Lawrence Wright is an author and screenwriter, and a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His most recent book is The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. All Things Considered talks with writers about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
Most people these days think of George Orwell as a writer for high-school students, since his reputation rests mostly on two late novels — Animal Farm and 1984 — that are seldom read outside the classroom. But through most of his career, Orwell was known for his journalism and his rigorous, unsparing essays, which documented a time that seems in some ways so much like our own.
At the end of World War II, one form of totalitarianism — fascism — had been defeated; but another — communism — was spreading across Europe and Asia. Orwell's own country, England, was suffering through a political crisis, as it struggled to find the will to resist the new threat. It was then, in 1946, that Orwell wrote his great essay, "Politics and the English Language," which I first read as a freshman at Tulane University and immediately adopted as my guide. Over the years, I've gone back to it repeatedly, like a student visiting an old professor who always has something new to reveal.
Orwell's proposition is that modern English, especially written English, is so corrupted by bad habits that it has become impossible to think clearly. The main enemy, he believed, was insincerity, which hides behind the long words and empty phrases that stand between what is said and what is really meant.
A scrupulous writer, Orwell notes, will ask himself: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What fresh image will make it clearer? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? The alternative is simply "throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you — concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear."
Orwell was a supremely political writer himself, having waged a lifelong campaign against totalitarianism; and indeed, for him, all issues were political issues, "and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia."
Orwell's candor, his steadiness, his stern and scrupulous impartiality are qualities that make this essay still sound contemporary and urgent, at a time when the reputation of so many of his contemporaries has faded. I think the secret of Orwell's timelessness is that he doesn't seek to please or entertain; instead, he captures the reader with a style as intimate and frank as a handshake. It is that quality of common humanity that makes his essay so luminous and his voice so familiar.
Orwell optimistically sets forward six simple rules to improve the state of the English language: guidelines that anyone, not just professional writers, can follow.
But I'm not going to tell you what they are. You'll have to re-read the essay yourself. I'm only going to speak about Rule No. 1, which is never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
For me, that's the hardest rule and no doubt the reason that it's No. 1. Cliches, like cockroaches in the cupboard, quickly infest a careless mind. I constantly struggle with the prefabricated phrases that substitute for simple, clear prose. We are still plagued by toe the line, stand shoulder to shoulder with, no axe to grind — meaningless images that every reader subconsciously acknowledges represent the opposite of real thought — but it is dismaying to read that two exhausted metaphors, leave no stone unturned and explore every avenue, had been jeered out of common usage in Orwell's day by journalists who took the trouble to dismiss them.
"Political language," Orwell reminds us, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits."
Orwell wasn't interested in decorative writing, but his straightforward, declarative style has a snap in it that few other writers have ever approached. In a time when politics and the English language once again seem to be at odds, perhaps his essay can make us remember that clarity is the remedy.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this series.