What I’m Reading: Down and Out in Paris and London
There are few authors I appreciate more than George Orwell. Not only was he a skilled storyteller, he wrote fiction that quite literally changed the world. In Animal Farm and 1984 he demonstrated that fiction can do more to influence how people view themselves and their society than any quantity of scholarship. I liked 1984 so much that I jumped at the chance to buy a facsimile of his rough draft–a typewritten manuscript buried under Orwell’s scrawled notes and vigorous scratch-outs–not realizing that it was the size of an altar Bible. It is a cumbersome treasure.
So when I was recently looking for something “literary” to read, I settled on one of Orwell’s lesser-read works, Down and Out in Paris and London, which chronicles Orwell’s time slumming in the two great cities. Orwell wants to show us what it is like to be poor, and for that reason it remains an important book today; many of us need to be told, myself included. Those who have never been poor nevertheless have strong opinions about poverty and the poor, and could benefit from stepping into Orwell’s world for a few hours. This is a world populated by the working poor, who slave away like mules to make just enough of a living that they don’t starve. It is a world of poverty traps, in which the hardest workers are so crushed by the demands of survival that they have neither the time nor the energy to rise to anything better. And it is a world where the sneering condescension of the wealthy is a constant, where the worst is assumed of the poor, where poverty itself is viewed as both a great sin and a toxic disease.
Orwell is a master of squeamish details, and his gritty descriptions of urban Paris will make even the most seasoned travelers think twice about where they dine and sleep. Despite that, and despite the heavy topic, this is not a dreary book; it is actually surprisingly funny, populated by a colorful fraternity of cheerful, endearing, and frequently absurd characters. With few earthly possessions, all they have are their hopes and aspirations: for better work, for love, or even just for the next cigarette. Their heroic and comic efforts to obtain these things are the essence of the book’s loose plot.
Why the book matters to Building Peace: Economic inequality is one of the major drivers of social unrest and even violence, both in the U.S. and abroad. With the euro zone in chaos and the U.S. economy tumbling towards a cliff, we can expect inequality to worsen. Both rich and poor are quick to stereotype the other, and the causes and consequences of poverty lie at the heart of partisan debates. For all these reasons, it is worthwhile allowing Orwell to show us what poverty was like in his own day–and perhaps provide some insights into poverty today.
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