Journalists, academics, artists, and readers on the Left and the Right, consider Orwell the writer who best saw through the lies and propaganda during his tumultuous lifetime.
Orwell’s reputation was forged at the typewriter and as a participant. He was a police officer in Burma, where he experienced imperialism firsthand. Later, seeing the threat of Hitler and Fascism, he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and nearly lost his life when he was pierced by a fascist bullet in the neck barely missing the carotid artery. He recovered to find that Stalin has turned on his perceived enemies on the Left, so Orwell and his brave wife, Eileen, needed to slip out of Spain before they were jailed or worse. Orwell’s memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, documents his time fighting for the left-leaning Loyalist’s against Hitler and the right-wing Nationalist’s led by Franco.
Orwell had a gift for recognizing the truth, and that included admitting when he was wrong. One collection of his essays is appropriately entitled Facing Unpleasant Facts. Orwell was someone who would stand alone and fight for the truth, even when no one else, even his like-minded friends, agreed with him.
His publisher Victor Gollancz made some of the worst decisions in publishing history. He turned down Homage to Catalonia and lost out on Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four when he and Orwell dissolved their relationship over political and publishing friction, even though Gollancz owned the rights to Orwell’s next four books.
The door that led me to reading Orwell’s nonfiction and essays were his Diaries that came out in 2009, which includes this gem among many: “Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99 percent of the population exist.” His adventures in hop picking, poverty, the events leading up to World War II, and his time in Morocco are all here, too. Before reading his diaries, I was like many people who had only read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four.
There are multiple avenues to entering the world of Orwell’s nonfiction.
He was passionately concerned with documenting the plight of the poor and working class in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in London and Paris. These well-written and engrossing first-person accounts concerning himself and others living in poverty in Paris and London have led many people to reading all of Orwell.
I know people who consider the anti-imperialist Burmese Days his most compelling work. This was his first glimpse into Imperialism, and after five years as a policeman, he had had enough and quit this solid government position with a secure pension. His father wasn’t pleased, but Orwell couldn’t live any longer in a system that suppressed the local people and enriched the oppressors, so he quit to write books.
Why I Write is an essay that fiction and nonfiction writers are influenced by and reference again and again.
George Orwell is probably the most written about writer ever and here are the best recent books about him.
The Socialist Patriot George Orwell and War by Peter Stansky
Peter Stansky is a former professor at Harvard and then at Stanford University, retiring in 2005 as the Frances and Charles Field Professor of History. A prolific writer whose books include The Unknown Orwell, On Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell, the Transformation, Journey to the Frontier: Two Roads to the Spanish Civil War, and many more. You can check out all of Starsky’s books on his Goodreads profile.
World War I defined Orwell’s boyhood. Orwell became Orwell after his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, where he was shot in the neck and almost died. Orwell did what he could during World War II. He was unhealthy and the government would allow him to fight, but he became a journalist with the BBC as well as joined the Home Guard in defense of England. When he visited Germany during World War II, he despaired at the destruction and the future of mankind. Through all of this, Orwell the ultimate cold warrior, wrote fiction and nonfiction that is more popular than ever. Orwell saw what a tyrant Stalin was early on, when most were still praising him. He was one of the first to use the term Cold War in his essay “You and the Atomic Bomb.”
The Socialist Patriot analyzes Orwell’s sometimes contradictory views on patriotism and socialism. Orwell’s strong stands against totalitarianism was informed and impassioned by his war experiences. Stansky’s uses Orwell’s essays, nonfiction, and fiction to help us understand how war informed Orwell and was to key to making him the most important political writer of the 20th Century.
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Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit covers much of the same ground other Orwell books do, except she adds an angle that other’s do not: Orwell’s love and passion for the natural world and gardening and how that aligns with his anti-totalitarian sensibilities.
The weaving of Orwell’s love of nature into his well-documented struggles against fascism, imperialism, and communism is illuminated by Solnit’s insightful reading of Orwell’s fiction and nonfiction. Solnit goes down many garden paths, including the dark side of the roses.
I joined the Orwell’s Society’s monthly zoom call that featured Rebecca as the featured speaker, and she spoke eloquently about Orwell’s relevance today as well as current events, including Ukraine. I asked her what publications were in the Orwell tradition of fighting misinformation and publishing the truth, and she mentioned The Guardian.
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit is a refreshing entry into the many books about George Orwell that keep Orwell alive for every generation.
The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey
Dorian Lynskey connects Nineteen Eighty-Four to Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War that were crucial to him becoming one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.
I’ve always puzzled how Orwell wrote Nineteen Eight-Four; it’s so different than anything else he had ever written previously, but in some sense his focus remained on his favorite themes—political disinformation and totalitarian societies. Still, a dystopian science fiction novel was a miraculous deviation from his previous fiction. It highlights Orwell’s ability to continue growing as a writer throughout his lifetime. The Ministry of Truth shines some light on the creation of Nineteen Eight-Four.
Lynskey delves into previous science fiction that influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four, and he goes beyond Orwell’s lifetime, and the novel’s continued influence.
