Political Climate Prompts Renewed Interest in Dystopian Books Like "1984"

Mar 22, 2017

On a recent Saturday morning at Cape Cod Community College, a handful of theater students kicked back in their seats and read through their lines. The Tilden Arts Center production is an adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, the novel that for many was ahead of its time when it was published in 1949. The post-war tale foreshadowed a darker, more sinister era when a nation feared for its liberties under the eye of government surveillance and control. 

Vana Trudeau teaches performing arts at CCCC, and has been working with her team on 1984 since the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. The play opens April 20. 

"It kind of found its way to the top of our list," said Trudeau. "We had been talking about it over the summer, and it seemed as though, as the days went by, some of the issues discussed in 1984 were bubbling up to the surface and being part of the national discussion of how the media reports information, what we can consider true and factual."

Local librarians report that copies of "1984" and other dystopian fiction books are almost all checked-out or on hold.

Phrases like "fake news" and "alternative facts" arrived during President Donald Trump's first days in Washington. For some, those terms eerily reflect the Orwellian lexicon, like "thought police" and "Ministry of Truth." 

Since Election Day in November, almost 200,000 copies of 1984 have sold nationwide, according to NPD BookScan. Here on the Cape and Islands, good luck finding the classic at your library. With 89 copies in circulation in the library's CLAMS network, most are either checked out or on hold. 

"Pop culture in general really motivates a lot of things that are checked out of the library," said Jill Erickson, head of reference at Falmouth Public Library. 

Other dystopian books also are in high demand locally since the election, including Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the 1935 Sinclair Lewis story, It Can't Happen Here.

"The fact that there are waiting lists for these titles suggests that people are a little nervous about what’s happening in the world at large, and that it’s not about one person: It’s more about the state of the entire universe right now," added Erickson. 

In Centerville, Rick Kowarek manages Books by the Sea. His personal Staff Pick this month is 1984. It’s more relevant today, he said, than it was back in the ’50s and ’60s, because it was simply science-fiction.

"If you look at the premise of 1984," he said, "the premise is that Big Brother is watching you, it watches you through your television set. Yesterday in the paper, Wikileaks is talking about how the CIA can—and who knows if this is true—can listen to you through your cell phone, can listen to you through your TV."

Back at rehearsal at Tilden Arts Center, Patrick O'Rourke is portraying the 1984 character O'Brien, because he is often drawn to flawed, antagonist parts. 

"It’s something that I always find particularly challenging, and in this case it is a fascinating role to play because it’s one of those roles that the more the show goes on you actually learn less about O’Brien and his background," said O'Rourke. 

From the stage to the bookshelf, classic commentaries on just how low governments will stoop to suppress society are echoing louder today than in the times they were written. 

"Our goal is not to convert people; our goal is to educate people. And that’s what a good bookstore should do," added Kowarek. "They’re meant to educate you, to think about what could really happen." 

He and other literature buffs warn that perhaps the biggest threat to liberty and the pursuit of happiness is failing to read.