Episode 24: Summer Book Club - 1984, Part 1

As part of the podcast series Solutions for Higher Education, SUU President Scott L Wyatt will lead a “Summer Reading Club” focusing on a new book each month. Readers who join the podcast will be given an introduction to the book by Scott Wyatt and podcast host Steve Meredith near the beginning of each month, and then near the end of the month, an expert guest will join the conversation to give additional insight and context to the completed reading.

July - 1984 by George Orwell
If judged by its impact on the English language alone,1984 is an important novel. Phrases such as “Big Brother is Watching,” “Thought Police,” “Newspeak,” “Memory Holed,” and Doublethink” have become commonly used expressions. Even the author’s name has become an adjective - - “Orwellian” is used to describe mis-information and totalitarianism. Orwell, writing in 1949 after years of war in Europe paints a dystopian picture of continual warfare and a government that places its citizens under constant surveillance, while feeding them distorted information. The primary characters, Winston and Julia risk everything to express their love for one another, and ultimately they pay that price.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me today in-studio, as always, is President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve. Thanks for…this is fun.  

Meredith: It is fun. And today we're going to be doing a teaser for the second book in our 2018 summer book club, and the book is 1984 by George Orwell, certainly a well-known, well recognized title, and the beginning of the…or, one of the great dystopian novels anyway, maybe not the beginning of them. But we have a guest to help us tease this subject and help people get fired up about reading this book for the month of July, and so please introduce her.

Wyatt: So one of the fun things about being on a university campus is having interesting people that are experts in so many subjects and to be able to be engaged with them all the time. And today, we have Joy Sterrantino, who is an assistant professor of English. Welcome to the show, Joy.

Joy Sterrantino: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

Wyatt: And this book, 1984, is a book that you regularly teach.

Sterrantino: Yes, I teach it every semester.

Wyatt: And you've been teaching this for how long? The last three, four, or five years? Ten?

Sterrantino: Umm, maybe, I don't know? Eight years probably?

Wyatt: [Laughs] Well, so we'll just agree that you know more about this than we do.

Meredith: In spite of the fact that we both lived through 1984. [Laughs]

Sterrantino: Oh, I was there too.

Meredith: Where you?

Wyatt: I think that Steve and I were older in 1984.

Sterrantino: Well, OK.

Wyatt: Well, it's 1984. Why in the world would I want to read a book that's predicting what the world will be like in 1984?

Sterrantino: This actually is one of my favorite novels and the reason that I went into dystopian literature studies. The thing is, it's still apropos. It's not just applying itself to that time period. We still see governments that are like this, and so the point of 1984 is, "What if government control went to the extreme? What would that look like?" And we see governments that are already there, we see elements of our own government where it can get kind of scary because there are things, like the book talks about, where there is surveillance—maybe extreme surveillance—there's talk about controlling the media, alternative facts, things like that, and this is the extreme version of that where the government controls all of the history, all of the news. There's nobody else that's allowed to. And so it changes what people would think because they only have access to what the government tells them.

Wyatt: And sometimes it's hard to know a direction you're headed or at risk of heading unless you look at the end of the path, right?

Sterrantino: Right.

Wyatt: So what happens if we keep going in this direction?

Sterrantino: I think the more freedom, the more control that we give up to government—whether it's our government or somebody else's government or something like that—the more we're going to get into such a hole that we don't have any freedom anymore, and that's a really frightening place to be. And that's…in 1984, the protagonist, Winston, that's the position he's in. He wants to fix the situation, but so much control has been given away at that point, and they are policed so strictly, that trying to rise up against that is nearly impossible.

Meredith: And despite the fact that he is adamantly opposed to it, he's also complicit in it. That's his job every day is that he helps rewrite the news.

Sterrantino: Yeah, exactly. And in this book, there are three factions, if you want to call them factions. There's the proles, which is 85% of the population, they just kind of live life the way we do with less than maybe we do. But more or less, it's just like your average person. And then there's the Inner Party, which is the one percent ruling class…well, two percent ruling class. And then there's the Outer Party, which is the rest of the percentage. And Winston is part of that Outer Party, and parts of their job is to help…like his job specifically is to alter the news to fit what the Party says. And literally, if they change their mind on their stance, he goes back and changes it again to say that "This is always what the Party thought, this is always what the government thought." And because people don't have access to the internet or books or anything like that, that is their only means of understanding their world. And so when memory runs out, it's gone.

Wyatt: In 1949 when this book was written, there were no Kindles, there weren't home computers, all of our knowledge was printed materials.

Sterrantino: Right.

Meredith: Radio, but no television yet.

Wyatt: Yeah, radios. If we had a book, we had a book. And he's projecting forward to a time when most of the printed material is not printed, it's digital. That's interesting. I don't know how he would have seen that.

Meredith: And the idea of the telescreen which features prominently in the story where he has to find a spot in his apartment where Big Brother can't see him because of the angle of the two-way television. But it's very interesting that just from being a future predictor of what the technology might look like, that we very much have that in our homes now. We were just talking about whether it's our laptop camera, or Alexa, or Siri or whoever, we let this avatars or other people into our homes in pretty significant ways now.

