Orwell's 1984 sixty years on

The classic was published on 8 June 1949 – and has had a deep impact on millions. Andrew Johnson talks to writers about it – and asks them to cite their favourite reads

Friday 18 April 2014 05:58

Robert Harris 1984, George Orwell

1984, I think, is the most influential book ever written, and so you could say the greatest book ever written. I remember reading it as a teenager and being completely enthralled by it. It made political ideas exciting – it highlighted the way human nature can impose itself on politics. When I read it recently (to write the foreward to the anniversary edition) I was struck by the simplicity of the prose. The book lacks any artifice. Serious literature today is so much about the self. Orwell's prose is not trying to show off, but trying to stand out of the way so that the ideas are much stronger. Orwell turned political ideas into a work of art that's transcendent, even after 60 years.

Alexei Sayle Animal Farm, George Orwell

I find 1984 a very upsetting book. It's a very unsettling story, the story of Winston Smith itself is very sad and hopeless. Being the child of communist Stalinists I felt personally responsible for his predicament. Both my parents were Stalinists and I kind of went along. If you believed in that kind of ideology it was kind of aimed at you. It does shape you if you do believe in that stuff. A more profound influence on me was Orwell's Animal Farm because I thought: "This is me and my family." It's very poignant, particularly the horse, Boxer, when he realises he's being taken to the knacker's yard and tries to kick out the doors of the van, but he hasn't the strength. It's heart-breaking.

Philip Pullman The Bible

1984 set a climate of opinion on the way we regard totalitarian states and ideas about language. If we reduce the words available your capacity for thinking is reduced. It is a very important novel, but is it of the same rank as Bleak House, or Middlemarch? I'm not sure.

The most influential book for me is the Bible. That was all around me when I was a child and I absorbed the stories of the Old and New Testaments at a very early age. They are part of how I think and feel. I don't believe they are the word of God. As a literary work it has great poetry, dramatic stories, myths – and it's the work of so many different hands, too.

Joanne Harris Wuthering Heights, Emily BrontË

I studied 1984 at school, and revisited it a couple of years ago. When I read it recently I was much more struck by the doomed relationship between Winston and Julia. They have no means of having a relationship, and nothing in common except the circumstances that have brought them together. It's a milestone book, but I'm not sure that it influenced me. Wuthering Heights was a book I really loved. I was obsessed by it at 15 or 16. I reread it recently and it stood up so well. There were things I picked up on that I hadn't seen before. At 16, I saw the love story between Cathy and Heathcliff, but the bigger love story is with the environment. Her descriptions of the Yorkshire moors are the ultimate love story.

Ruth Rendell Complete works of Shakespeare

I don't think people believed 1984 would ever happen, and it hasn't really. We don't have Room 101 with white rats. Animal Farm did show people that totalitarianism was a reality. Animal Farm made me much more aware of how the world could be, and it is full of great truths. The book that influenced me most was The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I've always read Shakespeare and I still read him. It would be the book I'd miss most. I love his poetry of course, but also his understanding of human nature, which never ceases to amaze.

Andrew Motion The Prelude, Wordsworth

1984 never weighed very heavily with me, less than George Orwell's essays, which I kept on my bedside table as a teenager. The Prelude by Wordsworth was there too, the 1805 version, and that's still beside me now – one of the poems that made me a poet, by showing the nobility and power of little local things.

Deborah Moggach To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

I read 1984 so long ago that I can't remember anything about it. It's not so much the books that are influential, but when you read them. One is very permeable and open to experience as an adolescent. DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf were influential, partly because they were great modernists and rebels. I remember, on page two of To the Lighthouse, Woolf describes poplar leaves as "whitening before rain". I thought "what a wonderful sentence" because I didn't think anyone in the world had noticed that – I didn't think I'd noticed it until I read it.

Will Self Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand CÉline

1984 is an alternative-world book, and I write alternative-world books. It's an alternative London book. I think the success of his parallel world is where its appeal lies. So, the Chestnut Tree café was modelled on a café in South End Green. It's a bricolage of London in 1948. I wouldn't say it's in the top 10 that have influenced me as a writer, but it's probably in the top 20 or 30.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night had a great influence. He wrote, not about reality, but the hallucination reality provokes. I took that as a motto for my work. It liberated my thinking.

Lisa Jardine Catch-22, Joseph Heller

1984 did influence me. We all had to do it at school. But it wasn't a formative influence. Catch-22 had a much greater impact. I was an anti-Vietnam War twentysomething and it caught a mood and energy. It gave an understanding of the relationship between passionate commitment and bodily failings. It was much more intense for me than 1984. I thought that was far too analytical.

Ann Widdecombe Who moved the stone, Frank Morison

I wouldn't call 1984 the most influential book I've read, but it's an influential book. Its lessons haven't been learnt. It was saying we're all subject to state surveillance and we now have state surveillance bigger than George Orwell could have dreamed of. Even he didn't come up with microchips in wheelie-bins.

Who Moved the Stone?, which I read when I was 14, is the most influential book I've ever read. It's an examination of the resurrection. I found it very convincing and easy to understand and it made a lot of the minor characters in the Gospels come to life. I was already religious-leaning, but I think it convinced me.

Jenny Colgan How to win friends and influence people, Dale Carnegie

1984 is, along with Lord of the Flies, one of the most horrible set school books there is. It's the education system saying, "Right, you 'orrible lot, you may think life is all Blyton and Follyfoot, but we're here to tell you it is absolutely horrible and can only get worse." We did it for O-Grade [in Scotland], and it has a lasting effect on me even now, which shows the power of its ruthlessly simple language that heightens the dystopian horror. But the book that actually had the greatest influence on me is highly embarrassing. By mistake, aged 11, I borrowed Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. I realised self-consciousness, while an unavoidable part of adolescence, isn't really necessary, but good manners always help. It's helped me immeasurably in life. I think everyone should read it.

Terry Pratchett The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

Orwell was ruined for me by being a set text. The Wind in the Willows had, by far, the most influence. People think of it as a children's book, but that's not all it is. What seared my imagination was its surrealism. The rat, the mole and badger could talk, but they could also change size: a badger could crawl down a rat hole, a toad could drive a car. At nine or 10 that fascinated me and that made a deep impression on my career.

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