A quick look at the bestseller list at Amazon shows that while 1984 – which saw a stunning surge in sales after Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” – has dipped from its number one perch, the seminal work of dystopian fiction is still holding firmly to the top ten. George Orwell’s groundbreaking classic is not the only book to see renewed interest in this current and tumultuous political climate. Since Donald Trump’s election on November 8, 2016, American attention has turned to the bookshelf to make sense of not only the issues defining our present situation, but also the current administration, and precisely how we ended up where we are. The books below are a sampling of the works that have seen a marked uptick in public interest.
The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
Beginning with the annexation of Crimea and the support of the Assad Regime in Syria and continuing through allegations of hacking and attempts to influence the 2016 election, Russia – and Vladimir Putin specifically – has been on the minds of many Americans. This powerful and chilling portrait of Putin’s rise to power by Russian journalist Masha Gessen is the definitive source on the new era of Russia.
J. D. Vance
Following the surprise electoral college victory of Donald Trump, the group that he appeared to court most aggressively – the white working class in America’s Rust Belt – jumped to the front of the national conversation and particularly the slew of election commentary and post-mortems. Hillbilly Elegy is an essential read for those seeking to understand the very real issues and frustrations facing the large number of Americans struggling in an economy – and society – they feel is leaving them behind.
Due out on March 7, this novel from Mohsin Hamid provides a powerful, poignant perspective on the current global refugee crisis. Set in an unnamed country – although the allusions to Syria are clear – the novel follows young lovers Saeed and Nadia as they are forced to flee their home amid a brutal civil war. It is a timely and empathetic tale that delves into the very human toll of the refugee experience.
Andrew Jackson in the White House
Students of history likely had no issue spotting the parallels between Donald Trump and the rise of another president boosted to the White House on calls to nationalism and populism. Andrew Jackson has long been a controversial figure. At turns volatile and boisterous, Jackson campaigned as a man of the people who would stand up to the Washington elites. His forceful nature and off-the-cuff rhetoric carried him to the White House. Is this beginning to sound familiar? Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography is the definitive portrait of the mercurial seventh president.
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
This 2016 bestseller from Nancy Isenberg is a groundbreaking examination of class in American society, and upended the concept that social mobility is a key pillar of the American dream. Covering 400 years of political policies, literature, and scientific research, Isenberg illustrates the way that entrenched social hierarchy – and particularly the marginalization of the working and rural poor – has shaped our political landscape.
John Steinbeck is inarguably one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and there is perhaps no more competent chronicler of the American condition. His final novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, is a penetrating look into the deteriorating American Dream. However, it is likely that its examination of a man who sets aside ethics and honesty in the pursuit of power and wealth is what has sparked renewed interest.
Over the last decade – and particularly the last five years – issues of race relations have once again climbed to national prominence on the back of a number of tragedies, ranging from the murder of Trayvon Martin to civil unrest in Ferguson. There are understandable concerns about the new administration’s receptivity to these growing concerns, particularly given the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s profound, deeply personal, and award-winning exploration of race in America is once again at the front of the conversation, offering gorgeously articulated insight and honesty.
Sinclair Lewis’s chilling examination of the fragility of our democratic institutions is political satire at its most powerful and prescient. Written during the Great Depression and believed to be inspired by the populist rise of Huey Long, the novel charts a charismatic politician’s rise to the presidency on the backs of a fear-mongering campaign promoting a return to patriotism and traditional values. This new administration quickly dismantles any and all opposition, leaving the American democratic system in tatters.
How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era
Daniel J. Levitin
With terms like “alternative facts” being thrown around by White House surrogates and a president who often has little regard for truth, Weaponized Lies is required reading for this political moment. Social media in particular has given rise to a cottage industry of literal fake news, fringe conspiracy theories, and pseudo-facts. Daniel J. Levitin’s book presents a concise and powerful tool for critical thinking and a strong repudiation of the idea of the “Post-Truth Era.”
This bestseller from Jodi Picoult is a searing examination of discrimination and race – and both emotionally resonant and unfortunately timely. The story centers on Ruth Jefferson, an African American pediatric nurse, who is prohibited from caring for the child of white supremacist parents who do not want her touching their child. Small Great Things is a thought-provoking and empathetic view into the ways, both overt and subtle, that prejudice affects everyday lives.
Introduction by Samantha Power
The Origins of Totalitarianism is the definitive work on totalitarianism and its impact on the twentieth century. Examining the role of propaganda and racism in the rise of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, Hannah Arendt explores the way authoritarians stoke fear and breed isolation as a means to gain control over a populace.
Arlie Russell Hochschild
Strangers in Their Own Land is essential reading for those struggling to understand the voter-appeal of Donald Trump. It is a thought-provoking and empathetic examination of the concerns that drive the base of the American right. Hochschild, drawing on her background as a sociologist, provides compelling insight into the anxieties inherent to a segment of the population that feel as if their values and place in society are being forgotten.
Sales of Ray Bradbury’s classic tale of a society stifled by mass censorship presents another example of the surge of interest in dystopian literature since the election of Donald Trump. Centering on a “fireman” whose job is to burn illegally owned books, as well as the book owners’ homes, Fahrenheit 451 is provocative statement on the danger of censorship and stifling free speech.
The Holocaust as History and Warning
With Black Earth, author Timothy Snyder presents a haunting and profound account of not only the Holocaust – one of the singular horrors of the twentieth century – but also of the political climate that allowed such an atrocity to occur. By showing parallels between the conditions that led to the Holocaust and our current political environment, Snyder’s groundbreaking account is a chilling reminder of how perilous society actually can be.
The prescience of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel – and the parallels it draws to society’s current need for constant entertainment – are likely the driving force for the renewed interest in the classic dystopian satire. Huxley imagined a society cowed by a steady flow of constant entertainment and mindless excess, willingly living under the sway of an authoritarian regime. In the words of Huxley, “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”
George Orwell with a Foreword by Thomas Pynchon
Circling back to where we started, George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, introduced the literary public to ideas like Newspeak, thoughtcrime, and Big Brother. Trump’s fixation on the size of the crowds at his inauguration – and his insistence that they were bigger than what actual facts show – immediately drew parallels to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Later, Kellyanne Conway’s laughable-but-disturbing use of the phrase “alternative facts” brought us to doublethink. Want to know what’s next for the Trump Administration? For a sneak peek, pick up the book!
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
The word “tyranny” has been floating in and out of public discourse in this new age of Trump. It is this concept that Timothy Snyder addresses in his book, On Tyranny. When asked by NPR’s Robert Siegel why he wrote this book, Snyder could not have been more straightforward: “I feel compelled to do so because I’m afraid things can change here very fast … The president has never given any indication that he understands or respects the rule of law and the things that the presidents have done so far.”
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