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70-year-old '1984' is one of 2017’s best-selling novels

La Salle Public Library has six digital copies of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” across two book-lending services, and to the surprise of Christy Stupegia, all of them are checked out.

While physical copies are available, the library director said for the next 35 days or so the e-books are spoken for as people on waiting lists will get their turn to read the book about a totalitarian state under the constant surveillance of Big Brother.

“We are seeing an increase on our e-books,” Stupegia said. “I can kind of guess why there’s renewed interest in that."

Fervor for “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (often referred to as “1984”) isn’t just an Illinois Valley phenomenon.

The nearly 70-year-old dystopian novel sits atop Amazon’s best-seller list, outpacing recent hits such as “Hidden Figures,” which inspired a movie generating best-picture Oscar buzz.

Students currently reading the book said it’s fun to know their assigned reading is suddenly popular.

“My teacher said it’s flying off shelves,” said Sarah Robinson, a senior at La Salle-Peru Township High School, who is reading “1984” for her Advanced Placement literature class. “I really like it. Actually, I’m pretty much finished with it.”

Stupegia said the realities of a dour, polarized political climate, a constant deluge of information and social media help explain why so many people are seeking out the book.

“I chose to read the book specifically because of the whole inauguration of Donald Trump.” said Brooklynn Gosnell, also an AP literature student at L-P. “I’m very interested in politics.”

Gosnell said we have much more freedom than characters in “1984” but a flurry of executive orders and modern technology make the book seem like an extreme version of our world.

It was a different story for Robinson who said she read the book by default after classmates chose other books.

Although she didn’t seek the book out, parallels between the present and Orwell’s predicted future weren’t lost on her.

“It’s reflective of what’s happening right now,” Robinson said. “I think people are kind of reading this book to become aware of what a totalitarian government would be like.”

Robinson said when she picked the book, she only knew it was set in the future.

Despite the unfamiliarity, she found some parts of the book familiar because certain phrases have made their way into the pop culture lexicon.

“I knew Big Brother is always watching, and war is peace, I’d heard that too,” she said.

Moving copies without a movie

While Stupegia said she understands book’s surge in popularity, it’s still surprising to see interest in an old novel ignited by current events rather than a motion picture.

“It makes sense, but it’s still surprising,” Gosnell agreed.

While there are film adaptations of the book, they came out in 1984 and 1956, and generally, Stupegia said, cinema is what brings a flood of new readers to old books.

“Usually, with many of the classics, if they are made into a movie, that will pique readers’ interests,” she said.

But sometimes other events lead to resurgent interest in a decades-old book.

For example, when “Go Tell A Watchman,” Harper Lee’s long-awaited follow-up to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” was released last year, Stupegia said the older book was often checked out.

“We definitely saw people reaching back,” she said. “It’s really thrilling. I enjoy when I talk to readers, and they’re wanting to go back and read.”

Ben Hohenstatt can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or Follow him on Twitter @NT_Peru.

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