Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography

Rate this book
From the author of the definitive biography of George Orwell, a captivating account of the origin and enduring power of his landmark dystopian novel 

Since its publication nearly 70 years ago, George Orwell’s 1984 has been regarded as one of the most influential novels of the modern age. Politicians have testified to its influence on their intellectual identities, rock musicians have made records about it, TV viewers watch a reality show named for it, and a White House spokesperson tells of “alternative facts.” The world we live in is often described as an Orwellian one, awash in inescapable surveillance and invasions of privacy. 

On 1984 dives deep into Orwell’s life to chart his earlier writings and key moments in his youth, such as his years at a boarding school, whose strict and charismatic headmaster shaped the idea of Big Brother. Taylor tells the story of the writing of the book, taking readers to the Scottish island of Jura, where Orwell, newly famous thanks to Animal Farm but coping with personal tragedy and rapidly declining health, struggled to finish 1984 . Published during the cold war—a term Orwell coined—Taylor elucidates the environmental influences on the book. Then he examines 1984 ’s post-publication life, including its role as a tool to understand our language, politics, and government.

In a current climate where truth, surveillance, censorship, and critical thinking are contentious, Orwell’s work is necessary. Written with resonant and reflective analysis, On 1984 is both brilliant and remarkably timely. 

256 pages, Hardcover

First published October 15, 2019

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

D.J. Taylor

67 books80 followers
David John Taylor (born 1960) is a critic, novelist and biographer. After attending school in Norwich, he read Modern History at St John's College, Oxford, and has received the 2003 Whitbread Biography Award for his life of George Orwell.

He lives in Norwich and contributes to The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman and The Spectator among other publications.

He is married to the novelist Rachel Hore, and together they have three sons.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
25 (20%)
4 stars
57 (45%)
3 stars
29 (23%)
2 stars
11 (8%)
1 star
3 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 29 of 29 reviews
Profile Image for Meike.
1,511 reviews2,444 followers
July 12, 2019
It feels like "1984" is becoming more relevant by the day, so there is no denying that a comprehensive study of Orwell's dystopian classic in relation to our current state of affairs is a worthwhile endeavor - this book sets out to do just that, but does not quite reach its goal. Author D.J. Taylor has already published a biography about Orwell, so in large parts of this book, he also recapitulates the author's life and how his experiences influenced the making of "1984": Born in 1903, Orwell saw two world wars, served in the Indian Imperial Police, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and witnessed the rise of communism in East Europe. He was also a widower and single parent, suffered from tuberculosis for over ten years and died less than a year after the publication of his most famous book. While Taylor's language is not exactly riveting, these aspects are certainly informative.

There are also some interesting remarks about "1984" and pop culture, but frankly, the reason why I picked up the book - and why probably most people will pick up the book - are the political implications of Orwell's story. And to say it directly: Trump, Brexit et al. hardly feature, and when they do, the analysis is sloppy at best and plain wrong at worst. Let me give you an example: Taylor argues that Trump does have qualities of "bygone Fascist leaders", but that he lacks "the authenticating mark of any self-respecting authoritarian regime: the ability of its leader to control his executive. In place of some self-sustaining cadre with an almost mythological belief in its own virtue and the destiny it is divinely appointed to fulfil, there is only opportunism, expediency, backbiting, and chaos." Apart from the fact that Trump as a person cannot be a regime (editor, anyone?), I hope someone will explain to the author - who according to his bio read Modern History! - what the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is and how those concepts relate fo fascism, because Taylor's argument makes it seem as if he doesn't know.

Unfortunately, this superficial outlook is a staple when it comes to political analysis - we hear a lot about Hitler and even more about communism, but there is no stringent argument although Orwell's book works with a very clear and consistent narrative concept centered on the effects of all totalitarian ideology. The same goes for the analysis of Orwell's use of language: After reading "1984", it is pretty remarkable that Taylor comes to the conclusion that Kellyanne Conway "has no idea of how language works" - methinks "1984" argues that people like Conway know exactly how language works which is why they abuse it so effectively: Language is a means to communicate, it is not good or bad, but the intentions of the speaker make it so, e.g. if words are used to manipulate and control people. Plus I've also encountered my pet peeve, an author throwing around broad terms like "the left", "the right", "socialism" and "conservatism" without really defining them in the concrete context. *sigh*

So all in all, this book is a mixed bag: It somehow reads as if written in a hurry, and more careful editing and revising certainly would have helped the end product. Still, Taylor is very knowledgeable about Orwell, and his explanations in this regard helped my understanding of the timeless masterpiece that is "1984".
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books228 followers
January 31, 2022
One has to be very interested in Orwell and the novel 1984 to get through this minutely-detailed short book. It was a bit too much for this casual reader.

