I had to do it. You read it all the time: "New York Times Bestseller!" "43 Weeks on the New York Times Ten Bestseller List!" People go into bookstores and buy their reading material -- plunking down $25 and hours of their time -- simply based on a book's place on the list. And so I decided it was time to find out something about these books.
So I rolled up my sleeves, turned on my lamp, brewed some coffee and dove in. I decided to use the list as it stood at the year's busiest shopping time: December 25, 2002. Books that were Christmas titles were skipped, being seasonal flukes and not destined for a long shelf life. Instead, I took the top ten non-holiday books and read them all. These are not the year's best books -- although there are some good ones. But these are the books that made the most money in 2002, and will likely go on to earn even more. We can expect to see even more of them and their kind in the future, because like it or not, we've made the New York Times list what it is, while at the same time greedily consuming the books that rest at its pinnacle.
So what do these books say about us? And what do they say about where books are headed?
Sometimes I was pleasantly surprised. Sometimes I enjoyed myself. And in a few cases, I finished the book a slightly different person from who I was when I picked it up. There are also hours of my life that I now consider hopelessly lost. Some of these books I wish I could forget. Taken together, they weigh 14.5 pounds, and contain 3,913 pages. Women wrote three of them. Seven of them feature men as the main character. Almost all of the characters are white, and there is a surprisingly small amount of sex and profanity.
Things start comfortably enough at No. 10 with Maeve Binchy's novel Quentins. The book centers on an old Dublin restaurant and the people who hang out there. They all seem very nice, veering blithely between British diffidence and a more earthy directness. As a result, what is pretty much a tea-cozy of a novel comes to life in a very quirky way, and every time Binchy puts her characters in a Hallmark Hall of Fame situation, she has someone plop it into perspective. One character, rather than describe the Irish weather as damp, simply notes, "it was not a day for the sand."
This is good Irish inscrutability, and the characters never fully emerge from this soft-focus prose. But to Binchy's credit, she's at least made them real enough that I don't suspect they want to emerge. And for my part, I was happy enough joining them as they shared their wine and stories and secrets. I didn't mind them staying a little bit out of touch.
It was in any case less confusing than what came next. I can't keep the plot of the second-to-last book on the list distinct from that of the second book on the list. Both Scott Turow's Reversible Errors (officially placing ninth in the lineup), and James Patterson's Four Blind Mice (No. 2), are stories about lawyers and policemen trying to free killers, or convict killers, or whatever it is lawyers and policemen tend to do these days. Neither Turow nor Patterson was very helpful in answering that question, so I eventually decided that lawyers and policemen must all be writing novels.
In prose, however, Patterson distinguishes himself from his colleague by writing under the assumption that nothing sets the mood of a chapter like a few shopworn clich & eacute;s. And so spine-tinglers like "We were getting nowhere fast," and "Same old, same old," launch a number of clattery three-page chapters, in which the main character Alex Cross is prevented from retiring from the police force to both his and my irritation. Although I had to laugh out loud at one point: A character, passing through an airport, observes someone reading a Jonathan Franzen novel. Suddenly I had the urge to live in Patterson's world, where airport reading consisted of actual literature rather than books like Four Blind Mice.
Turow, on the other hand, writes very slickly. At least I remember his book as the one that used words like "tacitly," "unfathomably," and even "kaboom," as opposed to Patterson's fumbling with "fortunately" and "coincidence." As far as plot goes, it's a basic courtroom drama on the surface, but with everyone jumping into bed with everyone else, or worrying that someone else will. It sounds fun and complicated, and in the process, Turow deals quite a few credible scars to his creations. And how could I not love an author who gives me characters with names like Wilma and Squirrel?
And so I arrived at the eighth member of the top ten: Yann Martel's Life of Pi. I had been told that it was "magical," and "imaginative." And I suppose those words apply to this story of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger. But all I could think after the first 20 pages was that I was witnessing the birth of a Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the 21st century. Let me just offer you some typical moments of prose:
"First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first."
"I was fourteen years old -- and a well-content Hindu -- when I met Jesus Christ on a holiday."
"High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar."
Make of those what you will. Perhaps The Life of Pi is the perfect novel for those looking for spiritual metaphors. To me it's like discussing fortune cookies.
I had somehow managed, up to this point, to avoid reading a Danielle
Steel novel. So it was with a mixture of apprehension and excitement
that I began her 56th book, which comes in sixth on this list. Steel, a friend informs me, generally takes the dramatic crux of her novels from whatever crisis happens to be generating a lot of media attention at the time. (Think Alzheimer's, cancer, the Titanic.) The issue du jour this time around is Christianity, and so the novel is hopelessly entitled Answered Prayers, with a heroine named -- yes -- Faith.
