Law and Conversation

November 1, 2010

Read This: George Orwell’s Wigan Pier, Michael Pollan’s In Defense Of Food

Remember learning about coal mining and other natural resources back in grade school social studies?

Pretty boring, wasn’t it?  Sadly, that’s what I remember best:  how deadly dull social studies was.  I retained the difference between anthracite and bitumen, and not much else.

Now I realize WHY my grade school social studies texts and classes were so dull: we didn’t get to read very many stories.

Stories make everything and everyone more interesting.  Think something (like coal mining) is really dull?  It doesn’t have to be.  Tell a story about it, and the subject will come alive.  Same with any person:  Nobody is really dull.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Told in the right way, everyone’s story is interesting.

Any teacher wanting students to pay attention to and learn about industry, labor, or coal mining should include George Orwell’s “The Road To Wigan Pier,” reportage from the town of Wigan and other industrial communities in the north of England in the 1930s.  Why?  Because Orwell tells great stories about the daily life and work of coal miners that capture the attention and stay in the memory of any reader.

In the first part of the book, Orwell describes the work of coal miners in great detail, beginning with traveling a mile or two or three underground, stooped or on hands and knees, just to get from the pit bottom to the coal face.  In Orwell’s day, that miserable journey was all unpaid: only once the miners got to the coal face, where the work of hacking the coal out of the seams began, did their 7-1/2 hours of paid labor begin.  After describing the latter in equal detail, Orwell says “At a pinch I could be a tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate farm-hand.  But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner; the work would kill me in a few weeks.”

Orwell’s description of the miners’ deplorable living conditions and the myths about working class people with which he, a member of the upper class, grew up with, is equally fascinating.  His discussion of class attitudes and welfare is as current today as it was when it was published in 1937, as is his observation that, necessary though coal was to all human endeavors in his day, most would prefer to forget about the conditions under which those doing the work of producing it lived and worked.  And when he notes the irony that “a luxury [such as cheap sweets] is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity [such as a square meal],” and reviews the dreadful diets of most of the 1930s English working class, he seems to anticipate Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.”

In telling stories about what he observed in Wigan and elsewhere, Orwell brings coal mining to life in a way that no recitation of facts or statistics possibly can.

Have you ever heard a story that made you realize that something or someone was far more interesting than you’d originally thought?


  1. The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss brought alive the Whiskey Rebellion in ways never communicated during any of my school years.

    Comment by Bryan — November 2, 2010 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

    • Bryan, thanks for that good example of American history that I never learned much about in school, either. Great to have your recommendation for David Liss’s book!

      Comment by helengunnar — November 2, 2010 @ 2:46 pm | Reply

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