Animal Farm (1945) - by George Orwell
I first read Orwell's brilliant novella in school, and it's one of those resonant stories that stayed with me over the years, particularly because I began to recognise the elements of the real world that had been incorporated into it. Ostensibly it tells the story of a group of animals on a farm who become fed up of being subservient to their human masters and revolt. They set up a utopian socialist society where the animals are free and share in the farm's wealth. Everything is rosy at first, but things slowly start to change as the pigs, their de facto leaders, slowly and insidiously change the rules in their favour, accumulating wealth and power at the expense of the other animals.
The story is short, running at less than a hundred pages, and is very straightforward in its telling; as an allegory of the Soviet Union under Stalin, it's thinly veiled. Its elegance comes from its simple, matter of fact prose and from the fact that what it describes is completely true. The inexorable shift in the balance of power and the disingenuous justifications, hollow rhetoric, and threat of force that the pigs use to keep the rest in check are all the hallmarks of tyrants that have been witnessed in the real world throughout history.
If the pigs represent the ruling classes in the microcosm of society that is Animal Farm, the other animals represent the other social groups within that society, from the hard working, unquestioningly loyal simpletons to the blind, loud, and devout sheep-like followers (literally sheep in the story), to the intelligent but indifferent or powerless. At every stage the pigs have a strategy to explain their actions and to silence the critics, and over time the animals' lives become miserable. But as their misery becomes the status quo, many continue to believe the lie that life is better simply because they are free of the tyrannical humans, being completely oblivious to the fact that they have traded in one master for another.
Ultimately, the book chronicles the way in which a revolution with the best of intentions and beginnings can be subverted by totalitarianism and fascism and leave the people (err, animals) even worse off than before, and it demonstrates convincingly how those in power get away with it. Despite being superficially simple, the book really whittles down these societal realities to their core. It doesn't have much in the way of plot or characters, nor does it need to; built purely on ideas, 'Animal Farm' is a quick and unforgettable read and an absolute classic.