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What do Amazon's best-selling books say about America?

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The best-selling books on Amazon on Feb. 6, 2017
The best-selling books on Amazon on Feb. 6, 2017
via Amazon.com

What can we learn about America from looking its Amazon purchases?

A lot — probably more than you'd like to know.

But let's limit that view to books, for a moment.

Amazon's best-seller list for books has been a fascinating window into national tastes and concerns over the past few months. And this week, at the very top of the list, there's a portrait of the country in miniature: A scene of division.

Sure, there are the perennial stars further down: You can't touch Dr. Seuss, Marie Kondo or books about the latest diet trends. As a country, we embrace whimsical rhymes, tips for organized lives and the dream of losing weight, no matter our political stripes. 

Amid the usual players, though, other titles have been spiking on the list, which is updated hourly. This week, pre-orders of Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos' "Dangerous" have sat wedged between the decades-old dystopian fiction of George Orwell's "1984" and Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." 

It's a literary mirror of the country's current ideological divides. Yiannopoulos is one of President Donald Trump's most vocal supporters. One of his catchphrases is "Feminism is cancer." But on Amazon, his book sits between a feminist classic and a novel that's become a rallying cry for critics of the Trump administration's inaccuracies.

Reading has always been a political act, and now, Amazon's best-seller list is functioning like a real-time political poll — split between dissent and support of the new administration.

Atwood's 1985 speculative fiction classic rose to No. 1 this week after several weeks in the top 30. The novel imagines a future in which women are stripped of all rights and confined to just a few prescribed roles: wife, maid or handmaid. The handmaid's duty is to bear children for powerful men.

In Atwood's dark future, the United States has fallen, and a theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead reigns. Prayer is mandatory. Reading and writing are forbidden. A wall surrounds the city at the center of the book, and the bodies of those who disobey the government are hung there on display.

It's one of several dystopic novels that have been climbing the best-seller list for weeks, as those who disagree with current political policies turn to dystopic tropes and imagery in their critiques. Signs referencing Atwood's work were a common sight at women's marches across the country last month, calling to "Make Atwood fiction again." ("Handmaid's Tale" sales got an additional boost from a Super Bowl ad for the television adaptation coming in April.) 

The third book on the best-seller list runs in the same vein: Orwell's "1984" imagines a dictatorship that rules by bending truth and rewriting facts. After White House adviser Kellyanne Conway used the phrase "alternative facts" in a television interview two weeks ago, sales of "1984" skyrocketed, leading the publisher to order additional 75,000 copies. 

Atwood's and Orwell's books have become so closely tied to critiques of the current administration that an anonymous benefactor paid for a San Francisco bookstore to give them away for free, near a sign that said: "Read up! Fight back."

But at No. 2, sandwiched between these dystopic stories of government control, sits "Dangerous," a book that hasn't even been published yet, but already resides at the center of a massive controversy.

The author, Milo Yiannopoulos, has made headlines in the last year after being banned from Twitter for instigating harassment; for targeting a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and for the violent protests that broke out over his scheduled appearance at the University of California, Berkeley. Yiannopoulos, who is British, has also been an outspoken critic of Islam.

Bookstores and reviewers have called for boycotts of Simon & Schuster, the company set to publish his book in March, calling it a "validation of hate." Roxane Gay pulled her book from one of the company's other imprints after hearing about Yiannopoulos' $250,000 book deal.

So far, the publishing company has not released a description of what the book will contain, but it has responded to the controversy with a prepared statement."We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form," it said.

It seems safe to say it's the rare person who is buying all three of these books. The Amazon list may actually be one of the only places they'll ever sit side by side, if the site's algorithms are any indication. There's no way to know definitively if anyone has bought them together, but Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought..." function suggests it's not common.

"Handmaid's Tale" readers, the site shows, are stocking up on other dystopias: Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," Orwell's "1984," Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" — and even a little "The Origins of Totalitarianism" by Hannah Arendt.

Meanwhile, "Dangerous" buyers are ordering Lauren Southern's "Barbarians: How Baby Boomers, Immigrants and Islam Screwed My Generation", Scott Greer's "No Campus for White Men" and "Righteous Indignation," by the founder of Breitbart himself. 

Amazon and its algorithms, it shows, create just as much an echo chamber as social media: Tell it what you like, and it will serve you more of that.