Making Sense of Dark Times

Booksellers notice a new appetite for dystopian novels and books that explain the political climate

“Rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” That’s President Trump’s dark vision of America—and it’s had an odd effect – an increased interest in dystopian and immigrant novels and alt-right non-fiction books.

At the Union Square Barnes and Noble, Book Culture near Columbia University and Revolution Books in Harlem, book displays prominently featured fiction like George Orwell’s 1984, Plot Against America by Philip Roth, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaiden’s Tale.

Booksellers notice new reading trends

Booksellers notice new reading trends

“ President Trump’s presidency has created a morbid curiosity of dystopian worlds,” said Chris Doeblin, co-owner of Book Culture. “ To understand how to survive this period and make sense of these times.”

According to Raymond Lotta of Revolution Books, 78.5 percent of the city voted for Hilary Clinton and in the last few months, they are trying to understand what they missed. “Everyone who comes to the bookstore has one refrain,” said Lotta. “What the hell just happened?” Corey Farach, a collective owner of the radical feminist store Bluestockings at Allen Street has also witnessed an increase in the number of people coming to the store for these books.

The bewilderment at Trump’s victory, in part, according to Thomas Streeter, professor of sociology at the University of Vermont,  stems from being blindsided by the idea that America is so special, its institutions so resilient and its commitment to democracy and individualism so pervasive that a callous authoritarian would always be thwarted in the end.

“Our understanding of the universe just did not include the possibility of someone like Trump winning,” said Streeter.  “Dystopian political novels give us access to ways of thinking that we had previously not allowed into our consciousness.”

There is also an interest in non-fiction books, based on facts and/or real people and events, that attempt to explain how America got to this point, say booksellers. “ Trump’s rise is because of many faultlines in our society,” said Lotta. “ This is the time for people to do some soul-searching and recalibrate their perspectives.”

For most New Yorkers, the disenfranchisement that many Trump supporters felt, was new and they’re trying to make sense of it. Thus Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance that traces the chaotic history of the author’s poor white family in the Rust Belt, has been the top-selling memoir on Amazon.com for weeks, and is hailed as a ‘must read book’ to understand Trump’s campaign of harsh rhetoric.

Other books that readers have asked for, say book sellers, are Dark Money by Jane Mayer that chronicles the Koch brothers journey to become a Republican powerhouse and ideological drivers of the party, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander that showcases how mass incarceration at American jails is part of a racial caste system, and the 1951 book by Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism on Nazism and Stalinism, and their rise and impact. I Am Not Your Negro, a companion edition by Raoul Peck for James Baldwin’s documentary on the troubling truths of race in the United States and the 1997 book The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe that predicted the unraveling of America in the new century are also in demand. Peck’s book moved to a sales rank of 312, up from no.1202 on Amazon.com and the Strauss and Howe book climbed to no. 43 from a position of 211 this month.

“When something we thought impossible happens, we’re all suddenly and painfully sensitized to the weakness of our core beliefs,” said Streeter. “After Nov. 8th, 2016, an awful lot of Americans have a need for such new ways of thinking.”

Interestingly, many recent gainers in non-fiction on Amazon.com are books by Fox News anchors, or those endorsed by them. “It used to be that this was a fringe for rational people, but now they have come to the center of power.” said Raymond Lotta of Revolution Books. “ There is curiosity among people to understand how this came to be, what they are saying, and what their ideology is.”

The biggest gainer this week, for example, has been the senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart, the far right American news, and opinion website. Protests at the University of California at Berkeley against his visit resulted in an unexpected bonus for him:  the pre-order sales for his book Dangerous scheduled to release on March 15soared to number one book on Amazon.com.

The Deplorables Guide by Fox News’ anchor Todd Starnes covers all the reasons Trump won – from the hot button issues in the presidential election to the cultural and political life in the United States. This month it moved from its 1079 position to No.193 on Amazon books.

Sociologist professor Streeter does not think much of these gains and advises caution in reading short-term upticks, because, he says, they may just reflect the temporary effect of what a few industry executives think the trend is. “ It seems quite obvious why alt-right pundits are suddenly being marketed and read, “ said Streeter. “ They came out of nowhere and against all expectation won the most powerful office in the world, so folks want to know who they are.”

Younger readers are catching on to the trend too, says Patricia Dunn, the director of the Writers Institute and the assistant dean of graduate and professional studies at Sarah Lawrence College who recently attended an interactive session with some high school students from Westchester county. The students told her that George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian novel of ‘Big Brother’, loss of individual freedom and surveillance was their favorite dystopian novel.

“I told them when I read it at their age, it felt like some futuristic nightmare but now in 2017 we are living that nightmare,” said Dunn. “So the line between dystopian and reality is blurred more than ever.”

 

 

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.