Danielle's Reviews > Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
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's review
Aug 15, 2009

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bookshelves: non-fiction, classics-recommended-reading, danielle-recommends
Read in September, 2009

I need to limit myself to one or two depressing books a year. On the plus side, they make me hyper-aware of my blessings. On the downside...oh yeah, they're really depressing.
So, in this non-fiction book, Orwell just tells about his experiences living in Paris and London around 1910 (or maybe a little later) and trying to find work, and not being able to, and living on pennies a day, and then pawning all his clothes, and then running out of money and starving (literally going without food for days at a time. I would not have thought that kind of destitution possible), and then getting a job as a dishwasher, but having to work 17 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, in horrible, unsanitary conditions, with poor, sick people who had no hope of anything better...you get the idea. It was depressing.
When he comes back to London he lives as a tramp for a few months (or weeks...it was hard to tell), expounding on the specific charitable houses, and laws that compelled tramps to keep moving in order to get charity and other things that were timely and are less pertinent now. Well, at least I hope so. I haven't checked to see whether London still has a law against people sleeping outside, or sitting down on the streets. Anyway, even with information so dated as to be considered "historical," it was still pertinent. Homelessness will always be a problem in industrialized societies, and the solutions, or lack thereof, which Orwell encountered during his experience are good to think about.
I read Nickel and Dimed not too long ago, which is a modern take on the same subject, and it was interesting how both authors said emphatically that poor people are not poor because they're lazy. They work harder in every sense of the word than the upper-classes, and they do it on less sleep, less food, and less general comforts than the rest of us. Orwell is pretty unsentimental about the whole thing, but he does admit to the experience having changed the way he looks at and talks about the poorest of the poor. I'm sure we could all benefit by stepping into their shoes for a little while.
This book was interesting and a quick read. It was discouraging in the way that encountering any suffering which you can't alleviate is discouraging. But, hopefully it will make me a more generous, compassionate person, and if there's a chance that it could do the same for anyone else, then I highly recommend it.

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