This year there has been an unlikely literary sensation. Or revival, to be precise. Sales of George Orwell’s dystopian tale Nineteen Eighty-Four have been on the rise, a trend sparked by those who believe Donald Trump’s administration heralds a new fascist era. The process began on 22 January, when Kellyanne Conway, adviser to the president, used the phrase ‘alternative facts’ in an interview. The internet was soon ablaze with comparisons to Orwell’s term ‘newspeak’, and within two days Nineteen Eighty-Four was the sixth best-selling book on Amazon. Last week, it reached number two. The novel has become a symbol of resistance among Trump’s detractors. In San Francisco they are now giving copies away for free.
One might assume that the politically aware would have read this landmark novel already. But never mind. Good luck to those discovering it now. It might be a refreshing read for the more precious and callow Trump detractors — for the ‘snowflakes’ who believe in the regulation of sex, who are fond of banning words for being offensive and of silencing dissenters for speechcrime. It will be an eye-opening read, too, for those who speak of ‘subconscious racism’ and such thoughtcrimes, and for today’s campus guardians who monitor people’s every action, word and gesture. All of these outrageous scenarios are covered extensively by Orwell.
In this vein, they might also like to read another dystopian masterpiece called Fahrenheit 451, by the author Ray Bradbury. In this book set in the future, firemen go round not extinguishing fires, but igniting them — specifically to burn books that are deemed too dangerous for people to read, to protect people’s feelings and shield them from suggestive thoughts and ‘evil ideas’.
The society imagined in Fahrenheit 451 is one in which hyper-sensitive identity politics have been taken to their logical conclusion. As the book-burning police chief, Captain Beatty, explains: ‘All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean… Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it… You must understand that our civilisation is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.’
The dystopia represented here isn’t an Orwellian, top-down tyranny, but one created from the bottom, by well-meaning, censorious puritans. Beatty elaborates: ‘It didn’t come from the government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time.’