Wed, 11 Apr 2012

The value of primary sources

I recently finished reading "All Art is Propaganda" by George Orwell, a collection of some of his critical essays. It was a fascinating read, and would recommended it. Each of the essays is thought-provoking and enlightening, and the topics covered are numerous and varied.

The most interesting feature of the book though wasn't the subject matter of the essays, but the organisation of them. The editor decided to put them in chronological order, meaning that you see some development of ideas over the essays, and different topics rise and fall in prominence.

While that's certainly not novel, the effect of structuring the book in this way was very noticeable in this case for me. I saw a lot of parallels to the impressions I've had from following @RealTimeWWII on twitter. This account is "live tweeting" the Second World War as if it were happening today (currently in 1940).

This artifice brings a whole fresh appreciation of this period that I have learnt so much about. Consuming the events at the pace they occured gives time to reflect on each one, and forgetting that I know the events that followed allows one to get a greater understanding of what it would have been like to live at that time. The time-compressing effect of looking back tends to obscure the uncertainty and fear of that time, the slowness with which some events were unfolding accentuating it. Consuming this via twitter, with its headline-like format mixing in with the news of today, heightens this effect.

While it's something of a loss that we aren't able to know what Orwell would say about the events of today, or what he would have changed in these essays with the addition of hindsight, there's an undeniable value in reading this primary source. While hindsight adds, it also takes away, blurring memories and changing perspectives. Reading the essays allows you to pick up on the thinking of those living through the events that we think we know so well.

For instance Orwell seemed to believe that Soviet Russia was a greater threat than Nazism. The essays in the book run from 1940 to 1949, and there are many more words devoted to the Soviets than the Nazis throughout. His writing suggests that he thought the techniques the Soviets used to achieve and maintain power were less well known and understood, and would be more effective over a long period.

After better understanding these benefits I plan to redouble my efforts to choose books from a varied set of sources, including from different times, and avoid falling in to a trap of thinking that more recent must be better as knowledge is always on the increase.

Posted at: 21:21 | category: /life | Comments (0)