MELISSA BLOCK, host:
One journalist sings the praises of another now in the latest installment of our series You Must Read This. Lawrence Wright is a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine and the author of the book The Looming Tower about the roots of al-Qaida. He recommends an essay by the man he thinks of as the master of political journalism.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: People these days tend to think of George Orwell as a writer for high-school students, since his reputation now 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 Second World War, 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. 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 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? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? Orwell was a supremely political writer, having waged a lifelong campaign against totalitarianism, and indeed for him, all issues were political issues and politics itself, 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. 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. Orwell optimistically sets forward six simple rules, 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 number one, 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. Clichés, like cockroaches in the cupboard, quickly infest a careless mind. I constantly struggle with the prefabricated phrases that substitute for simple, clear prose. Political language, Orwell reminds us, is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. 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.
BLOCK: Lawrence Wright is the author of The Looming Tower. He lives in Austin, Texas. You'll find more impassioned book recommendations from authors including Bill Buford, T.C. Boyle and Curtis Sittenfeld at our Web site, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.