You know those compliments that you get that really make your day? You don’t expect any, didn’t have to receive any, but someone says something to you that makes you smile and make you feel good about yourself the entire day afterward? I received one of those recently and it made me really understand and reflect upon the value of literature.
This past Sunday (12/1) was the third meeting of Lit Lovers Book Club here in Suzhou. Earlier in the day, a Korean husband his wife messaged me via the application WeChat and asked if I could invite them to the Lit Lovers group. Of course, I added them to the group right away! As you know from my latest blog post, the book club is going great and there are over 60 members in the group and 11 active members in this discussion about 1984. Better yet, it’s continuing to do great as well. If you want to read more about the first Lit Lovers experience you can do so here.
Anyway, after the third meeting concluded, the Korean couple stuck around and talked with me. Now, they haven’t read 1984 before (although they have heard of it), but they still decided to come to the event anyway and check it out. This week we were discussing “Part II. Chapter 7” until “Part III. Chapter 1” (roughly 80 pages worth of material). Below you can find some of the questions I asked and led the discussion with (***spoiler alerts within questions***). These questions were based around the characters in the novel and larger ideas that the author talks about within.
- O’Brien: The role that O’Brien plays in Winston’s life. Why do you think that initially, Winston is drawn to O’Brien? Why does he implicitly trust him, despite the enormous dangers involved?
- Parsons: Parsons arrest and how he handles his arrest.
- Julia: What do we think is going to happen to Julia?
- Winston: His dream / memory of when he was little. How has Winston changed since then? After this part, how would you describe Winston using just one word? Why? Why does Winston bring Julia along with him to O’Brien’s house?
- Mr. Charrington: What do we think about his true identity? What will happen with him in the rest of the novel?
- Winston says: “The proles are human beings. We are not.” (pg 165) What makes us human? (Chapter 7)
- Life. The purpose of life in regards to THIS society. Is there a difference between its purpose there and the purpose we have in real life? (Chapter 7)
- Victory over Big Brother. Winston mentions that hope lies with the proles, what characteristics do they have that make him believe this? Also, he mentions “If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.” Is staying true to oneself a way of beating Big Brother?
- Revisit the hierarchy of privilege. (Wine – Gin – Beer)
- What do you make of the Brotherhood’s values when Winston gets interviewed by O’Brien? At the end of the day, what is the Brotherhood’s goals? (Chapter 8, ~pg 176).
The Korean husband thanked me for leading such an excellent discussion. This was already praise enough, but then he went one step further and said, “We haven’t thought like that for a long time. I felt like I was back in college again.” The wife laughed and agreed and I even found out that I am neighbors with them (within the same living area). Both insisted that I come over sometime for authentic Korean dinner, and I plan on definitely taking them up on that offer.
The compliment really made me realize the value of literature, the value of Lit Lovers, and the value that I am providing to people. Nowadays, in the world of phatic communication, we don’t get enough intellectual stimulation, and I am by no means the smartest guy, but I would like to say one of the traits I like about myself the most is my ability to hold an intellectual conversation. Intellectual stimulation is something that I look for on dates with potential girlfriends and even something I like receiving from my friends because our friends deeply influence who we are. In general, we tend to hang out with like-minded people and I like my people intellectual. 😀
The Value of Literature
As I thought about this compliment more and more, it inspired me to write this blog post. Not only because literature gives value to others, but it also has given me so much value during the discussion of this book. For instance, for those of you who do not know about 1984, George Orwell talks about the life of Winston Smith under the eyes of Big Brother, a totalitarian and repressive administration that wants all of its citizens to either be dumbed down and distracted by vices of life (e.g. prostitution, gambling, beer, etc.) or conform to the Party by whatever means necessary (typically this is by brainwashing them from an early age or through torture at the Ministry of Love in an act of “curing” them).
Although it was written in 1948, much of this book has very similar vibes to what has happened in earlier times and how society functions today. Living in the country I do, I experience this firsthand, but while in some of the groups, I observed how others think and how their minds were warped as they lived through the last parts of the cultural revolution here in China.
Purpose of Life
The question we were discussing was the purpose of life, a very deep and philosophical question. In the book, while talking about being in the grip of the Party and revolting against it, Winston offers the thought: “Whatever happened you vanished, and neither you nor your actions were ever heard of again. You were lifted clean out of the stream of history.” One of the members of the group responded, “From a philosophical view, life doesn’t have any meaning. We give it meaning.”
To follow this claim, the Korean husband chimed in during this question and equaled his life to that of a bee. Individually, his life meant nothing. But bees aren’t alone, they work together to build the hive and in this way, the hive can survive for a length of time and therefore the identity in the group gave his life meaning rather than his own, individual self. This is a very similar way of thinking when we think about communism—everything is for the Party.
A Glimpse into History
Later on in the book, there is an instance of one of the party members being turned in by his own daughter for talking in his sleep and supposedly saying “Down with the party” over and over again. This, too, I learned actually happened during the cultural revolution here in China. If you look up information on “The Red Guards” you’ll find out that during the time of the cultural revolution, kids turned in their parents, relatives, and others to the party because they were brainwashed into spying for them.
Also, I learned that one of their most respected leaders, Chairman Mao, did many great things for China (and that is why he is so well-respected), but that he also killed lots of people through the Red Guards and by other means during this time. I also learned the potential reason for this is because he was a farmer to begin with (symbolizing a potential poor education) and perhaps he felt threatened by those of higher stature around him. (This last part is just my speculation).
This is the value of literature. Rather, it is also the value that Lit Lovers provides people. It gives people a forum to discuss what is happening in society, what has happened in society, and engage in intellectual conversations with their peers. As the Korean man said, it made him feel as though he was back in college again and I take pride in that, in the ability to make him feel so many years younger.
On top of giving me a deeper perspective into Chinese culture today and in the past, this book has made me read the text more carefully and deeply in order to come up with good questions for discussions. It has also kept me responsible for reading my assigned pages and giving out information in a timed manner. Moreover, it has kept me organized, diligent, and has made me grow more as a leader. All of these are fantastic traits and something I can take with me in the future, and also something that I will be describing more in detail when I write my new book (which I’ll be talking about in a future blog post at the end of the month).
Finally, I want to end this blog post by asking you to reflect on the books that you’ve read. What have you learned through them or through the discussions about them? Has any book been so profound and influential on you that it has literally changed who you are? If so, please list them below. I’m excited to hear your thoughts. And, in closing, Tyrion Lannister tells us the value of literature in a very easy analogy: “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it’s to keep its edge.”