I first read Animal Farm when I was in sixth grade. It was lying in a box of books that was left out for kids to paw through whenever they had free time.
I'd read anything, even as a kid, and I remember holding the book, a thin paperback with a cartoony cover of a pig and a donkey glaring at one another, and thinking — What is this?
This kid was standing next to me and he saw the cover and made a face and said, "That's a little kid's book." I was like, "Yeah," and dropped it back in the box. We were sixth-graders, too big for stories about talking animals.
But for some reason I went back to that box later and took the book home to read. This was right around Christmas break, maybe a week or two earlier, and I remember reading the story in about two hours and thinking — Whoa, this isn't just talking animals.
The amazing thing, looking back on it, isn't how much I missed, but how much I was able to understand from the story: power corrupts, idealism wilts, hypocrisy triumphs, the innocent die. Clear enough now, but these are heady ideas for a little kid. I take no credit for understanding them; the credit all goes to Orwell, for presenting this stuff in such an accessible, crystalline fashion. "Four legs good, two legs better!"
Reading Animal Farm became an annual event for me during junior high and high school; every time, I came away with more. Sometimes I understood the political subtext; sometimes I caught the unexpected humor; often I was moved.
More and more, I was struck by Orwell's genius in being able to sadden me, to horrify me, with a tale of talking pigs and sheep. Maybe that's what impresses me now more than anything else, that emotional engagement. Orwell showed that by parting with strict realism, you could actually create a deeper emotional experience for the reader. I took this lesson to heart.
Now I'm 44 years old, and I've read the book 15 or 20 times. For many years it was something I pulled off the shelf whenever I returned to Connecticut for Thanksgiving or Christmas. It's not exactly a holiday book, but it's the book that I most associate with the holidays. Much more than Dickens or whatever.
I go nuts when people reduce the story to a parable about Marxism. It's much more than that. It's about anyone who ever sold out his ideals, or who said one thing and did the opposite. It's about killing people and calling it liberation, or bankrolling dictators and calling it democracy. It's about the Soviet Union, yes, and America too. It's about me. It's about you.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.