Dystopian novels are dominating best-seller lists

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A placard in Lakeview's Unabridged Bookstore suggests a host of classic dystopian novels for this political moment. - COURTESY OF UNABRIDGED BOOKSTORE
  • Courtesy of Unabridged Bookstore
  • A placard in Lakeview's Unabridged Bookstore suggests a host of classic dystopian novels for this political moment.

There's summer reading, and then there's the reading we do in the depths of winter. The Amazon list of best-selling books was led Monday by George Orwell's totalitarian nightmare, 1984. A second Orwell novel, Animal Farm, a parable inspired by the Soviet revolution's betrayal of its idealists, was 46th. Several other novels that imagine tyrannies occupied spaces between: Sinclair Lewis's It Can’t Happen Here (sixth), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (21st), Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale (24th), and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (32nd). (Hannah Arendt's nonfiction The Origins of Totalitarianism was 33rd.)

An Amazon subcategory, Kindle editions of "alternative history," was led by Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, imagining the U.S. after losing World War II. Seventh was the Kindle edition combining 1984 and Animal Farm, and eighth was Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, in which the America First movement takes over the country before the war and Charles Lindbergh becomes president.

Mentioning many of these titles, the New York Times's Francis X. Clines observed Monday that "dystopian classics have been racing up retailers' best-seller lists since Mr. Trump took over the White House"; he referred to them as "literary escapes."

I'm not sure escapism is the best description of what's happening here. My book group is now reading It Can't Happen Here, and as I, for one, turn the pages, I'd like to think I'm confronting a dreadful possibility, not running from it.

1984 was last week's top seller at the Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview, bookseller Ianni Grammatis told me.

"Just yesterday we sold eight copies," he said Monday. "A lot of people say, 'Geez, I read this in high school, but I think I need to reread it.'"

There's a sign in the store that says "Alternative facts located in our fiction section," and another promoting "10 classic novels to read when considering the new presidency." Many of those novels are ones I've already mentioned, but another is Nathanael West's A Cool Million, written in 1932. It's a black satire about the so-called American dream, as dangled by cynical demagogues and grasped at by saps. This quote by power-mongering Shagpoke Whipple is by itself enough to earn A Cool Million its place on the table:

This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the middle class. We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! America for Americans!
The story's the same at Women & Children First in Andersonville.

"Like many bookstores, we've seen a significant spike in sales for The Handmaid's Tale, It Can't Happen Here, and 1984, co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck e-mailed me. "We were getting so many questions for these specific books that we created a 'Terribly Relevant Fiction' display that put them all side by side. Most customers buying these books will mention that they are 'scary' or 'too real' or a combination like 'scary real.'"

Escapism? I wondered.

"In my opinion, these purchases don't seem lighthearted, but rather the furthest cry from escapism," Hollenbeck replied. "It was only recently that most of our customers were heading to our Critical Race Theory section to find resources that would help them better understand these times, but now they are also gaining insight into the psychology of oppression and the abuse of power."

Of all the actions Donald Trump has taken in his few days as president, the one that alarms me most is his giving adviser Stephen Bannon a permanent seat at principals meetings of the National Security Council. I don't want Bannon—who said the media "should keep its mouth shut"— within a country mile of national security decisions; as head of Breitbart news, he wallowed in hyperpartisan hyperbole, and I see nothing in his resumé to counterbalance his indifference to accuracy.

Furthermore, it's an appointment that mimics the old Soviet system, in which political commissars littered military chains of command, their responsibility being to enforce ideological conformity. Sometimes, I think, autocrats can't help themselves. They might even wish they could stand for democratic principles and bask in public approval; but that would mean understanding and trusting other people, which they don't, and leading through inspiration, which they can't. So they do what they can, which is to plant cronies in important places to take notes and report back. Fear is as inefficient as it is odious, but there are leaders with nothing else in their playbooks.

Books have been written on the subject.

Correction: An earlier version of this post cited the website Breitbart, when it should have instead cited Bannon directly.

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