One of my favorite characters is a book detective named Thursday Next, the star of a series by the wickedly funny British writer Jasper Fforde. Thursday Next can jump right into the world of a book, meet the characters face to face and even change the plot.
On Nov. 9, we all woke up to find that we had jumped inside a book, and the clocks had finally struck 13. Reality as we knew it had shifted on its axis, and we were living in a garish comic-book version of George Orwell’s masterpiece of a novel, 1984. Only if we overcame our shock and revulsion and came to terms with the specter of a petty, petulant Big Brother holding sway over our lives could we possibly aspire to change the plot of this nightmare story.
Months later, most of us continue to play catch-up, still baffled and demoralized by the inescapable feeling that our reality has been hijacked, bracing for a long struggle of fighting for our beliefs, and opposing bigotry and authoritarianism. The problem is, we’re being attacked where we live. It’s like being in a science-fiction movie where a sinister force invades us through the very circuitry of our consciousness. As a former roving foreign correspondent for wired.com, it hit me during the campaign that the Trump style is like what we call a denial-of-service hack; we are bombarded with so many data points, so much strain on the attention span—many of them bewilderingly loony—that sooner or later we’re worn down and slump into mere anger and thirst for vengeance. This is not a way to steel ourselves for what’s ahead. The morose, life-hating worldview of the reality TV curiosity in the White House cannot be enforced on the rest of us, not without a good fight. We need to keep smiling. We need to keep laughing and keep our sense of wonder and amazement alive. We need to challenge ourselves not to be smug, and to put the current assault on decency in the larger context of history.
Readers have been flocking to Orwell since the election. In fact, the 1949 novel reached No. 1 in January at Amazon and was sold out at bookstores across the country. Top writers checked in with ruminations on the book’s relevance.
We do that through protest, and through support for fierce voices like new U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, but we also have to find more playful, creative ways to arrive at a deeper understanding of the bewilderment of our time. Back in the worst days of the George W. Bush presidency, former Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Neal Coonerty had the brilliant idea of a “Bush Countdown Clock” that sold like hotcakes, a great example of outrage with a smile. His daughter Casey Coonerty Protti, who now owns Bookshop, is carrying on the tradition with a Trump Countdown Clock that marks the days until his term expires.
In the meantime, why not use a public reading of the book we seem to have found ourselves in as a form of protest? That is what we’ll be up to at Bookshop on Thursday, March 2, staging a marathon reading of 1984, starting at 10 a.m. Three of us per hour will read aloud, from the first page to the last—a diverse group that includes Rabbi Paula Marcus and Reverend Deborah Johnson; local writers like Laurie R. King, Micah Perks, Thad Nodine and Karen Joy Fowler; Mayor Cynthia Chase; and prominent local journalists Wallace Baine of the Sentinel and Steve Palopoli of Good Times.
By page 10 we’ve already moved well beyond familiar tropes like “newspeak” (here’s to you, Kellyanne Conway) and “ignorance is strength” to a vivid scene involving something called the Two Minutes Hate.
Since the reading was my idea, I’ve been given the honor of kicking it off with the first 20 minutes, so I’ll crack open my copy of the novel and read aloud the amazing opening:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.”
Reading those words now, I feel the cold shudder of recognition of Orwell almost single-handedly establishing the now thriving genre of dystopianism. He’d authored many great books, from Down and Out in Paris and London to Homage to Catalonia to Animal Farm, but it was 1984 that vaulted his name to another realm. That was the book that gave us the adjective Orwellian, which according to The New York Times is far and away the most popular adjective formed from an author’s name, though it has become a word people use to mean many things. Still, the definition in that Times article, back in June 2003, seems to hold sway: “‘Orwellian’ reduces Orwell’s palette to a single shade of noir. It brings to mind only sordid regimes of surveillance and thought control and the distortions of language that make them possible.”
Readers have been flocking to Orwell since the election. In fact, the 1949 novel reached No. 1 in January at Amazon and was sold out at bookstores across the country. Top writers checked in with ruminations on the book’s relevance. “Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation,” Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker magazine. “The blind, blatant disregard for truth is offered without even the sugar-façade of sweetness of temper or equableness or entertainment—offered not with a sheen of condescending consensus but in an ancient tone of rage, vanity, and vengeance.”
There are dangers in turning to Orwell’s famous novel for relief or grounding. No book could have predicted Trump, and no book can keep pace with his incessant need to shock everyone by saying or doing something stupid and offensive almost every day, so long as it gets him more attention, but the book does offer an uncanny road map to Trumpism. For example, by page 10 we’ve already moved well beyond familiar tropes like “newspeak” (here’s to you, Kellyanne Conway) and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” to a vivid scene involving something called the Two Minutes Hate:
“The next moment a hideous, grinding screech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.”
Minus the sound effects, that sounds an awful lot like all-too-many Donald Trump tweets: The Hate has started! Only now our attention spans are shorter, so it’s more like the Twenty Seconds Hate.
It somehow helps, in swatting away the perpetual droning annoyance of Trump’s antics, to realize that even writing in ravaged post-World War II England, it was not that hard to speculate that to move people, demagogues resort to manipulation of reality and promiscuous provocation of strong emotion. Orwell fills the book with this and other creepy insights.
“In all my years of bookselling, I’ve rarely seen a classic make such an impact so many years later,” says Casey Coonerty Protti. “If there is one silver lining, it might be that people across generations—those who already read the book or never got around to it—are discovering how the timelessness of storytelling sometimes allows us to feel and understand a greater truth than what you can get from scanning headlines in today’s media.”
Orwell was a great writer of nonfiction and essays, so much so that he was a beacon to generations of young journalists, including people like Hendrik Hertzberg, one-time editor of the New Republic, who for years wrote remarkably clear-minded political commentary for the New Yorker. But 1984 is much more than merely a novel of ideas, like, say, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia—which imagined Northern California, Oregon and Washington forming an ecological utopia, and was cheerfully acknowledged by its Berkeley-based author to be more speculative-essay-as-fiction than three-dimensional storytelling. Orwell’s characters in 1984 come alive. We see them breathe, we see them develop, we feel them as human presences straining to come to terms with impossible demands, above all central character Winston Smith striving desperately to remain human.
“He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall.
“Ashes,” he said. “Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.”
“But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.”
“I do not remember it,” said O’Brien.
Winston’s heart sank. That was doublethink. He had a feeling of deadly helplessness.”
Because Winston Smith feels alive to us, the fusion of personal and political is perfect and haunting. Those of us who find ourselves grappling in Trump’s dystopian 2017 America with “deadly helplessness” know Winston Smith’s dread as we never knew it before.
And when we read the Party slogan “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” we know exactly what it means as we never could have before, because that is the nature of the Trumpian experiment, not only to attempt to wipe out decency and the values that animated the Founders’ experiment of conceiving a land on the principle that “all men are created equal,” but to wipe out even the memory of a time when we could attempt to believe in those core values without letting the siren song of avarice and cheap personal ambition trump all else. Read 1984 now—with us at Bookshop or on your own—and weep, and then smile through the tears as the book enables you to remember.
And keep in mind that a lesson of this year is: It could always get worse. As Coonerty Protti put it: “We can only hope the surge of interest in 1984 is not followed up with a resurgence of Lord of the Flies.”
Steve Kettmann is the co-director, along with Sarah Ringler, of the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods writers’ retreat center in Soquel, which offers weeklong writing residences and other programs in support of writers. wellstoneredwoods.org. Steve is the author or co-author of nine books, including four New York Times bestsellers, and a regular contributor to the New York Times and newyorker.com.