For book readers in 2017, the choice was often between imagining the worst, hoping for the best or escaping entirely.
The most widely read works of the year ranged from Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny,” a guide to defending democracy, to Dan Brown’s thriller “Origin” to the personal and political verse of Rupi Kaur. Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and George Orwell’s “1984” were dystopian tales from the past made newly relevant as warnings of horrors to come. Former White House photographer Pete Souza’s “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” was, for admirers of Trump’s predecessor, a bittersweet album of an administration out of office for less than a year but somehow from long ago.
“The usual comment that I get from people who bought the book is that it made them laugh and it made them weep,” Souza told The Associated Press during a recent interview.
The headlines were chaotic, but the publishing business remained stable, if unexceptional. The recent trend of slight increases in print sales — up around 2 percent over 2016, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks around 85 percent of the market — and slowing e-book sales continued, while the number of independent bookstores was little changed even as online shopping has devastated other physical retailers.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE
Thanks to Trump’s election and the popular adaptation on Hulu, Atwood’s novel from 1985 about a pitiless, patriarchal society was not only a best-seller, but a touchstone. When a Republican congressman from Arizona, Trent Franks, resigned amid reports that he was offering as much as USD5 million for an aide to conceive his child, critics saw a literary parallel. A Miami Herald headline read: “The strange case of surrogacy, sexual harassment and The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Snyder’s best-seller began as a Facebook posting just after Trump’s election and became a reference work for the anti-Trump resistance. In a recent email interview, Snyder said he was most concerned about Trump’s attacks on the media and his threats against special counsel Robert Mueller, whose ouster would be “a big step towards the end of the rule of law.” One antidote he recommends in “On Tyranny”: “Get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.” “What cheers me is that readers of ‘On Tyranny’ feel less alone and take actions in the world based on its lessons. My book is a way of organizing the chaos around us and finding ways to sensibly influence it,” he told the AP. “But I think almost any reading — away from the Internet — helps us keep our calm and gives us words and ideas that help shield us from the daily barrage of bad news and help us find ways to communicate with one another in person.”
THE SUN AND HER FLOWERS
Kaur’s collection has sold some 400,000 copies, numbers rarely seen for poetry, or at least since her million-selling debut from 2016, “milk and honey.” For her second book, Kaur had planned on focusing on “love and loss,” she told The Associated Press during a recent telephone interview. But as she was working on the book in January, around the time of Trump’s inauguration, she found herself “stopped in her tracks, completely.” “Suddenly I couldn’t write love poems,” she said. “I found myself writing political pieces and suddenly this book went from two chapters to five. “’milk and honey’ was like holding a mirror to yourself, while ‘sun and her flowers’ is turning the mirror around.”
One of the year’s most anticipated nonfiction works, Ron Chernow’s Ulysses Grant biography was about the victorious Civil War general and once-disparaged president, now more respected if only for his willingness to use armed force to defend blacks during Reconstruction. Readers could turn to “Grant” for diversion or engagement, a 19th century life made contemporary in 2017 as Confederate monuments were taken down around the country. “Of course I had no idea as I was working on ‘Grant’ that the Civil War would be on the front page shortly before publication,” Chernow wrote in a recent email to the AP. “In the last analysis, politics boils down to the stories that we tell ourselves about our past, and there are still two competing narratives about the causes and consequences of the Civil War. The past is prologue to everything that is happening today to the point that the term ‘history’ almost becomes a misnomer. It is still alive and active all around us.”
THE HATE U GIVE
One of the year’s top young adult novels was Angie Thomas’ story of a black teen whose friend is shot and killed by a white police officer. In an email to the AP, Thomas said she was pleased that both black and non-black readers had related to the book. “Books can give a refuge and they can also give clearer understanding,” she said. “Books create empathy by forcing us to see things from someone else’s perspective and feel what they feel. I hope that, especially in these troubled times, more people pick up books about people who aren’t like them. In some ways, it can be more informative than the news.”