Wyatt: He's writing this book at the end of World War II and pulling in themes from Hitler and from Stalin and a little bit from Franco. And so he's seeing societies that look pretty bad.

Sterrantino: Mhmm. And he…before he wrote this book even, he wrote a letter—someone was asking about this kind of thing, "Can governments get like this?" or "Do we have to worry?" And he specifically brings up Hitler and Stalin and that people, you know, at that point, Orwell was saying that Hitler's not going to be in power much longer, but what people are willing to do is follow Stalin because it's better than Hitler, even though it's still not good. [Laughter] So that's the worry, is that we're like, "Well, it can't get that bad." We do that, right? Nobody wants to see that things can actually get that bad. "It wouldn't really do that, I'm aware. I know what happened in the past, so it could never happen now." But we do tend to make these compromises without realizing it, and it's not a good compromise. It's not between two good choices, they're kind of two bad choices, but one looks a little better than the other, so we choose that.

Wyatt: So let's…some of our listeners may not know the word, "dystopia."  

Sterrantino: OK, so dystopian novels are kind of the opposite of a utopian novel, utopian being an ideal world, and there's very few utopian novels out there, but it is really, really hard to write perfect society. It's very easy for a reader to tear that apart. But dystopian novels are this supposedly perfect society, but it has one or more major flaws to it, and they're usually some kind of extreme situation to what we have now. It's a commentary on society, that's the whole point of them, is to comment on today's society. But because we're far removed from it—like many of them are science fiction—so for instance, 1984 is because they didn't even have televisions yet when he wrote it and the other technology that they had in the book didn't exist yet, so it's science fiction. But it's like, "OK, if this is so far removed from me, I can see it clearly. If it's just what's going on now and someone is explaining it, I might not listen because I'm like, 'Nah, it's not really like that.'"

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: But it takes our, maybe our current situation and it warps it just enough that it seems horrifying but we still can recognize elements of ourselves in it.

Sterrantino: Yeah. And hopefully what they want you to see is that this is the path. We may only be three steps into that path, but look what…if we stay focused in this direction, where will we be if we do twenty steps instead of three? And people don't always think that far ahead because we are busy living our lives or think that it's not possible, but the whole point of this is, if you're facing this direction, you'll end up where you're facing. So we need to be aware of where we're facing and make sure it's the direction we want to go.

Wyatt: Dystopian novels, we…people have been writing novels for thousands of years.

Sterrantino: Mhmm.

Wyatt: But dystopian novels are relatively recent, aren't they?

Sterrantino: Yes, the first dystopian novel was The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and that was written 1895.

Wyatt: I mean, we've got so just a little more than 100 years of history of dystopian novels.

Sterrantino: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Why would I want to read something depressing? Why wouldn't I want to read something happy? [Laughter]

Sterrantino: That's a good question. I don't know if I have just a masochistic way of doing things, but I get so pulled into these worlds that I really like dystopian novels, even though there are horrific parts to them that are painful. Whether you think it's applying to your society or not, you see these other people suffering and you're thinking, "My goodness, we need to do something about that." So it makes me think more about my own life, about the situation I'm in, about the society I'm in and what I can do as an individual to help improve those…my own societies, my own groups that I'm in. So for me, yeah, it's a difficult read sometimes emotionally, but I get so much out of it. I've learned so much from them that I just am drawn to them over and over again.

Wyatt: Well, and this is the perfect time to read 1984 because what we're doing today is the teaser to just kind of try to pull you in to read it, and then at the end of the month, at the end of July we'll spend an hour talking about what we read. So it's a great time to do it.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: It's a perfect time to do it because we have this kind of book ended (12:17) and we hope that you all join us at the end of the month—those that are listening—join us at the end of the month when we come back and talk about what we learned from it. No spoiler alerts today because we're not spoiling anything. But the book, I think it's fair to say, Joy and Steve, the ending will surprise people.

Sterrantino: Yeah, actually it was the ending—and I won't spoil it—but the ending of this book is actually what made me want to study dystopian novels. It was one of the most profound books I've ever read, and I think that it's one of the most important books that anybody could read, personally. I do believe that.

Wyatt: And it's such an interesting time with the divisive politics in our country and some of the countries around the world. As I look at this book, I can see countries that fit pretty well, actually, with exactly what's being described. And then we can see pieces of this in our own country and it is ever-vigilant. We've got to be ever-vigilant. I remember some of the areas that I like to study are American national government, and this battle in our country when the Constitution was first written over whether to have a Bill of Rights or not. And the Federalist Party said, "Nah, we don't need a Bill of Rights because they're all assumed and everybody knows they're there." And the Anti-Federalists said, "Are you kidding me? If we don't have them written in as protections, we're going to lose them." And that fight went back and forth and back and forth and there were smart people on both sides. The winners of course were the Federalists, not the Anti-Federalists, but the winner of the story of American politics were the Federalists, but the Anti-Federalists, I think, have been proven to be correct. That if we don't protect certain rights and liberties, that we're going to lose them. And that's part of the reason why we read these kind of novels, isn't it?

