Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Summer Reading

Sep 3, 2015

Personally, I have never understood the "beach book." Every summer the media are full of stories about the perfect book to take to the seashore -- usually the Proust you've never had time for or this week's James Patterson. But I don't go to the beach, at least not often. In the summer I do my reading in the same places as in the winter -- in the bath, at my desk, at the kitchen table while dinner cooks, basically just about everywhere.

That said, there was one memorable summer that always comes to mind when beach books are being recommended. 1975. I was living in Ottawa, waiting for the birth of my first child. My thesis was finished and I guess I wasn't working because I seemed to have a lot of time on my hands, which I chose to occupy reading the collected works of George Orwell.

Orwell has always been a culture hero of mine and some of you may recall the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters that Penguin published in paperback in 1970, edited by his widow Sonia and Ian Angus. I have them still, dog-eared and underlined, the date of purchase scrawled on the first page, June '75. Except for volume 3; somewhere in my travels it has disappeared.

I do not recall ever having had such an intense reading experience before or since. Each day -- and in my memory every day was sunny and warm -- I walked over to a nearby park beside the Rideau River, leaned up against a great grey cottonwood, and lost myself in Orwell. In his first essay, "Why I Write," Orwell said "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism..." Was it a coincidence that the Russian embassy overlooked the park where I was reading and I could glance up and see the blank walls of Soviet despotism looking back at me?

When I leaf through the volumes now I find certain lines highlighted. "Nine times out of ten a revolutionary is merely a climber with a bomb in his pocket." "The only ism that has justified itself is pessimism." "The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness." What was my youthful self making of these pronouncements that I so earnestly underlined them? Today I am surprised to find the following extract from his notebook, one of the last things he ever wrote: "It is now 16 years since my first book was published and abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, and that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time." Exactly.

My summer reading that year ended on August 8 with the birth of my daughter. Orwell and his many lessons for the wannabe writer had to take back seat to parenthood with all its joys and responsibilities. Fitting that the final volume of the Collected Essays, covering 1945 to 1950, features a cover photo of Orwell holding his infant son Richard in his arms.