I’m a big fan of Rebecca Solnit’s writing about social issues (Call Them by Their True Names, Men Explain Things to Me, The Mother of All Questions) and when I read the reviews of Orwell’s Roses it sounded very different from those books. Was it really about the roses Orwell planted in his garden? As a person with a black thumb, did I want to read about gardening? But I know that for a writer like Solnit, almost anything can be a jumping-off point for insightful social commentary. The book does indeed start with the roses that Orwell planted in his garden in Wallington, England. Solnit spins off into Orwell’s life and political thought but always circles back to the meaning of roses, for Orwell and for all of us. You will be surprised and enlightened, as always, by her writing.
And then there’s Orwell’s own commitment to writing well. Solnit quotes him: “But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” Solnit writes that the passage above “has long served me as a credo…Clarity, precision, accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness are aesthetic values to him, and pleasures.”
Solnit led me to one of Orwell’s essays about writing, “Politics and the English Language,” about obfuscation and fuzzy thinking. It’s a timeless piece that every writer should read.
I borrowed a library ebook of Orwell’s Roses but decided that a hard copy was necessary so that I could re-read some of the chapters, and think about the ideas without an expiration date hovering over my enjoyment of the book. It was well worth the price.