With her two daughters grown, Faith is having a midlife crisis, and so, probably inspired by reading too much Scott Turow, she decides to go to law school. Equally inspired by Turow, her husband then goes ahead and has an affair, which doesn't lead so much to marital fireworks as it does to a lot of hand-wringing, candle-lighting and some incredibly boring e-mailing. Faith rekindles her acquaintance with her old "friend" Brad (yeah... right), and before long, thunkers like "Hey, are you okay? You've gone very quiet," and "Hang tough. Have to go to work early," are flying across the country. Of course, Faith acts titillated by this correspondence with a man who's not her husband, but from the way she says "I'll say a rosary for you," I think she's done this before, and I think Danielle Steel has, too. She's probably written this book before; it's just a matter of changing a few names and other chronic conditions around a little.
And yet, despite the fact that Steel slams her prose together like a bricklayer, I found myself slowly becoming engaged by Faith, whose thoughts probably run closer to reality than we'd like to admit when we escape to a novel. Nothing big happens here, much like most of our lives. Perhaps Steel's appeal lies not so much in the dustily romantic scenarios she concocts, but in the recognizable consciousnesses she brings to the page. They may not lead the exciting lives of the other characters in the novels on this list, but they lead believable lives, and provide a little familiar companionship while they're around.
It wouldn't be a bestseller list if Mr. Tom Clancy didn't surface somewhere. In Red Rabbit, we get Clancy's perennial hero Jack Ryan as something of a bit-player in the story of the KGB's failed 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John II. As much as Clancy's preoccupation with U.S.-Soviet relations can make him seem dated, there is a very comforting swing to his prose, making him almost a Cold War Charles Dickens. Who else, after all, would dare to foist names like Colonel Rozhdestvenskiy and Stefan Yevgeniyevich on the bad guys, and Miss Margaret and Tom Treut on the good guys?
The book is slow, but it's still Clancy. Acronyms fly like missiles as the KGB IDs the CIA's COS using the KISS principle around the NIO with a DDI... Maybe this technique helps Clancy pack more prose into his pages, but I call it BS. Fortunately, we have Jack Ryan to keep things going. At this stage in his fictional career, he's become the Nicholas Nickleby or Oliver Twist of the 1980s, finagling his way into situations bigger than himself, inadvertently pointing out the best and worst of the era, and generally making himself out to be an entertaining scamp. So it was both amusing and comfy as he lamented, while smoking, that his airline didn't serve Jack Daniels. Flying, as well as war, was very different then, and that was good to remember.
Speaking of flying: just try reading Ken Follett's latest -- Hornet Flight -- and staying relaxed. This book, resting at No. 4, might not be high art, but it ended up surprising me more than any other book in the bunch. At first, it's a by-the-numbers thriller: take a chilling concept (the Nazis somehow always know where the Allied planes will be), and add some nuts-and-bolts suspense (gotta get the top secret information back to England in a rickety plane). But when was the last time you read a World War II novel set in Denmark?
What I loved most, though, was the way these characters talk. It's like film noir. When a woman named Tilde has to tell a character named Peter something in the middle of the night, she doesn't just say what she came to say. No, first we hear that, "She glanced at the pattern on his pajamas with a grin. 'Elephants,' she said as she walked into the living room. 'I wouldn't have guessed.' " Could Marlene Dietrich do any better?
So we come to No. 3 -- a book that will likely emerge as the year's all-around bestseller, having debuted last summer and hovered near the top of the list since -- Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. In order to qualify for the bestseller list, normally a book needs to do everything it can to avoid disconcerting the reader. So it's interesting to note that the second sentence of The Lovely Bones can genuinely catch the reader unawares: "I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."
I have to admit that this was the one book on the list that I had previously read, and I had liked the book at the time. Rereading it now, in the context of the other bestsellers, however, my opinion of it changed dramatically. Perhaps it was the fact that I knew what was coming, or maybe it's just that I understood bestsellers a little better, but the second reading struck me as painfully contrived and false. Gone was the sense of shock at discovering that this was the story of a young girl's brutal murder and its aftermath as told by the young girl herself, watching the proceedings from a personal heaven. Because from those first lines, through the endless reminders that Susie was thinking, feeling and existing somewhere, Sebold persistently scratches at the natural itch we all have to believe that our deceased loved ones exist somewhere.
