A snippet from Apple's iconic 1984 Super Bowl Ad.

Credit: Screenshot via Yahoo TV

Post-Election Surge Of Interest In Classic Books Goes Beyond Orwell's '1984'

February 3, 2017

Perhaps it's a sign of the times that George Orwell's dystopian classic, 1984, the staple of so many high school reading lists, has jumped to No. 1 on Amazon's list of best-selling titles. It’s again become so popular that the book’s publisher, Penguin, has announced a run of tens of thousands of new copies.

I’d heard that just getting your hands on a copy of the book right now was a fool’s errand. But come on, in a literary town like this? Certainly not. So I headed to Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner, where co-owner Dana Brigham broke the bad news.

"No. We’re out of it right now," she explained.                                              

At Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Newbury Street, Lead Bookseller Holly Sulo said it’s the same deal.

"We sold out [last] weekend within one day. We got 10 new copies and it was just completely gone the next day," she said.

My luck was no better at Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square.

"We are in the negative numbers," said general manager Carol Horne. "We have people buying the book to pick it up when we can get more."

So why is a dystopian novel written 68 years ago that you probably read – or were at least assigned to read – in high school all of a sudden the most popular book in the country? In a word: Trump.

'Orwellian' has become somewhat of a buzzword for political pundits as they grapple with Donald Trump's first few weeks in office. And think pieces comparing the current political and media climate to Orwell’s imagined world of "Big Brother," “Newspeak,” and the “Thought Police” have appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to the blogosphere.  

"On the Internet, 12 people mention it and then its 12 million," said Brookline Booksmith's Dana Brigham. "It doesn’t take much to get something going."

But – at least for area booksellers – surging sales of certain brands of classic literature and non-fiction has by no means been limited to 1984.  

"When politics are terrible, it spurs lots of book sales," said Horne, who's been with Harvard Book Store for decades, and seen her fair share of tumultuous political times. 

"It is typical, but like much of what’s going on with the current day, this is also extraordinary," she said. "It’s not that they’re selling, you know, 100 times more, it’s that there are lots of books selling two, three, four, five times as many as they normally sell."

In particular, dystopian novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from 1985 and political non-fiction like Sal Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules for Radicals. And then there’s the 200-plus year-old text that’s been going gangbusters since the summer.

"The U.S. Constitution, we just cannot keep in stock," said Horne. "It’s been just selling like crazy."

This tracks with what Holly Sulo has seen at Trident Booksellers, where they have also seen in a notable bump in sales of feminist literature, old and new, including Betty Friedan's landmark 1963 work The Feminine Mystique and Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist

And at Brookline Booksmith, Brigham says Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here – about a charismatic, power-hungry fascist rising to the U.S. presidency – has also been a huge seller.

"One of our booksellers said, 'you know there’s a lot of buzz going on about the Sinclair Lewis book, should we put it on a front table?'," she recounted. "I said, 'Absolutely. Let’s do it,' and so, it’s popped."

While Trump: The the Art of the Deal has sold at all these locations, classic conservative literature – like Richard Weaver's seminal 1948 work Ideas Have Consequences, and Russell Kirk’s 1952 treatise The Conservative Mind – have not seen similar spikes.

I asked Harvard Book Store’s Horne if she thought that was a function of being located in famously liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

"Absolutely, no question about it," she replied. "I’m sure if you went to other parts of the country that would be way less true."

I decided to test Horne's theory, and called up Taylor Books, the only in independent book store in Charleston, West Virginia – a state in which every county voted for Donald Trump.

Store manager Dan Carlisle told me that while A Torch Kept Lit, a new collection of writings by the late conservative icon William F. Buckley, has done pretty well for them since its release. But their five best sellers since the inauguration look remarkably like the stores around here, including 1984Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World.

That current events appear to be driving people to these older works makes all the sense in the world to Horne.

"I think people are trying to figure out, ‘Where does this go?'," she explained. "[They're] looking to see what we might learn from people who’ve been something like this before, or looked at or imagined something like this."

After all, Horne says, the book business is the business of ideas — and some ideas are timeless.  

"It feels like an important time to be making ideas and voices available and heard," she said. "I’ve always been glad that it’s what I’m doing, but there are times, like now, that it feels more important and therefore, in a certain sense, more satisfying."

Even more satisfying if she could just get her hands on a few more copies of 1984.

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