I was surprised to receive an e-mail from Winston Smith: “Hey, I heard you’re interested in hearing about how this started.”
Winston Smith is the main character of George Orwell’s 1984. I first read 1984 in high school, then I re-read it during a cold winter in Chicago. It had been some years, yet sitting at my desk, I recalled clearly the small, frail man with an itchy ulcer on his ankle. Winston Smith, I remembered, worked for The Ministry of Truth where he and others engaged in the busy work of erasing and rewriting history. Even though telescreens and Big Brother spies watched citizens at all times, Winston Smith committed a small gesture of resistance — he began to keep a diary, an act punishable by death.
My Winston Smith, the one in my inbox, is the anonymous donor who started the Bay Area trend of bookstores giving copies of 1984 for free. “Winston Smith” is a pseudonym, but he tells me shortly: he went to Point Reyes Books, Green Apple Books, then the Booksmith on Haight Street, bought copies of 1984, and asked the bookstores to display them prevalently.
Winston Smith is also an immigrant from Southern Europe, whose family members were incarcerated for belonging to left wing unions and opposing a fascist regime; that is as detailed as he wants to be. He is fearful of being identified, but in speaking of that time, he tells me he learned to measure his words at age six. When he read 1984 at age fourteen, he found in that novel a government machine reminiscent of the one that affected his childhood.
When asked what specifically led him to buying scores of books now and donating them all across the Bay Area, Smith said, “Four words: post truth, alternative facts.” Winston Smith is a linguist and a writer and as such, he is fascinated with language, the use of language, and the power of language.
Since the election, 1984 has risen in the national bestseller lists. As I write this, it occupies the No. 1 bestseller spot at Amazon. As a novel about the dangers of truth being co-opted for a government’s vanity and stay of power, 1984 speaks to our contemporary problems like no other.
Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Books was the first bookseller to participate in the free-books venture. I asked his opinion about the relevance of 1984.
“I think 1984 speaks so much to our moment because of Orwell’s ability to probe the language of authoritarianism and to demonstrate how slippery truth can be and how those in power can manipulate it (“alternative facts”) to further their ends,” Sparks says. “For many of us, the famous slogans in the novel — WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH — are keystones for understanding corruption.”
Sinking into the couch with this dystopian masterpiece, I noted uncomfortable parallels to our times. There is the Big Brother party slogan — Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.
There’s Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, gratingly reminiscent of a fake news empire — if said fake-news empire was backed by the government and its reach dipped not only into our newspapers but into our history books. In 1984 the government has the power to retroactively change truth to make it fit into a larger narrative of prosperity, happiness, and perpetual victory.
Then there is the concept of Doublethink, one of the most important and lasting ideas in this book, which recalled Kellyanne Conway’s tactics in speaking to the press:
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself.”
1984 is not the only book being given away since the election. On Jan. 20, many bookstores followed the lead of Portland’s Broadway Books and gave out free copies of Chimananda Ngochie Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.
And another anonymous donor has undertaken to buy and give away at different bookstores Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. They wrote over email, “I’ve been joking-not-joking for a while that someone needed to tell the Republicans that Atwood, Butler, Bradbury, etc, weren’t meant to be how-to manuals.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is an achingly beautiful novel in which an extreme, totalitarian Christian movement has taken power and women have lost their rights. This second anonymous donor also bought copies of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a nonfiction book about the 1933 U.S. ambassador to Germany who witnesses Hitler’s rise to power.
As for the Winston Smith behind the 1984 giveaway, he has said he has no plans of slowing down. “I don’t know how many [copies] I plan to buy. As many as necessary.” A few other donors have taken up Smith’s philanthropical scheme. Scott Esposito, a book publicist, critic, and editor in Oakland, said 1984 is a cornerstone of his understanding of the world and he cannot imagine not being exposed to its ideas, so he followed suit and bought and donated four copies, with plans to buy more. The count so far for 1984 is 100 free books, five bookstores, and three cities.
Like the fictional Winston Smith, our anonymous Bay Area donor doesn’t have an ulterior motive — only a desire to spark critical thinking.