As I Please (1943–1945)

by George Orwell

Cover image

Series: Collected Writing #3
Editor: Sonia Orwell
Editor: Ian Angus
Publisher: Nonpariel
Copyright: 1968
Printing: 2005
ISBN: 1-56792-135-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 411

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This is the third volume of Orwell's collected non-fiction writing, covering the period from the middle of World War II to its end. Just before the start of this volume, Orwell had resigned from the BBC and took a position as the literary editor of the Tribune, a left-wing weekly. Among other duties as editor, Orwell wrote a weekly column in which he was given almost completely free rein by the editorial staff, even to contradict the editorial position of the weekly's political section. Those columns, entitled "As I Please," form the bulk of the material of this volume.

Contrasted with the somewhat depressing and repetitious political material of the previous volume, the material included here is more wide-ranging and therefore often more interesting. Orwell continues to write about the war, of course, but the momentum had shifted and the eventual outcome quickly became clear (if not the timing; Orwell interestingly expected the Japanese war to go on for at least two years longer than it did, leading me to wonder how common that belief was at the time). The constant focus on left-wing reactions to Russia, domestic fascism and socialism, and the conduct of the war dominate this volume much less, and even the political writing diverges into fascinating discussions of the nature of nationalism and loyalty to a particular political division, Russian policy in Eastern Europe, some discussion of Allied intervention in Greece, and analyses of antisemitism, some other issues of race relations, and anti-American feeling in Britain.

The "As I Please" columns read like old-fashioned editorials, where the editor talks about whatever comes to mind that week from the political to the mundane. In one column, for example, Orwell muses about the tedium involved in washing dishes, the lack of scientific progress in that area, the horrible layout of many English kitchens, and the possibility of a dishwashing service similar to diaper service. (This column postdates the invention of the electric dishwasher, but predates its widespread availability outside of commercial installations.) A column is rarely more than four or five book pages, and Orwell frequently covers two or three separate topics in a single column. Some of the most interesting are responses to reader letters, particularly about political controversies of the time, but memorably once a debunking of a service that sold a supposedly scientific method for manufacturing story plots.

This volume, similar to the first volume of Orwell's non-fiction but to an even greater degree, shows the breadth of Orwell's ability to comment on life. Politics is always his first interest and continues to form the bulk of the material, but commentary on aesthetics (not only in literature) also forms a substantial portion. His writing is always clear, concise, and thought-provoking, even when I disagree with him sharply (such as over the desirability of increasing the birth rate). I think the short "As I Please" columns are a forum well-suited for his approach to analysis and discussion. Orwell is an exceptional essayist and comes up with much material best discussed at short length.

Two long pieces in this volume are worth special mention. The first opens the volume: The English People is a summary of the general opinions and attitudes of the general English population (as opposed to the politicians or the literary establishment) from Orwell's perspective. This was a commissioned booklet for the series Britain in Pictures and is the longest single item in this volume, running about 35 pages. I found it as intriguing for what it tells us of Orwell's priorities and opinions as what it tells us about Britain at the time. He shows some of the exasperation that I think is common to every progressive or reformer, but his appreciation of his countrymen and his opinions about England's strengths also come through quite clearly. In some cases, they're rooted in largely the same traits: the English respect for the law both exasperates him when the laws are unjust and gives him hope for a peaceful evolution of society and avoidance of internal violence even in extreme circumstances. The essay in this volume is followed by several short pieces on English cooking which are almost as interesting, suffering for me only from my unwillingness to go find an encyclopedia and research the dishes with which I'm unfamiliar.

The other piece worth special mention is the essay "Notes on Nationalism," in which Orwell uses a somewhat peculiar definition of nationalism as allegiance to any particular faction or "side" (not necessarily a country) and then breaks down the blindnesses of thinking and poor intellectual habits to which we're all prone. Reading this collection now in an era where it's common to bemoan the loss of civility in political discourse and the sharp division of US politics into sides that care only about defeating each other, it's eerie the extent to which Orwell's observations are directly applicable. He at the time is talking about the factions of WW2 English politics (Tory, Labor, Communist, Socialist, Trotskyist, and so forth), but the analysis is just as relevant. The essay is also remarkable in that it broadens its focus beyond particular groups, which are mainly used as an example, and identifies patterns of thinking found in everyone. Orwell contends that nearly everyone is nationalist about something, and exhibits towards that side many of the pathologies of thinking he identifies: obsession, instability, and indifference to objective truth. His analysis of people's ability to ignore facts that don't fit their world-view is particularly cogent. Rather than arguing that people should simply not do this, as is so often said, Orwell instead argues that the path of intellectual honesty is to know and openly admit one's own biases, be aware of them, and attempt to correct for them rather than correcting them.

This essay is not the only place in which Orwell touches on these topics. In one of his letters for Partisan Review, he looks back on his previous letters for them (all published in the previous volume) and talks about the badly incorrect predictions he made about the war, with special attention to his belief at the time that England would necessarily have to become socialist in order to win the war. He analyzes why he made such errors and what biases and patterns of thinking lead people to make such errors of prediction, arriving at some similar conclusions about selective attention to facts. Orwell's ability to criticize himself and admit mistakes struck me in several of the essays here; indeed, it's a somewhat common pattern for him to begin a correspondance of sharp disagreement, either publicly or privately, and eventually continue to correspond to his adversary and reach a place of mutual admiration.

An Age Like This, the first volume of Orwell's non-fiction, has much to recommend it, particularly since poverty and the Great Depression are somewhat more compelling topics these days than the details of World War II. However, even with the strength of some of the long material in that volume, As I Please has become my favorite volume of this series to date (with one more to read). Orwell has become a sharper and stronger writer over time (the increase in quality in the non-diary material from the previous volume is particularly noticeable), and the breadth of subject material here is satisfying. I haven't even mentioned some of the memorable topics, such as multiple essays on the English language and on badly-used cliched phrases.

I'll continue to recommend reading all four volumes of this set, but if you want to pick up only one, this is not a bad one to grab.

Followed by In Front of Your Nose.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-10-24

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