Over the past two years, the nation has felt more divided than ever. May, Corbyn, Brexit: supporters and detractors alike have seemed less capable than ever of seeing things from each other’s perspectives. The only thing on which we all seem to agree is the molten toxicity of Boris Johnson. So at least what unites us is greater than what divides us.
But nothing reveals the divide more markedly than the way we’re choosing to react to the political landscape in which we find ourselves. Many of us turned off the news in the weeks running up to the 2016 referendum and have lived in denial ever since, wearied by a world of 24-hour polls, elections and analysis. I have a lot of sympathy with this position: a combination of a terrible basement TV signal and a life spent on tour meant I saw and read very little news during the Bush years. My DVD player (and a habit of going to sleep while watching DVDs) meant I therefore spent a reasonable part of the noughties believing that Jed Bartlett was president of the United States. I can’t in all honesty say that I regret this.
But many of us are engaging like never before and responding to uncertain times by buying more political books. Waterstones has sold more books on politics in the first ten months of 2018 than in all of 2015 or 2016: sales are up by more than 50%. Even if we take into account that more politics books have been published since 2016 (when the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump shook up the received wisdom of the political and journalistic classes and launched a flotilla of literary dissections), there is still an increase on last year: 1.41 million books sold so far in 2018, against 1.35 million in 2017.
Some of this increase can be attributed to the huge sales of Michael Wolff’s Trump book, Fire and Fury, which shifted 180,000 copies in the UK. Again this seems indicative of our divided nature: I find I can only tolerate the existence of Trump if I don’t think about him and particularly if I don’t look at him. I could probably read a book about his White House, but only if there was no photograph of him anywhere on the jacket. I don’t think I am alone in deleting social media posts – even ones in which I might be interested – if his face is visible. Perhaps Wolff’s publisher should do alternate jacket designs, like Bloomsbury did with its child and adult versions of Harry Potter: one limited-edition cover for those who don’t find Trump’s ceaseless smirk to be stomach-churning, and a mass market version for everyone else.
Independent booksellers report the same upsurge in political book sales. Jo Coldwell of Red Lion Books in Colchester suggests that in dark times people hunt for safe spaces, and bookshops provide those for a lot of us. They’re one of the places we go to find answers, and the more alarming the news cycle becomes the more we seem to be searching for the measured, less reactive analysis of a book. For journalists and pundits there is something exciting about political developments which defy expectations and polls. But for people who don’t make their living picking through the bones of elections, the uncertainty is less fun and more unsettling. People are buying books on Brexit or the last general election, not because we want to wallow in the wrongness of the commentariat but because we need to feel that someone can analyse things in a way which makes sense. And then we might feel less unsure about what is coming next.
Hereward Corbett of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury points out that they have sold more of the kind of politics books which might not have been published until relatively recently: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has sold very strongly for them this year. Many of the books which have been selling well are doing so because they’re written for a mass audience, rather than just politics nerds.
It must be the first time that Father Christmas and The Grinch could have identical shopping lists for December: politics books for all the nice children who have written to ask Santa for a thoughtful, analytical literary Christmas treat. And the same politics books for all the naughty children who have been watching Love Island and Bake Off and pretending that the news is a slightly more overwrought branch of reality TV.