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October 22, 2010

U of C book gets Glenn Beck bump

In 2008, liberals tapped a former U of C law professor to turn the tables in Washington. In 2010, it’s the Tea Party’s that’s been taking its cues from a U of C professor.

Thanks to conservative TV and radio personality Glenn Beck’s persistent promotion, former U of C professor F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 1944, climbed to the top of Amazon.com's bestseller list this summer.

Since Beck spent one episode of his Fox News show on the book on June 8, Serfdom has sold 156,000 paperback copies and 14,000 e-book copies, according to Garrett Kiely, director of the University Press. The average book published by the Press, by contrast, sells several hundred to several thousand copies per year.

“This book was like a Mike Tyson (in his prime) right hook to socialism in Western Europe and in the United States,” Beck said, according to his website.

“But its influence didn’t stop there. It has inspired political and economic leaders for decades since, most famously, Ronald Reagan. Reagan often praised Hayek when he talked about people waking up to the dangers of big government.”.

The Road to Serfdom, a treatise that relates a powerful centralized government with totalitarianism, has little in common with traditional bestsellers: as a sixty-year-old examination of the origins of totalitarian government, it’s much more academic than top-sellers like the Twilight series or Stieg Larsson’s detective fiction.

Still, popular commentators have looked to Hayek’s work as a way to criticize what they perceive as ballooning of the government’s size under the Obama administration.

The book sold steadily since its publication, around 7,000 copies a year before President Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Then numbers crept up as conservative talk radio mentioned the book with increasing frequency, reaching 25,000 a year, according to Kiely.

But it was the so-called “Beck bump” that rocked the Press.

Week after week, Beck plugged Hayek’s book on his program, and the Press’s inventory of the book quickly diminished. It couldn’t handle the increased demand on its own.

“We needed to make arrangements for the short term with print-on-demand companies,” Kiely said. “When people put an order on Amazon, [the print-on-demand company] would print a copy” that would be mailed to the customer.

Demand has slowed since its peak in June, but Serfdom remains a top seller at the press along with perennial favorites like The Chicago Manual of Style.

The University Press may welcome the celebrity spotlight on one of its books, but Kiely emphasized that the book’s success does not mean that the Press subscribes to Beck’s ideological motivations.

“We publish books from all sides of the spectrum. Hayek writes about classical Liberalism. If his book has struck a chord then it’s good, but we publish books by other authors,” Kiely said.

While The Road to Serfdom has found unexpected popularity nationwide, its presence on the U of C campus has dwindled, according to Power, Identity, and Resistance lecturer Richard Westerman.

Once mandatory core curriculum reading in the Power, Identity, and Resistance social science sequence, in the last two years the College opted to replace it with other works that do not deal so directly with Cold War topics, Westerman said.

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