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You, Too, Will Love Big Brother: A Life Of Reading And Rereading '1984'

It was a bright hot day in June. Or possibly July. And the clocks almost certainly weren't striking thirteen, because they don't do that in this country.

But it WAS the summer of 1984. I was 9 years old, and my father was handing me a beat-up paperback with an anonymous-looking white and green cover; his old college copy of George Orwell's 1984. "Here," he said. "I think you're ready for this." My dad has always had a weirdly inflated sense of my intellectual abilities.

And I was captivated, instantly. I have this pet theory that some books, the ones you encounter as a child and read over and over again, somehow work themselves into your mental DNA so that everything you encounter later in life contains ghostly references to whatever that original text was — tubes of saccharine tablets in the grocery store, mystery meat in the high school lunch room, red scarves, glass paperweights, cold April days, rats, the number 101 in any context; so many things have that tingle of association.

Not that I understood even vaguely what the hell was going on in 1984 the first time I read it. But I was sucked down deep into Orwell's strange gray world, so different from candy-colored '80s America. To a 9-year-old stuffed full of fantasy novels, Orwell's world-building ability was the big draw; the sights and sounds and — unfortunately sometimes — smells of Airstrip One were alien but vividly real. (Though the less said here about the scene in the holding cell with Parsons and the lavatory pan, the better.)

And that's the thing: I was so caught by that world that I revisited it again and again, at least once a year, all the way through college. Every time I re-read it, something new would unfold itself from the pages for me — first, the tragedy of Winston and Julia, and the way that love is sometimes just naivete.

Then, when I was 12, my dad the former political science professor explained totalitarianism to me — I was mostly impressed with myself for being able to pronounce the word, never mind understanding the concept, but it added a new dimension to what had become my favorite book.

On the next re-reading, I began to understand the way language shapes thought, and how Orwell's villainous Inner Party is determined to eradicate concepts like freedom by removing the ability to speak about them — powerful ideas for a budding writer.

I invite you to pull up a chair (in that little alcove the telescreen can't see), pour yourself a glass of oily ersatz Victory Gin, and dive in.

And finally somewhere in my mid-teens, I found myself reading the 'Goldstein's Book' chapters instead of skipping them as too complicated, and the whole structure of a society built on constant warfare clicked into place; here were the ideas driving this world I was so fascinated with, and they made scary sense.

The adjective "Orwellian" gets tossed around with abandon these days. It's become such a cliche that the intensity of the original experience, the layers of thought and meaning, can get lost in the noise — so I invite you to pull up a chair (in that little alcove the telescreen can't see), pour yourself a glass of oily ersatz Victory Gin, and dive in. You, too, will find yourself rolling down that glorious corridor. You, too, will love Big Brother.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Petra Mayer died on November 13, 2021. She has been remembered by friends and colleagues, including all of us at NPR. The Petra Mayer Memorial Fund for Internships has been created in her honor.