that’s something I’ve been trying to compensate for now that I’m aware of what I was missing out on.

Mandala in Context

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Jung recently, and I’ve been in a section of a book called Man and His Symbols (affiliate link).

Before I go further, I should point out that I’m not much of an artist. I have an appreciation for art, and some basic theory, but not much in the way of practice or (barring some rare instances) interest in creating art. I have aphantasia, meaning that I cannot consciously evoke an image in my mind (though I can contemplate concepts and have vivid dreams, which I can often recall images from in waking).

As I have been reading Man and His Symbols, I have recently reached a section by Aniela Jaffé entitled “Symbolism in the Visual Arts” which talks about the use of symbolism in images.

As someone who is not “a visual person” to steal the language of laypeople, I have often been fascinated by abstract art (though I have a philosophical distaste for postmodern denials of the presence meaning in art), and I’ve been spending some time contemplating the role and presence of symbols in visual works.

Another thing that Jung mentioned in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (affiliate link) is that it’s not uncommon for people to take up the pursuit of a creative endeavor as part of a program of self-discovery; not because of usefulness but precisely because it is a form of self-expression without any other utility to the individual. Since I don’t draw or do art in any meaningful sense, this makes some logical sense for me as an outlet.

For the past couple days, I’ve had an image in my mind of a mandala; these are representations of the self, cosmos, and universe.

The mandala takes the form of a sphere with two internal squares; one oriented as a diamond and the other smaller within it. The divisions are such that three “rings” of eight pieces are formed within.

In my mental image, the mandala is also colored and rotated off-kilter, but as I drew it out in Inkscape I did not think it to be important to start with this.

Each section of the mandala is colored red, yellow, black, or white. A Sunday School song comes to mind in which the lyrics go along the lines of the following:

“Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight: Jesus loves the little children of the world”

Growing up in America in the 1990’s, I always took the lyrics of this song to imply ethnic unity under the banner of the Protestant faith, but as an adult looking back to it decades later, an alternate symbolism occurs to me.

Red, yellow, black, and white are the colors of the four humors (depending on what coloration one assigns to phlegm; while phlegm is not usually depicted as white it was so in my own mental conception of the humors at the time of the image) and the processes of the alchemical magnum opus.

As the Hermetic perspective on alchemy is to bring the incomplete toward wholeness, there is a logical continuation of these elements within the mandala.

The organization of the mandala into sections like this runs against what I would normally picture; I would rotate each ring to be in the same general pattern as the first, yet in the mental image we see that the outer rings have the pairings in sequence with each other; instead of going yellow-red-white-black-yellow-red-white-black they go red-yellow-red-yellow-black-white-black-white in a clockwise manner.

It is worth noting that each of the internal colors is “impure” (e.g. not primary); both so that the dividing lines that separate them remain distinctive but also because this is proper: the transformative process is not instantaneous. I kind of feel like I have a Norton anthology from my college days whose cover has colors similar to these (or perhaps even a mandala or mandala-elements similar to these), but I can’t be bothered to dig it out to check.

However, the mandala in question is not the sole object in the mental image; I have the perception (albeit abstractly) that it is in some way on concrete, that it is at an angle, and that there is a sol symbol in one of the elements of the mandala.

To bring this into actualization, I used an image from Morguefile, a royalty free image repository. Uploaded by the user “scottglennie” it depicts a straight-on view of concrete. The presence of discordant elements within the concrete matches the mental image I have had.

In my image, the mandala is distressed, worn down by the presence of the world. In Krita, I imported the image that came from Inkscape and rotated it to its proper orientation, then penciled in the sol-image. The sol-image is not distressed like the other elements of the mandala, but the barriers between the mandala and the outside world are particularly distressed.

The final image looks like this:

I’m not sure what the reason for this image is (or, for that matter, if there is one), but I am certain that there are deep symbolic meanings to it.

Dividing the mandala into quadrants, we can see that there is an imbalance between the parts; each has two colors that appear only once, and two that appear twice.

