Books in the land of Trump
If you’re anything like me, you’ve already disengaged from Trump’s news cycle. Fried by the dreary doublethink, the anxiety provoking ineptitude, the sense that something is fundamentally ajar that none of us are qualified to fix, I’ve made the conscious decision to step back. When confronted with a TV set, instead of tuning in to Colbert I reflexively watch sitcoms, ESPN, even Monday Night Raw. Anything else.
I’m surprised it’s come to this. Only four months ago, I was gleefully interviewing the most ornery fans I could find at a Trump rally in a fluorescent-lit Waukesha expo center. As a Daily Cardinal reporter, I politely listened to a man rave about the necessity of reinstating stop-and-frisk. I nodded deferentially to an elderly woman in an American flag knit as she lectured me on how “college kids just don’t get it” and how “Trump’s gonna make it better again.” I even bought a MAGA campaign button on the way out and took Trump’s advice to read “Art of the Deal.” I followed every tweet and every blubbering attempt at coherent policy. But as Trump’s ascension became reality, I found that I couldn’t do it anymore. Formerly addicted, I became allergic to the Trump circus. I couldn’t even read about it. In its place, I retreated to the confines of fiction.
Novelist Martin Amis, conjurer of the kind of overweight, TV-addicted yob that some argue currently occupies the White House, wrote that when he creates a monster on the page, “The covers of the book are like the bars of a cage. He can’t harm you, but you can look at him.” A novel can’t hurt us, but it certainly can show us possible horrors from a safe distance. Maybe that’s what my current book fixation is all about. More than just a diversion from the day’s headlines [although that’s part of it], it’s like watching ‘The Shining’ and thinking, “I may be in my crummy, roach-infested Madison apartment, but at least I’m nowhere near that Overlook Hotel.”
This isn’t a fresh thought. The New York Times Book Review has spent the past month covering the titillating debate over which high school english class staple, “Brave New World” or “1984,” is a better guide to the Trump age. If you haven’t been tuning in, the consensus is that Aldous Huxley’s depiction of humanity pleasuring itself to oblivion is more accurate. That hasn’t stopped Orwell’s novel from rocketing to the top of the Amazon.com bestseller list. For that, it has Kellyanne Conway to thank. If her “alternative facts” comment doesn’t sit well with you, then you should get with the program and embrace America’s new slogan: “Ignorance is Strength,” just like Orwell predicted.
To stay sane, gray-haired thought leaders like David Brooks warned against the perpetual lurch from one grotesque tweet to the next Conway lie. Pushing fiction like “It Can’t Happen Here,” “The Handmaid's Tale” and others, they implored liberals to slow down, read a book and see the forest for the trees. I eagerly bought the advice. While Sinclair Lewis’ book sure read like the 82-year-old anti-Fascist pulp that it is, it got me sufficiently worked up to read on to Atwood. Christian theocracy burst from the pages.
But neither book really explained how we got here. For that, Don Delillo’s “White Noise” seemed spot on. The fuzzy drone of consumerism drowned out the characters’ feeble mental capacities, reducing them to a sum of tabloid and talk radio blather. Heck, even Dostoyevsky’s half-crazed recluse in “Notes from the Underground” started to seem prescient, with all his skewering of pointy-headed rationality. “What if it turns out that man’s advantage ... consist precisely in his desiring something harmful to himself instead of something advantageous?” the hermit quips from his St. Petersburg flat. Oh, so that’s it. Maybe the collapse of the meritocratic order that Hillary Clinton embodied was inevitable anyway. Maybe the American proletariat likes to see a little carnage.
Other Madison residents seem to be in the throes of the same crisis. A Room of One’s Own bookstore down State Street is doing brisk business off it. I walked straight to the store’s “O” fiction section looking for Orwell. Another guy was there weighing “1984” against “Politics and the English Language.” He gave me a look that said “Yep, me too.”
“That’s right, we’ve definitely seen a sales uptick in the dystopian stuff,” the woman behind the checkout counter said. ““Fahrenheit 451,” “It Can’t Happen Here.” The “Handmaid's Tale” is selling like crazy too—of course that could be because of the new TV series coming out about it. Either way, we keep running out and having to order more copies.”
Well, if anything, the Trump presidency is a boon to the booksellers. I suppose we should all play along and pay them a visit while we still can.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter