Fear and outrage can be “doubleplusgood” for book sales.
When Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, used the term “alternative facts” on “Meet the Press” just days after the presidential inauguration, she probably had no idea her words would send people racing to buy books, but that’s exactly what happened. Days later, sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, “1984,” first published in 1948, catapulted to number one on amazon.com’s Best Seller list, and Penguin Books reissued Sinclair Lewis’s satirical political novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” which had been out of print since the 1930s. Just weeks later, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s chilling fictional account of a post-apocalyptic world where women able to bear children are enslaved, impregnated and forced to bear babies for the ruling class, took over the number one spot on amazon’s list. Book lovers, let’s hear it for unintended consequences!
Although I’ve been fascinated, in a grim sort of way, by all three of the above-mentioned novels, I am even more interested in why the current state of affairs seems to have sparked a resurgence in popularity of such bleak visions of society. Are readers searching for parallels? Are they afraid? Do they hope we will learn from these cautionary tales? Or are they just plain outraged? I think the answer is “All of the above.”
Let’s look at “1984” as a case in point. I did a little research and discovered that 2017 is not the first time this seemingly prescient novel has shot back up to the top of the charts. For example, “1984” enjoyed a surge in sales in the 1970s, thanks to parallels readers found between it and the way the Nixon administration tried to deal with news about the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Sales spiked again in 2013, when documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency had invaded the privacy of millions of Americans by collecting data from phone records and Internet use. Today, many readers may see similar comparisons between Orwell’s portrait of Oceania, a totalitarian society, and our own world.
Here are a few possibilities:
* Oceania is in a state of constant (and unwinnable) war with either Eurasia or Eastasia (The enemy changes constantly.).
* Using “two-minute hates” and “Hate Week,” the Party (INGSOC) drums up fear and hatred against all foreigners.
* Movies show boatloads of refugees drowning or being machine-gunned.
* The government says “Whatever the Party holds to be true is truth” and Party members are required to have “…a loyal willingness to say that black is white, in contradiction of plain facts.” The Ministry of Truth practices constant historical revisionism and thought control, to the point that “…the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied….”
* Via telescreens installed in Party members’ homes, Big Brother and his minions eavesdrop on everything people do and say.
* In Oceania, there are almost no vestiges of scientific thought left. In fact, in “Newspeak,” there is no longer a word for science, and “The empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were formed, is opposed to the most fundamental principles of INGSOC.”
Of course, Orwell was writing in the late 1940s about what he called “the horrors of emotional nationalism” in order to decry the tactics of Stalin and Hitler. But “1984” and other dystopian novels may serve as a warning, or lesson, to today’s readers. Also, since it’s hard not to find similarities between Orwell’s world and our own, readers can’t help but see in “1984” reflections of their own worst fears. Unlike “It Can’t Happen Here,” which ends on a positive note, “1984” concludes after the protagonist Winston Smith has been beaten, tortured and brainwashed into submission in the cellars of the Ministry of Love, he finally declares his abject adoration of Big Brother. In short, in Orwell’s Oceania, “Resistance is futile,” as The Borg says in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Not surprisingly, as with the handmaids in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” many do not agree that it’s hopeless to fight back, which brings me to the final reason we turn to novels like “1984,” “It Can’t Happen Here” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”: outrage.
As the protests that have been mounted almost daily in the past month demonstrate, our present society does not perfectly mirror the ones these books predict. It remains to be seen how our own story will play out, how a novel written today (perhaps called “2071”) might end. But because of their powerful messages, these classics should be required reading, not only for high school and college students, but for everyone.