Combined with the distress that occurs around the rim of the mandala and the imbalance, I think it is fair to say that these elements represent chaos, though it is also important to note that the mandala is balanced within the whole if not the parts.

The presence of the sol symbol is not something that I have any experience with; a purely abstract mandala would omit it, but it is also not part of a larger zodiac or associated group of elements. Its presence at the top of the mandala may indicate something like a steady course.

If pressed to rationally explain this, I feel like my life is in some semblance of order, even though I have a certain amount of stress and responsibilities, so it is possible that my unconscious mind is creating this image as a representation of the combination of chaos (responsibility and uncertainty) and order (preparation to meet that responsibility and guiding compass of plans, morality, and ethics) in my life.

The distress on the mandala represents the conflict between the individual self and the wider world. I tend to be introverted to an extreme, avoiding serious relationships outside of those governed by my livelihood. One of my goals as I pursue some psychological development and self-analysis is to break free of some of those self-imposed restrictions: to be more spontaneous, agreeable, and open within rational limits.

Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about the first half of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (affiliate link), in which he describes the working conditions of 1930’s Britain with a particular eye to the conditions in coal mining towns like Wigan.

The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a compilation of Orwell’s thoughts on the situation, and an overview of socialist theory with Orwell’s own interpretations as to both why socialism was not prevalent and what would have to be done to make it prevalent.

It’s worth noting that my own perspectives differ significantly from Orwell’s, and there were very few points on which I agreed with him. This is both due to my own political beliefs deviating from his, but also probably in no small part due to the fact that several decades later many of Orwell’s predictions have become false.

Orwell’s Irony

One of the most ironic things about Orwell’s general presentation is that while he possesses the ability to be brutally honest about himself and with regards to his situation, he winds up falling into many of the traps that he sets for himself.

Take, for consideration, the fact that he describes many British socialists as “cranks” during his overview of why people are not attracted to socialism. Orwell proceeds to be quite bitter, and perhaps even more so than the people he criticizes.

While Orwell does call for a toning down of rhetoric and going from a concept of proletariat and bourgeoisie to a concept of robbed and robbers to appeal to a broader audience, he overlooks the fact that what he endorses is itself no more palatable to most than traditional socialism, bound up as it is in its negativity toward many of the conventions of standard life.

Orwell fails to really provide any example of the “oppressors” in his society; and while he argues that socialists should define themselves by a pursuit of “freedom and justice” in many cases throughout this section of the book, he fails to ever define freedom or justice, much less to give clear examples of why the socialist utopia (or, perhaps, since he is more cynical than to call it a utopia, a socialist world order) would actually be more free or more just than any other way of living.

It also is worth noting that Orwell’s anti-religious sentiment tends to bleed into his arguments; he often says that socialism will replace religion, but seems blind to his own implication that this would only work on the basis of indoctrination and supplanting the spiritual with the political (e.g. creating the sort of Soviet-style commissars that he derides in a couple places throughout the passages).

Likewise, he often actually derides people who are working for justice, like the feminists of the 1930s and charitable workers, as failing to drop everything and accomplish this socialist ideal.

A False Dichotomy

Orwell presents the future as a conflict between socialism and fascism, with no room for a middle ground. However likely that may have seemed from his perch in the early 20th century, the reality that we got is two-fold:

First, capitalism, far from being inevitably destroyed by other factors, has remained alive and well as a dominant economic force, and perhaps even has more principled idealistic adherents than it had prior to the 20th century due to the works of figures like Hayek and Rand.

Second, neither socialism nor fascism has risen to the point of world domination. While Orwell was an outspoken objector to Russian Communism (at one point calling its adherents members of the “cult of Russia”), he predicts that either we would be living in an uniformly fascist or socialist world.

Wrapping Up

The Road to Wigan Pier is an interesting book, and certainly a lighter read than Ordinary Men, the last book that I read, but its first part is certainly much more interesting than its second part.

While Orwell is a fantastic writer, I don’t believe that the same can be said for him as a political theorist. While he is sensible enough to deride trite and hollow arguments, he fails to advance anything of meaningful depth and coherence of his own behalf, at least according to my perceptions of his arguments.

Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 1)

George Orwell was probably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and he had some great insights that make him an invaluable resource to the modern reader. However, despite the fame of his 1984, many people would be hard-pressed to mention anything else that he wrote, maybe discussing Burmese Days or some of his essays.

Outside of those works, however, The Road to Wigan Pier is one of his better known works, and probably his best known full-length nonfiction work. I’ve been listening to an audiobook (affiliate link) of it on my daily commute, though I’ve also read parts of it in digital format, and I’m about half-way through the book now.

Timelessness

I think that George Orwell’s prose has a particular timelessness to it, and not just because of the subject matter. He’s well known for his fiction writing because of the quality of his work, and there’s a certain tone to it that’s hard to emulate and easy to love.

The matter-of-factness of Orwell’s style could perhaps best be compared to other contemporaries; I think of Chesterton’s Heretics (affiliate link; free ebook), though I am sure that Orwell would be offended by the comparison. He combines stereotypically dry, but personal, British writing with lucid and detailed descriptions of the scenes that he found in English mining towns to great effect. The prose reads like a conversation with a distinguished professor who is also an expert lecturer: formal, but never boring.

The first part of the book details almost exclusively the conditions in the mining towns (and, occasionally, other industrial and lower-class areas) in Britain. While it makes little effort to cater to a non-British audience (it was written for Britons by a Briton, and if you don’t have some passing familiarity of where things fall in England you’ll miss some minor elements), it’s still very understandable and clear.

One exception to this is found in the intolerable pre-decimal English currency, but from what I’ve heard about it having an explanation will not make the shilling and the tuppence comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t lived through them.

One place where the timelessness of Orwell’s study can be seen comes in the notions that Orwell has about the lifestyle of the impoverished. He decries the cheap–barely nutritious–processed food, the cheap luxuries, and the intolerable rents that his subjects face, and the daily wage work that they do with little recourse for injury or protection against job loss.

Orwell’s musings echo to this day in the statements that we often hear about our own society. I don’t agree with Orwell’s politics on all counts, but I have to say that I appreciate his honesty and the earnest presentation of his beliefs, and the rationale he gives for them.

In this sense, Orwell’s work is timeless.

Tremendous Detail

Another place where Orwell’s writing shines is in the tremendous detail of the scenes and personages he portrays.

If you ever needed proof that Orwell is a masterful writer, the first full chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier–in which he describes the various inhabitants of a house that he rented a room in and the house itself–is a perfect example of how to give enough detail to create a near-perfect mental image: I suffer from partial aphantasia and even I’m able to get some picture of what Orwell describes.

It’s also clear that Orwell has a genuine interest in his subjects. He describes people in a way that personalizes them, scenes in a way that project both details and emotion, and events in a way that provides nuanced context.

I’d compare it to John Hersey’s Hiroshima (affiliate link),

Critiques

There are places that Orwell’s writing doesn’t hold up so well. He is, by his own admission, judgmental, and honestly Orwell can be a bit of a jerk. Unfortunately, he wavers between being sardonic enough to make this humorous, and just plain rude. His attacks first against effeminate poets (it’s not entirely clear whether he detests the literary elite or homosexuals, or perhaps some conflation of the two) and later against temperate religious devotees, cement the notion that one feels he would be attacked by both sides if he were to make the same comments in the current day.

In addition, Orwell enjoys over-explaining to the reader. While his prose is good enough that it carries well, he has a tendency to give five or six times as many examples as would be required, then go into further detail, as if he expects his every statement to be scrutinized.

Of course, this could be a consequence of the fact that his work would be scrutinized, but in a day and age where Orwell’s work is sacrosanct, he does not need to build up his work to survive cross-examination. Sometimes the examples are good and varied, in other places they are tedious.

Closing Thoughts

I’m looking forward to finishing The Road to Wigan Pier because it’s quite good. It’s a compelling listen or read, whichever format I’m going through it in, though it can be fairly heavy.

The first part of the book is primarily journalistic in nature (or, now, historical), but apparently Orwell makes some political and philosophical arguments near the end

I strongly recommend it.