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Book Of A Lifetime: Essays, By George Orwell

My books of a lifetime vary almost weekly, but most share a certain sprawling, hospitable quality. They overflow with people, stories and ideas, and every time I open them, something different leaps out at me. I like essayists, because they are not constrained by plot and can chatter about anything that enters their heads.

The greatest is surely the earliest, Michel de Montaigne; among the moderns I return most frequently to George Orwell. His essays cover everything: tea, language, Dickens, Dalí, smoking, his childhood in a miserable Eastbourne preparatory school, adventure magazines, famous murders. The subjects are often political, but he makes politics into something that actually resembles life.

For example, "Killing an Elephant" unfolds a critique of imperialism from an incident that occurred during Orwell's 1920s stint in the Burmese police. An elephant had run amok in the local marketplace, and when Orwell was summoned he shot it, although it posed little further danger. As the only English official present, he had to keep up the illusion that he was in decisive control. In truth, his fear of losing face robbed him of control: he could only do what was expected of him. This was imperialism's real evil: it enslaved everyone alike. Orwell's horrifically vivid account of the elephant's death – shot in the head and slumping drooling to its knees, wondering what hit it – underlines the system's prevailing brutality.

My favourite Orwell essay is "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad", written in April 1946. It starts with toads emerging from underground hibernation into the rains of spring. Their long starvation gives them a "spiritual look", and their eyes have a beautiful colour which Orwell compares to "the golden-coloured semi-precious stone" in signet-rings, "which I think is called a chrysoberyl". Revived by water, they look for mates. Having mated and spawned, they make new toadlets which emerge from the water to start all over again.

What? asks Orwell suddenly. Am I not supposed to pay attention to this kind of thing? He pictures armies of critics scolding him for not sticking to useful topics like poverty, post-war hardship and socialist state-building. But all that means nothing, he says, if humans cannot take pleasure in "the actual process of life".

"The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it."

And, we might add, it is partly because we have writers such as Orwell, who keep watch on the true chrysoberyl flash of life and capture it so precisely and beautifully in words.

Sarah Bakewell's 'How to Live: A Life of Montaigne' is published by Chatto & Windus