Bestsellers

In the wake of the inauguration, George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 has become a best-seller, topping the Amazon, USA Today, and iBooks bestseller lists.  Since it was first published in 1949, the book has remained in print and has enjoy strong yearly sales.  Last year, 1984 sold around 221,000 print copies, according to BookScan, a group that tracks sales for physical and digital books.  Last week, Signet Classics reprinted 500,000 copies of 1984.  Seems they expect this surge of interest to continue.

In 1973, David Bowie wrote a song called “1984.”  Inspired by Orwell’s novel, Bowie originally planned for it to be a stage musical, but that idea fell through when Orwell’s wife refused to give permission.  The song ended up on the Diamond Dogs album.  Now, the hit London stage adaptation, a non-musical, will open on Broadway in the summer.

As much as I like Bowie’s 1984 and the Diamond Dogs album, I prefer Spirit’s 1984, written by Randy California in 1970. (Had to put in a plug for one of all-time favorite rock bands.)

Just last week in San Francisco, a “mystery benefactor” bought 50 copies of 1984 at Booksmith, a bookstore in the famous Haight-Ashbury district, and asked that they be given away free to anyone who wanted one.

Evidently, it is not only Trump’s presence in the White House but also Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” comment that has sparked the spike in 1984 sales.  The parallels to our present political climate are obvious, and have been since before the rise of the monster, and the lessons the book provides are stark.  The specter of authoritarianism is always knocking on the door.  Alternate facts, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Thought Police, Big Brother, clickbait.  Where does 1984 end and reality begin?  What about all the Big Brothers out there…  listening…  watching…  recording…

Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.

– George Orwell, 1984

A runaway bestseller in poetry might sell around 2000 copies.  Most poetry book sales are much lower than that.  But in recent years the works of a 13th-century Muslim poet have sold millions of copies.  Late last month, the Washington Post declared, “How wonderful it is that Rumi… has become the best-selling poet in the United States! He might enjoy knowing that Trump’s America is snapping up translations of his homoerotically tinged work even as the country toys with banning Muslims and rolling back gay rights.”

Mowlana Jalaloddin Balkhi, aka Rumi, was born in Persia in 1207.  He was a Sunni Muslim, Islamic scholar and  theologian, and Sufi mystic.

Why is Rumi suddenly so popular?  Lee Briccetti, executive director of the nation poetry library Poets House, suggests that it is because “Across time, place and culture, Rumi’s poems articulate what it feels like to be alive.”  And it’s not just the US, the BBC says, “Globally, [Rumi’s] fans are legion.”

Rumi’s poems are wise, spiritual, beautiful, and at times, puzzling.  Although he was a Sufi teacher, his work moved beyond the confines of blind faith and exclusivity.  In the Post article linked above (about a new Rumi biography from Brad Gooch, “Rumi’s Secret”)  there is a lovely quote from Rumi: “The religion of love is beyond all faiths.”

A US poet, Coleman Barks, has been one of the folks responsible for popularizing the Persian poet.  Yet, Barks has received criticism because he is not a translator (he paraphrases from existing translations) and because he has contributed to The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.

From what I have read, I understand the older translations are more literal.  Newer translations have been produced with an eye toward rendering Rumi’s verse in a way that is compatible with free-form modern poetry, and therefore, more accessible.  I usually lean toward translations that are closest to what the poet or author originally wrote.

Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945) was one of the best Rumi scholars in the English language and his translations are considered authoritative and literal.  Yet, the archaic language he uses (“thou” “dost” etc.) does seem get in the way for this modern reader.  I gave up trying to learn who translated the following poem.  It seems very modern, so if it is true to Rumi or not, I don’t know…

A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but one in soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden’s beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I unselfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land.

Rumi

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Miniature painting of Rumi by Hossein Behzad

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