February 10, 2017
Amazon’s bestseller list is a futile attempt to impose order on the howling void of everyday life in America
by Simon Reichley
One of the splashier pieces of book-news-during-the-Apocalypse has (alongside the ongoing S&S trainwreck) been the cultural ascendancy of George Orwell’s 1984, which we covered at length a few weeks ago. As we mentioned then, Orwell’s dystopian classic has struck a nerve in this intolerable year of alternative facts. As we contemplate the imminent possibility of autocracy in the USA, it stands in terrifying equipoise, teetering on the edge of history and prophecy.
But of course, we would think that, because we’re all East Coast liberal elites and hey, you’ve got to blog about something!
As of 5:35 Thursday evening, 1984 currently sits at #5 on the Amazon Best Sellers list. The full top ten is below:
- Llama Llama I Love You by Anna Dewdney
- Love From the Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
- Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse by Laura Numeroff
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Pete the Cat: Valentine’s Day is Cool by James Dean
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
- Alchemy of Herbs by Rosalee de la Foret
- The Shack by William P. Young
The diversity of this list complicates the narrative of 1984’s renaissance, situating it in a cultural landscape that appears torn between escapism, confrontation, messianism, and paranoia. Tracy Mumford at Minnesota Public Radio wrote a little bit about this complicated consumer portrait earlier in the week, during a dark age when Milo Yiannopoulos’s Dangerous had claimed the #2 spot, sandwiched between Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. By Mumford’s lights, the presence of all three of these titles in the rarefied air of bestsellerdom functions as “a literary mirror of the country’s current ideological divides.” And what’s worse, Amazon’s recommendation algorithms are working to keep folks interested in Dangerous from being recommended or even alerted to the existence of 1984. There probably isn’t a single digital shopping cart that contains The Shack, Dangerous, and A Handmaid’s Tale.
Now, only four days after Mumford’s analysis, Dangerous has fallen to #19 on the list. What does that tell us? Do we assume that Yiannopoulos’s poisonous ideas are less popular than they were on Monday? Is America less bigoted? Does the fact that 1984 has outpaced A Handmaid’s Tale suggest that ordinary Americans are now less worried about issues of women’s rights, and have turned to confront the surveillance society we’re already living in? Or is white supremacy, under the guise of Germanic Neopaganism and contemporary Wodanism, launching a sneak attack on the Republic?
The answer should be: who the fuck knows? Remember, 1984 went through a similar renaissance only 4 years ago, after Edward Snowden leaked information to the Guardian and Washington Post about America’s massive, probably illegal domestic spying program. That program is still in place. 1984’s surge in popularity as a consumer good did not herald the coming of the revolution. It did not even materially change the political facts on the ground, and the same is true now.
While Mumford claims that “Amazon’s best-seller list is functioning like a real-time political poll — split between dissent and support of the new administration,” this only held true for the brief moment at which her telling screencapture was taken. Now, noise prevails. The top three books at this moment have no obvious meaning at all, political or otherwise. Tomorrow, different books will replace them, and they too will be empty vessels, hollowed out by Amazon’s universal commodification machine.
This isn’t to disagree with Mumford’s conclusion: Americans are confused and divided, perhaps moreso than at any point since Reconstruction. But as a Nobel laureate once said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” and you certainly don’t need an Amazon bestseller list to tell you that strange days are upon us.
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.