However, I never knew that the novel 1984 was promoted by the right wing (and criticized by communists) because it was first seen as a critique of socialism. When I read the book I just saw it as a critique of authoritarianism of all stripes. The use of language and propaganda is also relevant and increasingly so.

The short chapter at the end, on the post-truth world, could have made a much more interesting book. You see, today, we don’t need Winston erasing history and rewriting the news to match the current official version— now people believe whatever they want and use social media to reinforce themselves and ignore the rest. That is post truth, because truth is irrelevant.

And the surveillance state? Also irrelevant — people buy the latest device for state surveillance and voluntarily always carry it with them. People say they are glad 1984 never came true, but in some ways it is worse than what Orwell could imagine.
Profile Image for Cammie.
360 reviews10 followers
February 12, 2020
Since I teach and LOVE Orwell's 1984, this book immediately caught my attention. For all intents and purposes, this is a biography of a book as well as a biography of George Orwell somewhat. To know Orwell's mind and state of health before and during the writing of his final novel is absolutely amazing. I am fairly familiar with the world events that led to Orwell's writings; however, to have all the references in one book is such a great resource. I will be reading this one again to glean as much as possible from it. And now I cannot wait to teach 1984 this semester!
Profile Image for Jay French.
2,041 reviews74 followers
May 17, 2020
The story of a book like 1984 begins with the story of its author. “On 1984” describes the life of Orwell, from birth to death, including many of the events that shaped his thoughts and writing. Orwell’s biography fills at least a half of this book. The remainder covers some analysis of the book and a history of the book, subsequent films and other media, and its impact on society. I found the author biography to be most interesting, to learn of Orwell’s previous writings and his time in Spain.
Profile Image for Mark.
210 reviews2 followers
December 21, 2019
This is a thoughtful recap of everything that went into George Orwell writing his infamous novel "1984". Even though the author uses "authoritarianism" and "totalitarianism" interchangeably the book mostly zips along fairly well. It is a bit thick with the verbiage, but the author does a fine balancing act of showing Orwell's influences (Jack London, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells), his life experiences that are used in "1984", and the process of penning the book. Several similarities between Orwell's life and "1984" become clear through the case that Taylor lays out. The countryside he grew up in and people he knew are just two examples of personal history that Orwell infuses into "1984". I'm sure this topic has been done by other biographers, but Taylor is clearly comfortable writing about Orwell. I was set on giving this a very good rating until the final chapters when Taylor talks about Bush and Trump. Taylor tries to talk about "Orwellian" examples in present day life. It is perfectly fine to critique an administration that you don't agree and then proceed to lay out your case of said "Orwellian" behavior. But you know what is truly Orwellian? A self-righteous author who does not have the gall to critique the Obama administration. You can't pick and choose what is "Orwellian" and what isn't based on partisan beliefs. You can't tell your readers that the two Republican presidents of the 21st century showcase far more examples of "Orwellian" activity than the Obama administration. Even one sentence about the exposed surveillance apparatus that Snowden unveiled DURING the Obama administration would've been sufficient. That's more Orwellian than pretty much anything in recent history. It's a glaring omission on an otherwise fine read.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,628 reviews326 followers
Want to read
October 19, 2019
Nice review at the WSJ: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-mini... (Paywalled. As always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers)
Excerpt: "D.J. Taylor’s “On Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the brisker and more focused volume, and a better choice for those wishing to read about Orwell’s novel rather than around it. Mr. Taylor, a novelist, critic and biographer, more ably balances the cultural footprint of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” with the story of its writing. The definitive account of Orwell’s life—his work as an imperial policeman in Burma; time spent tramping among the poor; the death of his idealism as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War; and his late-blooming literary success—is that of Bernard Crick (1980). But Mr. Taylor here covers the highlights, giving both an overview of Orwell’s career and a survey of his greatest literary achievement.

