First Editions Re-covered: Shaun Tan on Animal Farm

Ahead of our fundraising auction at Sotheby's, Shaun Tan tells us the story behind his choice of classic novel. The work will be on display at Sotheby's as one of 33 original book-jacket creations by leading contemporary artists.

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Some animals are more equal than others

My own choice was Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945), a book that has had an immense influence on my imagination as a writer and illustrator. To refresh, it tells the story of Manor farm, where the animals revolt and take over, only to come undone by their own internal politics. One pig in particular, the cunning Napoleon, proves wonderfully adept and dividing the group, fermenting fear, blaming foreigners and revising historical facts. Sound familiar?

When House of Illustration located a rare first edition and sent to to me, I was amazed at how small and unassuming it was, a tiny book bound in green cloth. Small enough, I thought, to not only fit inside a dust-jacket, but a sculptural shrine of some sort. The idea of a piggy-bank for a valuable book came almost immediately, and then raised the question: what makes a book – essentially worthless printed paper – so valuable? Of course, it's the quiet truth it radiates, the very ability to undermine questions of value. Here is the statement written on the inner jacket about why this book is important to me.

I first came across Animal Farm by accident: our mother read it to my brother and I, then about 7 and 8(!), thinking it was just another children’s book. She wanted to stop, but we begged her to continue, all the way to the bleak and strange ending. What was it about? As kids, the answer was clear: schoolyard politics in suburban West Australian. Animal Farm remains the book with the deepest subconscious influence on my own work as a storyteller, the absurd fantasy that tells us basic truths about human nature, regardless of time, place or political colour.

Originally published on Shaun Tan's blog.

First Editions: Re-covered is a fundraising auction taking place at Sotheby's. Find out more, including details on the free exhibition.