Major book sellers are reporting a surprising surge in sales of dystopian novels, leading some to conclude that the reading public is seeking clarity in a case of life imitating art.
George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, which introduced the concept of an omniscient leader who monitors citizens, controls “facts” and opposes free thought, has skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller list on Amazon.ca and is currently on re-order at Indigo.
And it’s hard not to draw parallels between Orwell’s totalitarian regime and the current presidential administration.
“Many of our customers see reading as an opportunity to connect with what they value, like with the passing of a beloved figure such as Nelson Mandela,” says Sebastian Hanna, category director for non-fiction at Indigo. “More abstractly, we see this with events in books that seem to capture a time and shine a light on how we are living right now.”
Donald Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” argument (that she used to explain away press secretary Sean Spicer’s unfounded claims that the recent inauguration had the largest crowds in history) is eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s “reality control.” While the travel ban and promise of “extreme vetting” bring to mind Big Brother’s continuous surveillance.
“What’s especially interesting about 1984 is that unlike biographies and political histories, it’s a work of fiction,” Hanna says. “Through analogy, extending and gathering as story the core evidences of fascism, Orwell captures individuals trapped by their systems of governance. The book has become for many the perfect expression of that oppression, and the best means of understanding it.”
Totalitarianism as a topic is currently emerging as a strong area of interest on Amazon.com. A number of book titles that use it as a central theme, including The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, are listed as bestsellers on the online giant’s website.
It bears mentioning that these books are far from new releases — the most recent is Milosz’s The Captive Mind, which was written in 1990.
It’s not unusual for the purchases of the reading public to be influenced by the current political climate in particular. According to past New York Times bestseller lists, when John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers, a book about anti-consumerism, was one of the top selling titles in the country.
Meanwhile, in 2005, as George W. Bush was entering his second term, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which pointed to climate change, globalization and poor political decisions as the demise of societies, was at the top of the list.
“We always see current events reflected in what people are writing and what people want to read,” says Kendra Martin, a publicist at Dundurn Press. “Right now, there’s a lot of interest in Leslie Shimotakahara’s upcoming book After the Bloom, which is about Japanese internment during the Second World War. That topic is on everyone’s radar because they’re seeing the tie-in with what’s happening in the United States and the increase in xenophobia. People are looking for books that speak to what’s going on.”
Looking forward, both Martin and Hanna see cultural and class disparity as trends, further shining a light on the present state of affairs. It would seem that despite bragging about not reading books, Trump may actually be bolstering their sales.