George Orwell’s 1949 Reading List

I just finished reading David Lebedoff’s THE SAME MAN: GEORGE ORWELL & EVELYN WAUGH IN LOVE AND WAR (Random House 2008), a double biography that argues that Orwell, aka Eric Blair (liberal/radical, anti-status, atheist) and Evelyn Waugh (social climber and party boy, strict and self-tormenting Catholic) actually had much in common, including a dread that the modern world would turn toward a shallow hedonism that both of them loathed. (I mentioned that Waugh was a party boy, but he converted away from that lifestyle, even while enshrining it’s excesses in novels like BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, which I am currently enjoying.)
But back to Orwell and the Lebedoff book. It was a good book, an easy read, perhaps a little emphatic in its singular thesis. But what struck me most was its second appendix, borrowed from a collection of Orwell’s writings.
The appendix catalogs everything Orwell read in 1949, the last full year of his life.
Born in 1903, Orwell was still young in 1949, but he’d lived a hard life (down and out in Paris and London, fighting in the Spanish Civil War) and it showed. Things were looking up, with the completion of Animal Farm, which would be Orwell’s first huge success. Then his wife Eileen died, very suddenly. They had recently adopted their first child, Richard. Suddenly widowed, with a son, and his own health in bad shape, Orwell moved to a rustic cottage on Jura, an island off Scotland, and battled with tuberculosis while writing “1984.” He didn’t live long past its publication.

In that last year, which Orwell spent mostly in a sanatorium, the author kept working — and reading. Including a few brochures, he read 144 titles. 144!
Now, admittedly, he was probably confined to bed, but that’s still about three books a week, perhaps a thousand pages or so. And these books weren’t easy reads — nor were they homogenous. Orwell read recent books (including not-yet-published works), at least four books and possibly more about Stalin (clearly his foremost concern at that time, judging from the reading list), books by up-and-coming American writers like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, mysteries (Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler), books about archaeology, economics and astronomy, books by and about Oscar Wilde, books that we now consider classics (Fitzgerald, Hardy, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Dickens), books by his own peers (like Evelyn Waugh), and books that don’t ring any bell in my mind, which perhaps have been largely forgotten.
In his entire 144-title list, I could find only one that I have read: The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.
Reading that entire list, in order, would give an excellent perspective on what a well-read, politically active, socially concerned person of that time might have been reading, and therefore thinking, in 1949, just as the Cold War was deepening.(The Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949; the Korean War would begin in 1950.) What an amazing window.

Next year, January 21 to be exact, will be the 60th anniversary of George Orwell’s death. I would love to say I’m planning to read the entire 144-title list (what a great lark that would be! except that it would take, I have estimated, 33 hours a week and possibly much more…I am a very slow and easily distracted reader) but I’m definitely going to put a few of his 1949 reads on my own 2009 TBR list. It seems like a small way to honor a man who took his own continuing self-education — and the future of our world — with the utmost seriousness.

1 thought on “George Orwell’s 1949 Reading List”

  1. Louis L’Amour also kept lists of the books he read, and those lists are an appendix to a L’Amour biography my uncle ordered for me shortly before he died a few years ago. I need to dig that up and see how I measure up.

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