All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays by George Orwell, compiled by George Packer, Introduction by Keith Gessen (Harcourt, 374 pages, $25); Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays by George Orwell, Compiled and With an Introduction by George Packer (Harcourt, 308 pages, $25). Among the best things you can do in this world with $35 is buy the Everyman's Library Edition of the Essays of George Orwell. There is nothing remotely unreadable about either its type font or size and you get, on 1,400 pages, 240 essays.
So what on earth would be the point of spending $50 on these two volumes -- one 300 pages, one near 400 -- if they only include 51 essays?
A decidedly difficult question to answer. What is, though, utterly undeniable is that these are brilliantly turned out volumes of what is probably the greatest body of essays in English in the last 100 years. Compiler George Packer has artfully separated Orwell's essays into narrative essays (which tend to be such earlier classics as "Shooting an Elephant" from 1936) and the critical essays (which run a bit later and include his classic piece on Henry Miller and the 1946 cornerstone "Politics and the English Language").
At one point, William T. Vollman -- a decidedly verbose and compulsive heir of the Orwell estate -- was announced as one of those who'd introduce one of these volumes but his absence from the final versions speaks volumes by itself. At this particular historic moment, with the election weeks away, troops in the Middle East and $700 billion in taxpayer money on its way to underwrite gigantic Wall Street greed and malfeasance, no 20th century writer could possibly be more deserving of a new edition than the plainspoken essayist who decried the "swindles and perversions" of political discourse and, as Keith Gessen says, eternally taught all writers one "clear lesson": "Look around you. Describe what you see as an ordinary observer -- for you are one you know -- would see them. Take things seriously. And tell the truth. Tell the truth."
-- Jeff Simon