The Tehran Conference of 1943 supplied the germ of an idea for “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Here were Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin beginning to divide up the world into postwar spheres of influence. In Orwell’s imagination these three zones became Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. His notebooks show that he built the novel around political themes rather than characters or story lines. Leader-worship, the death of objective truth, the falsification of records and a utilitarian compressed language called Newspeak: all appeared as the foundations of a world characterized by propaganda and fear. . . .

. . . [Orwell] chose decency over partisan dogma. He made a habit of facing unpleasant facts. And if he abhorred one thing above all others in public life or in literature, it was lies. These two books are valuable in their own right, but their greatest service may be to send readers back to the source material. Not that Orwell needs a publicist. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is said to have sold 40 million copies." Wow. I should reread "1984." It's been many, many years . . .
Profile Image for David.
1,630 reviews105 followers
December 9, 2020
No matter how many times I re-read the novel 1984, or watch the movie that is based on it, I seem to always get something new out of it. Lately people have been seeing aspects of the ten future society happening all around us today. Whether you are politically left or right (or in the so-called middle), many see something that they see as warnings about the other side taking over and controlling the population. I have often wanted to learn more about the background that led George Orwell to write 1984 but have mostly been too busy (lazy) to do any research into it. Then I stumbled onto On Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Story of George Orwell’s Masterpiece by D.J. Taylor and found everything I wanted to know about 1984 but was too lazy to ask. The author discusses the events and people on George Orwell's life that influenced the writing of his masterpiece, from the headmaster at a boarding school he attended being the inspiration for Big Brother as well as other political and environmental influences for various key aspects of the storyline. He also highlights ideas and words that have found their way into our languages today such as alternative facts and overarching surveillance and control of the population as well as government use of media to propagandize to the citizens to control every aspect of their lives. A definite recommendation to fans of Orwell and 1984!
Profile Image for Linda Bond.
429 reviews7 followers
October 22, 2019
Very few books are so important that they deserve a “biography.” In the case of 1984, however, it is totally understandable. Most of us experienced the cold war with this book in hand and on our minds. Just how far would a government go to control its people? What if we were told the information we believed as fake and we must be set straight by those in the know – the government spokesmen? It sounded a bit far-fetched at the time of it’s release but as the years have gone by, more and more people are taking its warnings seriously. To learn the history of its writing and the struggle that George Orwell experienced in his personal life including bad health, this will be the go-to book for your library shelves. Enjoy the journey!

I met this book at Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, WA
Profile Image for BookTrib.com .
1,582 reviews135 followers
October 15, 2019
Since its publication 70 years ago, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been regarded as one of the most significant novels of the modern age. It has influenced everyone from politicians to musicians, just as a White House spokesperson tells of “alternative facts.” The world we live in is often described as an Orwellian one, awash in inescapable surveillance and invasions of privacy.

D.J. Taylor is an award-winning author for his definitive biography of George Orwell. Now, in On Nineteen Eighty-Four (Abrams Press), he provides a comprehensive, captivating account of the origin and enduring power of this landmark dystopian novel. He delves deep into Orwell’s formative years to chart the novel’s origins and the real-life moments that helped to frame the novel’s distinctive authoritarian landscape.

Of the book’s first reviews in 1949, Taylor writes, “Terror. Fascination. Plausibility. Humanity’s heritage in peril…As the summer went on, and copies of the book began to be distributed around continental Europe and in the debatable lands beyond it, these rivulets of appropriation built into a tidal wave, the harbinger of an all-around media storm to which Orwell…was not immune.”

Taylor takes readers to the Scottish island of Jura where Orwell, coping with personal tragedy and rapidly declining health, struggled to finish writing the book. It was the dawn of the Cold War – a term Orwell coined – and Taylor elucidates the environment in which the novel was published. Then he examines Nineteen Eighty-Four’s legacy, including its impact on language and its role as a tool to understand our politics.

The rest of the review: https://booktrib.com/2019/10/definiti...
Profile Image for Rebecca L..
Author 4 books42 followers
August 26, 2019
Big brother is watching.

