George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is, at this moment, the best-selling book of any genre at Amazon.com—quite a feat for any novel, let alone one published 67 years ago. The resurgence of interest in Orwell’s dystopian portrait of an authoritarian society in which facts have been eliminated is credited to an interview on Meet the Press on Sunday, in which the presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd that administration claims about inauguration attendees weren’t falsehoods but “alternative facts.” Many responded on social media by calling Conway’s statement “Orwellian,” and a deliberate attempt to undermine verifiable truths that didn’t fit the narrative the Trump administration wanted to spin.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, which warns against the tyranny of government propaganda and historical revisionism, seems to be a fitting novel to read in this moment, if not an entirely escapist one. But it isn’t the only book enjoying a revival in the current political climate. Works by Hannah Arendt, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck have seen a measurable boost in both sales and the public interest over the last 12 months. Despite the fact that the new president seems less interested in literature than his predecessor, many people seem to have faith that reading is the best way to understand him, his voters, and his administration.
Nineteen Eighty-Four’s recent spike has been notable, but the novel has perpetually hovered on the bestseller list, featuring in the top 100 of Amazon’s most-ordered books for the last three years (in the last 24 hours, it’s jumped from around #91 to #56 on the list of books purchased on Amazon in 2017). For other works, though, their rise in popularity seems more directly linked to the emergence of Trump as a political leader. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel about the rise of an authoritarian fascist leader in the U.S., is currently the 26th most-purchased book on Amazon, and its spike on Google Trends corresponds with the U.S. presidential election on November 8.
John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, a 1961 novel about a Long Islander grocery-store clerk who resolves to abandon personal ethics to increase his wealth and status, has also seen boosts in interest that correlate to Trump’s de facto victory in the Republican presidential race in May, the Republican National Convention in July, and the election in November.
If the links between the events of the recent year and Steinbeck’s last book don’t seem entirely clear, The Atlantic’s review, published in 1961, is illuminating: “What is genuine, familiar, and identifiable [about the book] is the way Americans beat the game: the land-taking before the airport is built, the quick bucks, the plagiarism, the abuse of trust, the near theft, which, if it succeeds, can be glossed over—these are the guilts with which Ethan will have to live in his coming prosperity, and one wonders how happily.”
It isn’t just works of fiction being sought out by curious readers. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, published in June 2016, quickly became a best-seller among people hoping for insight about rural American voters. The book was Amazon’s 17th-most purchased last year, and currently sits at #3 on the top 100. But an older book has also spiked in interest recently: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Published in 1951, it explores the rise of fascist authoritarian governments in Europe over the past two centuries, and how regimes employ racism and propaganda to gain power. Dan Weiss, a bookseller in San Francisco, told KQED that customers recommended the book for its insight into current events in America, and that since he put in an order for new copies, they’ve been “flying off the shelves.” In the week leading up to Christmas, according to data sourced by KQED, the book was selling 16 times more copies than usual, confirmed by a spike on Google Trends.
Obviously, no book is a perfect analogy for the complex events playing out in American politics and around the world. But for readers, historical works can offer insight into recurring societal trends, as well as reassurance that this moment isn’t unprecedented. As Barack Obama told The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani at the end of his presidency, books are “useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and [as] a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.”
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