Throughout the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, book lovers were delighted to have a commander in chief who possessed and publicized a voracious reading habit. Obama made frequent trips to local independent bookshops, and released his summer reading list so book lovers could take cues from his purchases. In the final days of his presidency, Obama granted an interview to Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic at The New York Times, in which he said that books were often his secret to surviving the turmoil of the White House.
Reading allowed Obama to “slow down and get perspective.” He enriched his mind with books both classic and contemporary, such as Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.
“Someone who reads—as opposed to, say, watching TV news all day—is, I imagine, more compassionate and disciplined when it comes to the nuanced and tricky decisions that a president faces every day,” says Dana Schwartz, arts and culture writer for the New York Observer and author of the forthcoming novel And We’re Off. “Books by definition force you to engage with someone else’s viewpoint.”
Yet in Donald Trump, America’s 45th president, we behold a self-admitted lifetime non-reader, save for the pile of Trump-related Google Alerts his assistants print out for him each morning. Yet a series of controversial feuds, policy decisions, and seeming ignorance of American history has sparked massive interest in several titles that stand in almost defiance—or fear—of the Trump presidency.
Unlike President Obama, who inspired reading based on his own love of books, President Trump seems to have sparked sales of books that either defy—or possibly mirror—his policies and behaviors. And over the last few months, Americans have flocked to support authors and institutions Trump has either willfully or accidentally discredited.
“There’s this contrarian American spirit stuff, that’s always angling for some underdog otherness,” says journalist and novelist Porochista Khakpour (The Last Illusion). “The more the president boasts of not reading, the more people wonder about reading. The more the president says The New York Times is failing and fake, the more they subscribe and it succeeds.” (NYT subscriptions doubled in 2016.)
On Jan. 14, Trump tweeted that Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a revered civil rights leader, was “all talk, talk, talk—no action or results.” Trump’s comments fueled a huge backlash, and in subsequent weeks, Lewis’s autobiographical graphic novel trilogy March saw sales skyrocket. In the two weeks proceeding Trump’s attacks, March: Book One sold 1,496 copies and the trilogy’s box set sold 1,709 copies (per Bookscan). In the week following Trump’s tweets, sales of March: Book One jumped to 7,268 copies and the box set to 7,669 copies. Subsequently bolstered by winning many prominent awards, March: Book One became the first graphic novel to land on The New York Times non-fiction paperback bestseller list since Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
On Jan. 22, in an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway cited the now-infamous use of “alternative facts” to determine that Trump’s inauguration was the largest of all time (it was not, by any measurable metric). Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts” struck many as a particularly Orwellian turn of phrase. The week following Conway’s remarks, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, increased nearly 600 percent, and the book has remained near the top of Amazon’s rankings on both print and digital lists. Alexandra Alter of The New York Times reported that Signet has reprinted 500,000 copies of 1984, more than they typically sell in an entire year.
According to Orwell, political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” which seems even more prescient after Trump’s dismissive comments about Vladimir Putin’s alleged murderous treatment of political opponents in an interview broadcast on Feb. 5 with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.
“Given this type of cultural climate, readers are sensing parallels between what is currently happening and books they’ve read,” says literary agent Kristin Nelson. “That is why Orwell’s 1984 suddenly hit the bestseller list after all these years. When I saw what bestsellers were trending, Hugh Howey (a Nelson client) and I joked that his [dystopian] Silo Series would soon start showing up on ‘If you like 1984, you’ll like…’ lists. It took only one week for that to happen.”
Trump’s purported ignorance of history has also led to a resurgence of books about the subject. On Feb. 1, at a breakfast to commemorate the start of Black History Month, Trump described Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
Trump’s seeming obliviousness to the fact that a) Douglass died in 1895, and b) he has been recognized and venerated for years, spurred a renewed interest in Douglass’s autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Several different versions of the book (which is currently in the public domain) skyrocketed up the charts on Amazon, with Bookscan sales leaping 72 percent the week following Trump’s comments.
Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, and her decades-old vision of a future where a totalitarian regime has stripped women of their civil rights drew some to see parallels in Trump’s rise. A surge in misogyny and anti-feminism (growing seemingly unchecked online), coupled with Trump’s history of lewd, dismissive comments about women and apparent embrace of nationalism and isolationism, have led to an uneasiness that the Trump regime could mirror that of Atwood’s novel. In 2016, sales of The Handmaid’s Tale rose over 30 percent from the previous year, and have spiked even more recently. In the first five weeks of 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale has sold 23,645 copies, compared to sales of 6,936 copies through the first five weeks of 2016, a year-over-year 340 percent increase (some of which can perhaps be attributed to an upcoming Hulu adaptation of the novel).
Leading up to the election, many saw parallels between Trump’s fascistic tendencies and those of “Buzz” Windrip, the main character in Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. In Sinclair’s book, Windrip is a man “on the side of the plain people, and against all the tight old political machines,” who runs for president on a populist platform of economic and social reform and defeats incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet when he takes office, Windrip imposes a brutal totalitarian regime, incarcerates his opponents, and guts the rights of women and minorities.
Sales of Lewis’s novel (whose online description is now headlined by Salon’s ominous quote: “The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal”) spiked heavily leading up to the election, and have increased over 13,000 percent in the first five weeks of 2017 versus the same time period in 2016.
“Books like 1984 and A Handmaid’s Tale are exaggerated,” Schwartz says, “but they were written in the first place (and stuck around for so long) because they operate from a kernel of truth. Harry Potter was for many, including myself, the first book people read that dealt with young people facing a compromised government and responding with rebellion. It’s a helpful framework in which to process what’s going on, and then a means by which someone might feel braver because they’re in some respects able to take on the persona of their favorite heroes.”
Says Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post’s Book World, “I think people are drawn to these titles because they’re genuinely—and rightly—afraid, and they want to understand the forces at work. Great literature has always provided that kind of knowledge, insight, even solace in dark times.”
In addition to the surge in classic literature, a Trump presidency will also likely inspire contemporary works of both fiction and non-fiction that attempt to navigate the new political landscape, either by understanding the current world or creating a fictional one.
“As was the case during the end of Nixon’s presidency, we will also see some degree of uptick in paranoid thrillers (even if fiction cannot come close to outpacing truth) and, perhaps, some tweaking of the standard private detective tropes,” says Sarah Weinman, news editor of Publishers Lunch and author of the forthcoming book Among the Wholesome Children. “It’s no accident that the Robert Altman movie version of The Long Goodbye and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels arrived roughly around the same time.”
There is hope, though, that President Obama will continue to advocate for books even after his departure from the Oval Office. Adds Weinman: “Obama will still (I hope!) buy books at bookstores. He’ll have avenues for recommending titles. And those in the arts, and outside of it, will be more than happy to take up his recommendations.”
Many feel inspired to stand up to President Trump through their words, because the extent to which his policies might cause global upheaval and personal strife remains, to some, frighteningly unclear. Says the Iranian-born Khakpour, “I don’t think I have a choice. I’m going to put my voice and thoughts out there until they are silenced for good, which is already a possibility.”
Jason Pinter is the bestselling author of six novels and is the founder and publisher of Polis Books. Follow him at @JasonPinter.