“1984,” Jason Ilagan

February 12, 2017; KQED Arts (San Francisco, CA)

Winston Smith is the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it is also the pseudonym for an anonymous donor who started buying and giving away copies of that novel through Bay Area bookstores like Point Reyes Books, Green Apple Books, and the Booksmith on Haight Street. At each, he bought copies of the iconic novel on authoritarianism and thought control. He then asked each store to put them on prominent display, but to give them away to patrons. In the Booksmith where the sign below was displayed, the fifty he bought were gone the same day.

The second “Winston Smith” is an immigrant from southern Europe whose family members were incarcerated for belonging to left-wing unions and opposing fascism. He recalls that when he read Nineteen Eighty-Four at age 14, he recognized some aspects in the book of the kind of regime described to him by his parents. Perhaps recent events have jogged memories of some of the tactics of totalitarianism—who knows? In any case, this is his method of resistance—or one of them.

“I don’t know how many [copies] I plan to buy. As many as necessary,” says Smith.

“It’s a quiet form of political engagement,” Booksmith store manager Amy Stephenson says. “It didn’t start with us, but we are happy to help in any way we can.”

This spreading of the Orwell novel has become a small movement; at least three donors have distributed at least 100 free books through at least five bookstores in at least three cities. Of course, available copies are scarce these days; the 68-year-old novel is at the top of the Amazon bestseller list, and there is a waiting list of 65 in the San Francisco library system. Penguin has just ordered a reprint of 75,000 books.—Ruth McCambridge