Local book sales offer window into readers’ curiosity, anxiety, resolve

Golden Notebook (photo by Dion Ogust)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprising elevation to the presidency and the tumultuous weeks since the inauguration, local readers are turning to books to make sense of it all. Titles offering insights into the Trump voter, opposition strategies and dystopian worlds have been especially popular. We spoke with James Conrad, co-owner of the Golden Notebook in Woodstock, Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books in Rhinebeck and Millerton, and Jordana Jampel, events coordinator at Inquiring Minds in New Paltz and Saugerties, to find out which titles are resonating with their customers and why.

Generally speaking, Trump supporters are not doing the buying. They know why their guy won and would like everyone to calm down and give him a chance. This is in keeping with conventional publishing-world wisdom: Books, magazines and cable news channels that appeal to a particular view are more popular when their audience feels disempowered.

But there was something different about the election of 2016. Conrad remembers the day after George W. Bush won his second term as “a dead, quiet morning. I remember it being this gray day, and maybe one sole figure walking down the sidewalk.” But the morning after Trump won, “It was the opposite. People were like flying in the door, yelling and screaming, wanting to know what to do, ‘Let’s have a meeting’ – it was definitely a different atmosphere.”

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Jampel said these readers can be grouped into two categories: those seeking to understand what happened, and those who want to know what to do about it. The latter group, in addition to activist manuals, has also been attracted to dystopian fiction. They’re alarmed.

 

Insight

All the booksellers mentioned J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir following the author from a hardscrabble Appalachian childhood to the Marines and law school. Literate and timely, the book is mandatory reading for those seeking a more nuanced explanation for why Trump’s message was embraced than mere racism, sexism and Islamophobia.

“[Vance is] an odd combination of these two very different tribes who they always try to pit against each other,” said Conrad, “poor people in Appalachia and elitists at Ivy League schools: Those are the polar extremes of our society, and he’s kind of both of them, so this memoir is kind of awesome because he can go back and forth between those two experiences and critique each of them evenhandedly.”

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, another book that sought to shed some light on this group, was a strong seller, said Conrad, as was Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild. Conrad called Strangers “a really well-written book, because it wasn’t quite as heavy-handed with attacking one side or the other; it was trying to actually bridge a gap and be a little bit more understanding of where people were coming from and why that would make them vote one way, which possibly might not even be the best way for them, but they just feel left out by the current government.”

Not every book was about rural whites. Polls in 2015 began to reflect an increasing worry about race relations in America. Jampel said that readers are picking up Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir Between the World and Me for a personal exploration of that topic. Written as a letter to his son, the book offers “a firsthand account of his life growing up in Baltimore as a black man, and I think that especially in our rather bubbled community, people are really turning toward that book to understand the experience of racism, the experience of oppression,” said Jampel.

 

Activism

Following the election, publishers rushed out books celebrating Trump’s victory and plotting the best way to unseat him. In the latter group, our booksellers mentioned a few standouts, including: What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America, a collection of essays from a varied group, including Dave Eggers, senator Elizabeth Warren and Robert Reich, and The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know about Living through What You Hoped Would Never Happen by Gene Stone, who also wrote The Bush Survival Bible (you can see the pattern).

These books appeal to those eager to take action. “If you’re very upset with what’s going on, here are things you can do that will help you feel better and help you try to bring positive change, even when you feel helpless,” said Hermans.

Jampel said that Breaking through Power: It’s Easier than We Think by Ralph Nader, which came out just before the election, has been popular. These books appeal to readers looking for “someone to tell them, ‘Things will get better. It is in our power to make things better,’” she said.

How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France offers inspiration for those who feel that we need to confront huge problems without help from the government, said Conrad. It tells the story of AIDS crusaders who did just that:  finding money and even becoming scientists themselves. “They basically solved the AIDS crisis on their own – just normal people,” said Conrad. For people who feel that single-party Republican rule, guaranteed for at least two years, will take the country in the wrong direction, that’s an encouraging message.

 

Dystopian novels

How bad could it get? Those who fear the worst are looking to novels like 1984, Brave New World and It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’ plausible imagining of American fascism. Trump supporters would surely roll their eyes at such comparisons, just as liberals did when Obama’s health insurance reform was cited as the first step on a slippery slope to Stalinesque totalitarian socialism.

Jampel says that these titles don’t necessarily mean readers believe that’s where America is headed. But they are concerned, and fiction offers a window into how it might feel from the inside out. Readers want to “see what the protagonist does in the story: How do they cope with the fascist regime; how do they cope with oppression or occupation of a people?” she said.

“People are looking to the past to inform the present,” said Hermans.

 

Just breathe

Conrad says that The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu has been a surprise best-seller. He has a theory: With the country divided, protesters in the streets and partisans at a boil, people feel the need to relax. A book of timeless wisdom geared for the modern reader that promises that “the ultimate source of happiness is within us” is a welcome solace for those who feel frustrated with events happening around them that they can’t control.

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