George Orwell's chilling dystopian novel entitled 1984 (an inversion of the year it was written), is an iconic book that has served as a warning for my generation. Orwell warns us that if power is left to run unchecked, the terrifying realm of the not-so-distant future he depicts is in his novel is an all to plausible possibility.

In a world where technology has become more and more invasive, Orwell's work is as pertinent now as it was when he originally penned his novel. But what inspired Orwell to write 1984? And how was it received? In this concise and erudite biography of a book, Taylor places 1984 in it's cultural context and explores the influences that inspired Orwell to write this novel. He also examines how the book continues to remain pertinent in today's world.

The perfect book who anyone who has ever worried if big brother is watching (he totally is) or who is concerned about the balance of power in today's world. Just don't let big brother catch you reading it.
84 reviews
Shelved as 'might-read'
January 18, 2022
SFBR.4 : George Orwell’s 1984 is a book often used by politicians and pundits on both the left and right to score political points during debates, though it is doubtful many people have read it all the way through that claim they have, or if they truly know the author at all and how it came about. This book looks at how Orwell came about with coming up with one of his greatest works, and how he was unable to control its future since he died shortly after its publication, and how the work has had a life of its own ever since. Orwell could not be claimed to be a successful author, he was one of many authors who had to hold a full-time job while writing on the side, something that he struggled at. He seemingly did not care about politics until he was in Spain during its civil war in the 1930s, though many other artists and journalists also served and covered Spain during that time. Many things might remain unknown, including how much influence serving in one of England’s colonies had on the book, but this is an excellent start.
Profile Image for TheBookMaven.
484 reviews8 followers
October 18, 2019
George Orwell, the British author famous for coining the now ubiquitous terms, “Big Brother is Watching,” and “The Cold War,” in his novel, “1984,” was a brilliant, but increasingly unhealthy and relatively unambitious young man, reports Author D.J. Taylor, in “On Nineteen Eighty-four:” ‘Orwell, The Man and the Masterpiece.’”

We learn that Orwell channelled his early life experiences, that shaped both his political and personal views, into the decades enduring and generational defining creative masterwork that we know as “1984.”

Tragically, we also discover through Taylor’s research primer of both man and literature, that the eponymous Orwellian, that future decades of post-apocalyptic references will attribute, died shortly after “1984,” was published as a national and international bestseller.

Orwell’s death from long-term pulmonary complications did not allow him to enjoy the fame and accolades as a writer that he pessimistically thought he would never attain.

In this fascinating biography on George Orwell and his novel, “1984,” D.J. Taylor demonstrates Orwell’s keen insights and prescience of the unfolding dystopian future of his native Britain’s, and the surrounding and evolving world’s politics, immediately following WWII.

As well exemplified in “On Nineteen Eighty-four,” Taylor logically presents thorough expository research on all subjects; elegant descriptive details of persons, places and literary works; and persuasive reasoning throughout this autobiography of how George Orwell’s life and experiences influenced the creation of his last and most remembered work—“1984.”

Taylor successfully utilizes multiple literary styles to present this engagingly readable and easily digestible literary reference. For me, D.J. Taylor sets a new standard baseline criteria for literary and reference book writing—BRAVA!

Let’s keep research filled with facts; however, presented cogently, succinctly and in a lively writing style that engages all readers!
Profile Image for Pat Rolston.
320 reviews15 followers
January 9, 2020
There is so much to learn from the classic 1984 publication by Orwell that is timeless. The opportunity to dive deeper into the author’s life and his incredible work by means of this analysis is most enjoyable. There are many facets to Orwell’s life and the story of his best known work that serve to enlighten while entertaining. This is highly recommended for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of not just the past, but also the present.
Profile Image for Lizbeth.
523 reviews16 followers
April 27, 2020
I received an advanced digital copy of this book from the author, Abrams Press and Netgalley.com. Thanks to all for the opportunity to read and review. The opinions expressed in this review are my own.

'On 1984' is a well researched and written look into the novel and the influences it was written under and of it's author, to a lesser extent. A "book biography" that gives deeper insight into this classic and why it is still so compelling today.