Sterrantino: It totally is. And the Constitution, obviously they couldn't have seen the way it would need to apply today, but it covers a lot of that. And that's why we have courts and things like that, but we become complacent in our own worlds. You know, "I'm comfortable, I have a decent house, I have enough food, I have a good job" things like that. So it's very easy for me to just get caught up in my world instead of paying attention to the greater things. Like in this country, so many people don't vote when it is the easiest thing to do here. And we act like it's not important enough, which is not true. And then you see people in other countries where they are travelling by foot for miles and miles to get to vote and then they still might be harassed by government groups, so they realize how important that is. Because sometimes we don't realize until something is taken away from us how important that luxury was. And I think books like this remind us of our duty, the path that we're on, the things that we take for granted.

Wyatt: The majority tend to let the minority go and vote.

Sterrantino: Yeah.

Wyatt: And determine who the leadership is. That's an unfortunate thing. So Big Brother, who is Big Brother?

Sterrantino: Big Brother is the figure head of the government. So the world's pretty much split into three parts: there's Oceania, which is where Winston lives, and then East Asia and Eurasia. And they're always at war with one or the other. And part of the reason there is war—some of the people don't even believe that war is real—is to control what's going on in means of production, supply and demand, all that kind of stuff because it has to be supporting the war. So that's always going on.

Wyatt: And Big Brother…so you would know this better than me, but I think that Orwell was making Big Brother, he kind of patterned him after Stalin and Hitler. Is that…?

Sterrantino: Yeah, definitely. And the thing is, it's not just that he's in charge, they essentially worship him. They have him on telescreens and posters all over the place all the time, they have different sessions where they get together as groups and they chant, "BB" because Big Brother saved them from their enemy, the enemy that they talk about is Emmanuel Goldstein, who supposedly is against what Oceania believes in. But we never actually see Big Brother, we never actually see Emmanuel Goldstein, so everything is ambiguous. You don't know if that's a real person or a figure head or whatever, but there's this worship of Big Brother. And that's what motivates everything else in the society.

Meredith: You mentioned the television show "Big Brother" and I often think that it shouldn't be this way, but people measure the value of a work by how much impact it has on society generally. And if you think about 1984, there's a ton of stuff that has come out of that book that has crept in—not just Big Brother, but has become part of English lexicon, right?

Sterrantino: Yeah.

Meredith: We, you know, "memory-hole" something or we "double speak" or there are lots of phrases out of 1984 that have become part of warnings in just our regular English language.

Sterrantino: Yeah, I think that's true. And if you haven't read it or you're not familiar with it, you may not even realize that that's where we get these ideas from.

Meredith: Yeah.

Sterrantino: One of my favorite t-shirt kind of meme things, it says, "1984 was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual." [All laugh] Because people that follow that kind of thing…it's not safe, it's not what we're supposed to be doing.

Wyatt: Well, there's a couple other characters. O'Brien, I don't think we've talked about O'Brien. Any other characters we need to know about? O'Brien is interesting.

Sterrantino: Yeah, he's a member of the Inner Party that Winston feels connection with and thinks that he might be a means to learn about Goldstein and what's really going on behind the government. There's also Mr. Charrington who runs the little shop where Winston gets contraband essentially—writing utensils and things like that that he's not supposed to have and he ends up being very important in the book as well.

Wyatt: So those are the people and we kind of have the set out of these three…basically three countries. Orwell's hope is to warn us. His whole intention is to try to influence our thinking and to protect us against something that he thinks is possible. And it's not just possible because it seems to me that 1984 has played out very clearly in many countries. We certainly have a lot of countries where they leaders over the last 15 or 20 or 50 years have been thought of as deity and worshiped.

Sterrantino: Yeah, that's definitely true. And one of the things is if I tell you, "Hey, are you seeing this happening? This is crazy." People tend to—and I'm making a generalization—but be defensive, "Oh, that would never happen. We don't think like that. We're not 'those' people." But when you read it in a novel, you don't put the same wall up, you're just reading the novel for what it is and all of the sudden you can go, "Oh crap! That's what's happening here." [Laughter]

Wyatt: Well, and I think if we took society and we took…if we grabbed a group of people from 150, 200 years ago, they would be surprised.

Sterrantino: Yeah, I think so.

Wyatt: They would be surprised that we have evolved poorly in some ways, and they would probably be surprised that we have become better in some ways.

Sterrantino: That's true.

Wyatt: All of it's true, but this is a great story to remind us of what to strive for.

Sterrantino: Yeah. Like I said, I think it is one of the most important novels anybody could read.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. We've been delighted to be joined in-studio joining by our guest, Joy Sterrantino, from the English department here at SUU. And we invite you to read 1984 with us during the month of July, and we'll have Joy back and other guests join us to discuss the book at the end of the month. Thanks so much for listening, we'll be back again soon. Bye bye.