George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is a best-seller again. Here’s why it resonates now
Double think. Newspeak. Thought crime. Memory hole. These are the remembered phrases of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” about a futuristic totalitarian state run by “Big Brother.” It surged to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list Wednesday–President Donald Trump’s sixth day in office.
According to CNN, Penguin has begun printing more copies of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to meet the demand.
The increase in sales appears to have started after Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts” in an interview Sunday, which British historian and Orwell biographer Peter Stansky said was a phrase that “is very Orwellian, very ‘Newspeak.’”
In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Newspeak” is the language of the state used to suppress thought.
Stansky believes that the increase in sales of the novel, which Orwell wrote in 1949 as a warning to the Western world about the totalitarianism of his era, is a direct response to President Trump’s efforts to manipulate facts during his first week in office.
In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” protagonist Winston Smith works at a propaganda department for the state, called the “Ministry of Truth,” where inconvenient news can be discarded down a “memory hole.” Orwell was fixated on the idea that under certain governments, the past can be altered or documents rewritten.
“The question is, when somebody is looking that up 10, 20 years from now, will they say, ‘Oh yes, there were more people at inauguration,’ because Trump said so?” Stansky said, a question he is also fascinated by as a historian. He cites a famous line in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” a party slogan: “Who controls the past, controls the future.”
But Stansky and other historians also say that to a certain extent, Orwell’s fears about a mutable past have already come true with the rise of the Internet, where anything can be rewritten or deleted.
And John Rodden, who has written 10 books on Orwell, said this is not the first time sales of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” have surged since it was published. He remembers when sales went up in the early 1980s, which Rodden says was not just about the approach of the year 1984, but also driven by “similar anxieties about a new administration”–when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he “was looked upon by many liberals and radicals as a warmonger.”
“[Reagan] was even called ‘Big Brother,’ though few remember that,” Rodden said. “And some of those same fears are happening now, even though we don’t have a superpower confrontation.”
Another time sales of the novel spiked was in 2013, after revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden about the extent of U.S. surveillance operations. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the state keeps constant watch on its citizens to spot potential “thought-crimes” or rebellion.
Richard Keeble, chairman of The Orwell Society and editor of the book of scholarship, “Orwell Today,” said Orwell would also have critiqued other aspects of Obama’s presidency. “In terms of double-think”–a term defined in the novel as the ability to hold two pieces of contradictory information at one time–“let’s think back to a so-called Nobel peace prize winner who waged war for most years of his presidency,” Keeble said.
The point, Keeble said, is that Orwell cannot fit neatly into certain boxes; he was non-conformist in his thinking, and “where the dominant line was going, he tended to critique it.”
But Keeble, Stansky and Rodden all said Trump’s presidency has sparked fears that bring a new level of relevance to the book, particularly because of the way Trump deploys language.
Much has been written about Trump’s style of speech, which linguists have said is often unintelligible, yet deeply compelling. Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” centers on the use of abstract words, often by politicians, to obscure reality.
“Trump’s use of language to hide things, and not be specific, this is all more resonant now,” Stansky said. “But the chief resonance is really the importance of power … and how power corrupts.”