by George Orwell
1990 (originally published 1945) • 124 pages • Harcourt Brace Modern Classics
I’m not going to review Animal Farm.
I mean, what would be the point? As I once said to my baffled mother in a California Pizza Kitchen, I grow less and less interested in determining the objective value of a text and more and more interested in the value people derive from a text. Every review on this blog is about the value I personally derive from each text I consume. (Look, Gossamer Axe isn’t for everybody, but, for me, it’s almost perfect.) There are some basics to be still be observed—did you spell everything more or less right? Is there a whole story in here? Do you treat marginalized minorities as people?—but, by and large, it’s the personal resonance that makes pop culture criticism such a fascinating and engaging field.
But there are some texts that I can’t sink my teeth into in a personal way. By and large, in my youth, these were books forced on me that I deeply resented. (Madame McBride made me read Silas Marner before I read Good Omens. I completed her terms, but immediately and willfully forgot the novel. Never underestimate the spite of preteens. They are monsters.) These days, they’re mercifully rare, but Animal Farm rates among them. While I enjoy texts that examine the world around us—speculative fiction is where it is at, people—I still want them to also be engaging stories. That’s, after all, why it’s a story and not an article; it’s easier for people to learn a lesson through a narrative. George Orwell obviously understood this, which is why Animal Farm is a fairy story, as the novel’s original British subtitle goes. He has a point to make about Stalinist Russia and he makes it stridently, over and over again. I don’t think you can ask if it’s effective as a story with well-developed characters, because that’s hardly Orwell’s point. I seriously doubt contemporary reviews of the novel that bemoaned how obvious the novel was bothered him one whit. It works exactly the way he wants it to work, which is no mean feat, and that’s all I can really say about it.
So I thought I’d talk about, instead, reading books in the classroom.
While I never read Animal Farm in high school, it’s a popular choice in American curriculums. And I think that’s because it comes with a right answer. It’s easy for teachers to make sure students are reading it “correctly” when there’s no ambiguity about the text’s meaning. This is not Orwell’s fault, of course, but rather symptomatic of the way we teach critical reading to kids in America. (Stand down, internal soundtrack, I’m trying to make a point.) In high school, all the texts I was taught were, more or less, straightforward and often boasted decades, and occasionally centuries, of criticism that allowed the curriculum to synthesize a “correct” reading. Fahrenheit 451, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible… the usual suspects, that all say something very specific and noncontroversial about society at large.
And that’s certainly not wrong to do. Teaching texts that have very specific, literal “meanings” is a great way to both dodge any sarcastic teen’s accusation that what they’re reading doesn’t relate to the world around them and get said sarcastic teenagers on the right track towards critical reading skills before asking them to tackle a text whose “correct” meaning is not apparent. (Because “correct” readings don’t really exist—well, beyond basic text comprehension, like Rue being black, but I think you catch my meaning.) I myself learned critical reading skills at the digital knees of older Harry Potter fans scouring through the text for clues and subtext, not for the novel’s “true” meaning. (This was not because we weren’t interested, but because this was the early aughts and not all the books were out yet. Then it was chow time. Fans know what they’re about.)
But that’s just the first step, and I think a lot of people, especially those who aren’t as textually minded as those of us who end up shoulder deep into texts on a daily basis (be it through fandom, academia, or any other method of doing it), stop there. Critical reading skills are vitally important, but they must be applied to everything you come into contact with. They give you the ability to enjoy yourself and protect yourself at the same time (which, incidentally, is how you enjoy problematic things without letting them get away with being problematic). Their utility is not simply the removal of the “true” meaning from a text, but to ask questions and make conclusions about why and how a story is being told. Reading critically is not distancing yourself from a text; it’s about getting down in its beautiful, messy guts. Pretending some guts are better than others is no way to put those skills to use in your life.
I rented this book from the public library.