From 1984 to Brave New World: six of the best books to read in Trumpian times
There has been a surge in sales of George Orwell’s 1984 following Donald Trump’s election as US president
Books for dark times...
Surviving the madness. Confused? Bewildered by the ongoing sideshow of “alternative facts”, also known as lies, or “falsehoods” issuing from President Donald Trump’s po-faced White House press secretary Sean Spicer? It’s probably no coincidence that there has been a surge in sales of George Orwell’s 1984 on Amazon.
Well, here are some books – in addition to the Bible and the poetry of William Wordsworth – which will not end the horror or explain it in full, but may help quell your indigestion, fury, mounting terror or disbelief.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935)
Lewis, one very smart American and first US winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, predicted the entire travesty in a cautionary satire which more than any other explores the communal stupidity which causes disgruntled people (in this case about 26 per cent of the US electorate) to endorse bombastic lies.
In the novel, which edges disturbingly close to what came to pass on November 8th 2016, Lewis created the vile Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a senator who wins the presidency on a flying carpet of lies and false promises of sweeping social and economic reform.
No mention of building a wall between the US and Mexico but he does have his army invade and, oh yes, his opponents are despatched to concentration camps. Today, as we learn that Trump has signed a “temporary” order refusing entry to the US of all refugees from the Middle East and Africa, we might shudder. History tends to repeat itself.
This is the core text, written by an American 11 years before Trump was born. More commentator than artist, Lewis had a genius for reading people. Influenced by the spectacle of Hitler’s brainwashing of the German Volk, he could see the same thing happening in America, Interestingly, the first edition carried a banner headline: “What Will Happen When America Has A Dictator” – now it does. In the novel “Buzz” is eventually exiled to France, leaving a ravaged nation in his wake.
Animal Farm by George Orwell (1935)
Exile, did someone mention Napoleon? Well admittedly Donald Trump bears far more resemblance to Orwell’s crazed porcine dictator of the same name than he does with the Corsican who became emperor of France. True, Russia proved to be Napoleon’s downfall, but, at least for the moment Trump appears to owe a great deal to Russia and his buddy Putin. Napoleon is described by Orwell as “a large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar.” Sounds familiar? Trump is indeed “bigly”, to use his own word. Boar may be amended to “bore” or “boor”. Napoleon’s propaganda minister, Squealer, has been brought vividly to life by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who squeaks and squeals her way through damage-limitation appearances and if her master Trump says that grass is indeed pink not green, Squealer Conway will say this is so. Instead of “All animals are equal…” now read “All Americans are equal, but some Americans are more equal than others.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
Orwell understood all about how empty rhetoric and sound bites, as well as high-pitched delivery, can brainwash a defeated public – again reference Hitler. Orwell’s last novel is not about English socialism, it is a far wider condemnation of politics and totalitarianism, and most particularly the manipulation of the truth. Enter Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary whose blatantly daft press briefing about the crowds at Trump’s inauguration resulted in Squealer Conway inadvertently borrowing an Orwell’s phrase from 1984: “alternative facts” - a stolen phrase that is sure to haunt her and come to define Trump’s days in the White House. Google, Facebook et al have ensured that Big Brother is watching all of us, while Trump and his team of advisers play doublespeak as a natural reflex. Truth is no longer an option, even crowd numbers are disputed. But on a sober note, Orwell’s Big Brother does not exist, sadly, President Trump does.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Nothing brave about it; the world can no longer depend on the evidence of our eyes. Our minds are being played with. Truth and lies now run together in a parallel universe.
In Huxley’s vision of a world dictated to by delusion and the passive acceptance of lies, policy no longer exists, only what people are ordered to believe. Human intelligence has been erased.
Curiously, Brave New World irritated some readers who objected to Huxley’s somewhat simplistic presentation of humans so ready to accept the official version of how they should think.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)
The Russian thinker got there first, long before Huxley, who claimed never to have read it, and before Orwell, who admitted his immense debt to We, and decades before JG Ballard, who would have had a field day with the Trump phenomenon. An erstwhile Bolshevik, Zamyatin brilliantly looked to Swift in dissecting the follies of totalitarianism. His astutely disparaging depiction of the fraudulent inevitabilities of a bogus paradise built on lies is a perfect and perceptive antidote to Trump’s fake promises of a new Utopia.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
Trying to find Trump’s alter ego in literature is tricky, as usually the bad guys are at least dignified. He’s not Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost, and not dastardly clever like Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. He is not Sauron, the Dark Lord from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955); he’s not even JK Rowling’s Lord Voldemort. He is best compared with Carroll’s petulant Queen of Hearts. She too resides in an absurdist alternative universe. Damn it, there’s the word “alternative” again.
You may wish to re-read Kafka’s The Trial (1925), written as the Austro-Hungarian collapsed but the harrowing depiction of helplessness in the face of power may prove too stark at a time as desperate as ours.
Should you be pressed for time, head straight for We and It Can't Happen Here and then wonder, and continue to wonder, why it did.