Orwell’s spent his life documenting and witnessing inequality, oppression, misinformation, and totalitarianism, and he used it to create his dystopian masterpiece that is as or more important today than when it came out.
The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey couldn’t have come at a better time as the fight for objective truth continues 75 years after Nineteen Eight-Four was originally published.
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks
Orwell and Churchill: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks is an intelligent and gripping dual biography of arguably the most important writer and politician in the twentieth century.
Orwell and Churchill were opposites in many ways: Orwell was a man of the Left; Churchill was a member of the Tory party. Orwell often criticized the Left and was one of the first to warn about the dangers of Stalin and Communism. Churchill became a Liberal for a time before he returned to the Conservatives.
Both men made daring escapes from wartime danger. Orwell during the Spanish Civil War and Churchill in the Boer War in South Africa.
Both men were fighters. It was Churchill’s indomitable personality in England’s darkest hour when he rallied the country’s spirits and courage. Orwell shared his fierce resistance, but it was in the written word where mostly posthumously that he received acclaim.
Orwell and Churchill never met, but Churchill did read Nineteen Eighty-Four twice and evidently said it was “extraordinary.” Orwell praised Churchill in his diaries and essays and believed “he was the right man for the job at the right time.”
Ricks has eloquently documented the lives of two of the most consequential personalities of the twentieth century.
Read the full review of Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks.
George Orwell’s Diaries edited by Peter Davison
George Orwell Diaries edited by Peter Davison changed my life, and I’m forever grateful
Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier are two vivid works of first-person reporting by Orwell, and you’ll find a bit of both in his diaries as well the seeds to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell’s perceptions of Churchill, the totalitarianism threat, and World War II are written in real time and display Orwell’s clear thinking as well as his gift of prose, objective truth, and understanding of politics that are as fascinating as anything he wrote.
Orwell’s love for gardening and raising animals is present in abundance.
The Morocco diaries capture the flavor, politics, animals, and people at that time.
The diaries begin with a fine introduction by the late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens: “By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.”
Orwell’s daily or weekly observations are filled with wisdom and riches. If you want to read the most revealing book about George Orwell, read his diaries.
Read Noovella’s full review of George Orwell’s Diaries.
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Eileen: The Making of Orwell by Sylvia Topp
Eileen: The Making of Orwell by Sylvia Topp examines Eileen O’Shaughnessy’s life and her nine-year marriage with George Orwell.
Eileen sacrificed a career of her own to live in poverty with George Orwell. She visited Spain to support Orwell during the Spanish Civil War and played a pivotal role in helping him escape to France. She cared for an ill Orwell in Morocco. During World War II their apartment was flattened by a Nazi bomb. They adopted a son, Richard, who is now the Patron of the Orwell Society. Topp writes “It became very clear to me that her profound influence on his creative work had been neglected.”
This biography is more about Eileen’s impact on Orwell’s books, than the books themselves. Topp explains “It became very clear to me that her profound influence on his creative work had been neglected.” Topp writes about Eileen and George as people. It’s well researched and enlightening, giving us a 360 view of Eileen, who is brilliant and wonderful in her own right.
Orwell and Empire by Douglas Kerr
Orwell and Empire by Douglas Kerr explores the political and ideological underpinnings of George Orwell’s work, with a particular focus on his views on imperialism and colonialism.
Kerr examines the ways in which Orwell’s experiences as a colonial police officer in Burma and his later observations of the effects of imperialism on the working class in England influenced his political beliefs and writing. The author argues that Orwell’s opposition to imperialism and colonialism was a central theme in his work, and that his writing was informed by his commitment to social justice and his belief in the importance of political freedom.
Orwell and Empire by Douglas Kerr provides insight into the development of Orwell’s political views and the ways in which his experiences shaped his writing. Read a conversation with Douglas Kerr here. This is one of the best books about George Orwell in 2023.
Inside Orwell and Other Stories by Joseph Raffetto
Forgive the shameless plug of my own book. I don’t compare it to other books on this list, but Inside Orwell and Other Stories offers something the other books on Orwell do not—brevity. It’s a novelette really, just north of 20,000 words. You can read it in under two or three hours and come away with an understanding of who Orwell is and the breadth of his writing and life. Another bonus is it includes a creative nonfiction piece about Scott and Zelda with some comparison between Fitzgerald and Orwell.
The San Francisco Book Review wrote that it is “a short and sweet collection of writing, consisting of three novellas and one short story.”
Foreword Reviews wrote “Raffetto’s extensive knowledge of his subject elevates his writing in this unique collection that blends storytelling and the essay form…. Fans of Orwell and Fitzgerald should find worthwhile insight in this collection.”
Kirkus Review’s included this line: “The Fitzgerald and Orwell pieces are “…cohesive, focused and absorbing.”
Read more about Inside Orwell and Other Stories by Joseph Raffetto on Goodreads.
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I hope you enjoyed our choices for best recent books about George Orwell. I will be updating this list as new books about Orwell are published.
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