Animal Farm - George Orwell

George Orwell had written many stories before he got to Animal farm, addressing a variety of topics. With Animal Farm, he deliberately wrote a story describing Russia's revolution and problems. At the time, during World War II, Russia was an ally of England and he couldn't find *anybody* to publish his book. Finally, he did track down someone willing to do it. The first publishing was 50,000 copies and sold for $1.75 each.

As you might imagine, it didn't go over very well. However, as the Cold War progressed, and the Soviet Union became more and more an "Evil Empire" to the west, the book's popularity skyrocketed. Many copies were sent to Ukraine and other Soviet-controlled areas as a way to "help" the populace. The book got added to many school required reading lists. I have tried to do research to find if the book became a best seller (over 10 million copies sold) because of the required school reading or because of voluntary pleasure reading ... I can't seem to find anywhere which says one way or the other. My own personal feeling is that it's the school reading that got this onto the best selling list. For example, Orwell's other main book - 1984 (also on many school reading lists) was selling 750,000 copies a year in 1984. That's hefty sales for such a serious book.

At only 139 pages, this is one of the shortest books on the top selling list. If you want to understand the "meaning" of the book, here's a quick synopsis. Old Major (Marx) has a great idea about equality and gets the farm thinking. Soon the animals (people) oust the current bad ruler (Tzar). Two main pigs lead the newly freed animals - Snowball (Trotsky, the idealistic, nice one) and Napoleon (Stalin, the greedy, mean one). Napoleon even has a bunch of cruel dogs (secret police) to keep the animals in line.

The book is interesting as a very thinly veiled attack on a political system. It's important to remember it's very biased, of course! It's like reading an anti-Democrat fable written by the Republicans. In Animal Farm, the animals are all *very* stupid. The pigs are explicitly "naturally" smarter which is why they lead. The rest of the animals (with only specific exceptions) are very stupid. Are they saying that the entire Soviet populace were very stupid? I know many people in that region who would disagree.

I suppose the story might not have had the same impact if it was more realistic (still with animals, of course). Just one example - in the real world, Ukrainians fought fiercely against Soviet rule. Stalin inflicted a famine on them, killing millions. Few animals in Animal Farm fight back - they merely mutter occasionally and are quickly silenced. Instead, the book makes a gigantic line between "very innocent / dumb" (all animals but the pigs) and "very evil / smart" (the pigs). It's a shame the book couldn't have smart-but-stuck characters as well. I suppose the dumb-but-evil animals would be the dogs, doing the bidding of the pigs. Still, I don't like the portrayal of the pigs as "all naturally clever". I suppose I've made that clear :)

So there's two ways I look at this book. First, during it's "peak popularity with regular readers" (i.e. the Cold War, the 60s) it was a propaganda tool for the West. You can consider this a "really good thing" in helping Ukrainians and other subjugated groups get a voice. I suppose you could consider it a "interference" issue since most Western countries wouldn't be happy if other countries deliberately wrote very biased, cutesy anti-current-policy books and flooded their marketplace with them :)

Outside of that very specific selling time period, the longer life of this book has been with school sales. The kids reading the book don't really need to learn "Russian history" by understanding pigs and sheep reciting messages. Instead, by reading Animal Farm they get a *very* basic, easily understandable example of how symbols work in books. When they tackle advanced books they get very subtle symbols to understand. This is a book to get them started. The dogs act like secret police. The propaganda pig works like a propaganda machine. The book isn't subtle at all, you can see the similarities very clearly. So as a teaching tool, the book works wonderfully. It's relatively entertaining, and it's short.

As far as an adult reading this in the post-2000 era, I found it interesting, but its one sidedness shone through. It's a bit like watching Barney the Dinosaur. The message is fine enough, but as a book intended for adults, even in "fable form", I would have appreciated a bit more meat. Still, there are many aspects of the book which are deeply embedded into current culture, because culture assumes that every child read the book on the way towards adulthood. So from that point of view, it's a book that everyone should read at least once, to understand those references.

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