5 out of 5 stars. Recommended reading.
Profile Image for Joshua.
191 reviews
November 17, 2021
I feel like the author wanted to write a book about the social impact of 1984 today and built a book around it. Yes, the history of the writing of the novel is important, but as the author notes, many other books cover Orwell's life,and many other books offer literary critique of 1984 and his other novels. The only truly unique part of this book was a dissection of the Trumpian "alternative facts" and a well thought-out comparison between Orwell's predictions and the facts of life in 2019.
Profile Image for Will.
1,499 reviews49 followers
December 30, 2021
A biography of Orwell's 1984, divided into three parts; before, during, and after the writing of the book. It provides some interesting background on Orwell's life, and some of the impacts of the book, though it feels a bit short. I wish there was more discussion on the literary impacts of the book as well, this is glossed over even though there is a longer discussion of 1984's impacts on music, which is a bit odd.
Profile Image for Holly.
33 reviews5 followers
September 30, 2019
With a resurgence in sales of the novel 1984, this book comes at a good time. I felt this book was on point but I found you would have needed to know more about George Orwell's other works besides Animal Farm. At points it was a bit more scholarly in nature than I would have liked but I thought it was very interesting to read how 1984 came into existence and circumstances that influenced the work. You don't get a glimpse into certain works very often and this was quite an interesting story.
January 17, 2020
A great “biography” of Orwell’s “1984” including an attempt to put the dystopian classic into its time and provide a literacy criticism of its legacy. It is not as detailed as Dorian Lynskey’s “The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984” but it tells the story of the novel and Orwell’s attempt to get to publish despite it killed him. Well researched and engaging.
Profile Image for Laurence.
924 reviews22 followers
October 11, 2021
Concise history of the influences and legacy of 1984. Well written and easily digested. It also shows some of the links between Orwell's work culminating in 1984.

I may need to give We by Zamyatin another try as the ideas could be worthwhile even if the writing style leaves something to be desired.
38 reviews
March 3, 2020
An interest read to a biography of a book

Hard to read a biography on 1984 and not get into politics. Rather a little less on its influence on today and modern music and more on its time and what influenced the book.
Profile Image for Daneel Lynn.
905 reviews59 followers
July 14, 2021
這本書的傳主是《一九八四》,所有內容幾乎就圍繞在這個主題。從 Orwell 生平、創作脈絡、成書過程,一直到當時與後代的影響與評價,都是讓讀者更直接了解《一九八四》的陳述。

這種書的「真正讀法」是要自行驗證史料和作者論點是否真確;只是我很混,基本上就直接認可當故事看了事。作者試圖在《一九八四》的評價上找出一個較為中庸的觀點;衍生作品則擴及文學、影視乃至音樂。可惜 Terry Gilliam 的 Brazil 只提到兩行。

Profile Image for Janet.
806 reviews31 followers
November 21, 2019
This book was a bit of a history journey about a popular book of our times. A true insight for modern times we live in today. 1984 by George Orwell . This book was a Goodreads giveaway.
Profile Image for Meg (fairy.bookmother).
328 reviews47 followers
January 4, 2020
How do you write a book about 1984 and include stuff about Trump but literally no mention of Assange, Snowden, Wikileaks, or anything else?
552 reviews21 followers
December 2, 2020
Our man Orwell is not only a man of talent, but of resolute grit. Writing 1984 in the throes of tb was just one of several moving scenes in a life of difficulty that are highlighted in this book.
Profile Image for Tom Barmaryam.
160 reviews3 followers
July 9, 2022
The book begins on a good note and ends as a polemic against conservatives and everything right wing. Now a book of this nature need to maintain balance which this book fails to achieve. Just a bla
Profile Image for David.
1,298 reviews24 followers
December 22, 2019
Quite interesting and timely, given current political climate in USA.

Taylor's approach is even-handed. He recognizes that both the American left wing and the right wing can find some reasons to claim Orwell (although I'd say that clearly the advantage goes to the conservatives, even though Taylor is no fan of Trump).

Lots of material and sources here to inspire further reading . . . as in "Assignment in Utopia," by Eugene Lyons, which opened Orwell's eyes to the reality of 1930s Russia (and which I'm reading now).
Displaying 1 - 29 of 29 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.