For years, Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel Dune has appeared before me as a background prop of various cool people. It was the thickest book on my now-boyfriend’s bookshelf, the first time I entered the bedroom of his college flophouse. Per John Waters’ suggestion, I did indeed sleep with him. Today, it sits on the bookshelf of our shared apartment. I never knew much about it, except its association with David Lynch and, therefore, hip and eccentric cinema. Recently, though, my boyfriend revisited Dune, lightly explaining the plot to me before we watched the 1984 film. Afterwards, the mystique was gone. This movie isn’t very chic or sexy at all, I thought to myself, though I did enjoy it. This is, actually, dorky.
Yet, among Instagram’s curated stills of clean white walls, $40 candles and dainty gold jewelry, I’ve continued to notice creased-spine copies of Dune as a status object.
It’s not surprising, by any means, that posting about reading during quarantine is considered cool. Reading such a long book, in particular, signifies that extra bit of commitment and some convoluted sense of intelligence that makes it even more noteworthy to post about. Coming in at just under 800 pages, per the copy in my apartment, Dune certainly fits that bill. But unlike lengthy texts like Infinite Jest or buzzy books like Normal People, Dune was never very… sexy.
It’s not just Instagram, though. As Cinema Blend noted earlier this week, Dune is currently #1 on the Washington Post’s mass-market paperback bestseller list. The reason for its recent resurgence is obvious: The first of Denis Villeneuve’s two-part adaptation of the book is set to be released in late 2020, starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya. As the countless photos of both actors (either from the film or elsewhere) flooding the Instagram and Twitter hashtags for Dune indicate, this boost in sales is likely due in part to Chalamet and Zendaya’s devoted stans.
But still, it’s not just the Gen-Z superfans who are adding to Dune’s aesthetic popularity. Of course, given that both Chalamet and Zendaya are cool and sexy themselves, they certainly help. But per Rob Bricken, MEL contributor and former editor of sci-fi/fantasy news site io9, Dune has carried, if not a sexiness, then at least a sense of fashionability since before either actor was even born.
“Dune’s always been kinda hip in that Stranger in a Strange Land way,” he says. “It’s a complex story designed for an adult audience, which always gives sci-fi a sheen of distinction. I also think Dune gets an extra sheen of classiness because the prose is extremely dense, allowing those who manage to get through it a sense of superiority over those who turned away.”
In that sense, Dune hits on multiple levels: having it is hip not just because it says you read, but that you read long, laborious works.
“Basically, if you’re trying to project your image as a smart, classy nerd with sophisticated taste, it’s never bad to have Dune on your bookshelf,” Bricken continues. “What makes Dune special, I think, is that it’s just so sprawling — it’s got the politics of Game of Thrones, the economic trade wars shit of cyberpunk, stuff about the environment and race and all sorts of other Big Themes — that people can read any profound message they want out of it, which does legitimately make it a classic in the pantheon of sci-fi.”
Quarantine is a natural conduit for completing such an intensive work, but according to Bricken, there’s more to it. “There’s the fact that the Star Wars franchise has become a toxic mess, and Star Trek is stuck on CBS All Access limbo,” explains Bricken, which means devoted sci-fi fans are left empty-handed. Fans of Villeneuve’s previous films like Blade Runner 2049 are likely among the new Dune readers, as well.
“I think some nerds are looking for another sci-fi story to get behind, and Dune just doesn’t have any of the baggage the big franchises have,” says Bricken. “But I also think Dune is significantly more regarded as a sci-fi classic than actually read. It remains to be seen if Herbert’s dense-yet-sprawling and highly goofy story will resonate with mass nerds looking for a new fix, let alone mass audiences.”
As it turns out, my boyfriend’s recent quarantine-inspired attempt at finishing Dune was the first to be successful. It’s possible, of course, that the Dune copies on social media serve the function that his did for years — filling shelf space and looking impressive. Read or not, the effect still seems the same.