Eventually, it becomes almost humorously awkward: "At twenty-one Lindsey was many things I would never become, but I barely grieved this list anymore." She just had to mention it... and go on mentioning it for an entire chapter. This shows Sebold's inexperience as a novelist. At least Danielle Steel has the dignity to tell us what she wants us to think, middlebrow though it may be; Sebold tries to trick us. She tries to sneak in through the back door, and unfortunately she leaves tracks. It hurt the book for me, and made it cheaper. And then I understood why it was one of the year's best sellers.
But let me go back to the seventh-best-selling book on the list in order to find a very different, and much better, story about loss: Steven King's From a Buick 8. At this point in his career, King could make almost any book sound ominous just by parking his name next to the title. Still, From a Buick 8 seems like a stretch. It sounds almost funny -- and it turns out that it's something much more than scary.
There's an easygoing arc to King's American vernacular, letting you know that with this ghost story, the pleasure will come from the telling more than the tale. The year is "oh-one," and people are going "right on about" their "beeswax." We learn of one man that "his hair was mostly gray, and it had gone out like the tide." This sort of writing takes confidence to pull off. King no longer needs devices to make his novels work. Well... he does have a mysterious car that eats people and ejects horrible monsters from its trunk. But those sequences are almost distractions from the real story, which is about a teenage boy coming to grips with his father's death. And even then, as the main narrator says, "None of the talk was about his father; all of the talk was about his father. You understand."
How nice to have a novelist who trusts the reader to think, even at these heights on the bestseller list. And because our minds are engaged as we read, King's characters are free to do something that almost no other characters do in any of the novels I read: They listen to themselves talk, and as they overhear themselves, they change. This would be cause enough for celebration, but this book is also genuinely creepy (really an homage to the early American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft), and it has a few genuine surprises near the end.
No surprise, however, as we reach the top of the list and find Michael Crichton, who warns, in his footnote-laden introduction to his latest, Prey, that "Sometime in the twenty-first century, our self-deluded recklessness will collide with our growing technological power." I can't help but wonder if by our, he means my, and if "technological power" refers to his next word processor. If so, somebody -- please -- stop him! Prey is about a swarm of microscopic self-manufacturing machines that develop a hive mind and go on a killing spree, and I couldn't help thinking of Crichton's novels every time he described the little cyborgs.
After his infant daughter turns purple, the main character, Jack, runs off to a desert compound to take a consulting job. It seems that Jack used to make computer programs that behaved like "termites, swarming bees and stalking lions." Velociraptors, anyone? Because the entire story here is essentially Crichton's Jurassic Park all over again, but with tiny flying robots instead of giant lizards. And that's where the problem lies. In Jurassic Park, the tension came from the fact that we knew that dinosaurs actually did exist, and that they were probably badasses. Here, we're expected to be concerned when millions of flying cameras go AWOL. That's a lot to assume, and despite his frequent scientific digressions, about the only real support Crichton gives us is the observation that, "These things kill, you know."
And that's not the only aspect of the modern novel that Crichton tries to take out in one fell swoop. In one place, he tries his hand at characterization, and writes: "So I became an expert in predator-prey relationships." This type of prose is supposed to sound cool, but as it accumulates it just sounds undeveloped, as if one day Michael Crichton had decided he had become an expert novelist.
Ultimately, Prey collapses from Crichton's prolific story-churning. At one point a character -- I can barely call him that -- musing on the construction of the robots, notes that "the goal was not to manufacture a single molecule in an hour. The goal was to manufacture several pounds of molecules in an hour. No one had ever figured out how to do that." Well, Michael Crichton has. I'm suspecting that this 1.5-pound pile of molecules wasn't written so much as manufactured in an afternoon.
If this is where novels are headed, I'm subscribing to cable. Fortunately, looking back on the list, there are a few things to be grateful for. Stephen King has gone from a horror-genre novelist to a storyteller who will likely join O. Henry, Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver as a great American writer. And Danielle Steele, for all of her faults as a prose stylist, still holds up a not-unfriendly mirror to our middlebrow morality as we get on with our lives. I suppose that it won't be long before we hear of a Church of Pi somewhere, and with books like that, I think it's the kindest thing we can do for them. Sebold, with her profitable debut, can look forward to a good long career as a writer. For all of The Lovely Bones' faults, there may be a real writer in there somewhere; only time will tell. But I will be skipping Prey when it hits theaters.
And as for us, the readers -- well, I hope we have the courage to come down from the mountain of bestsellers and look around in the valleys. There are a few good vantage points on high, but really, in 2002, most of the fun was to be found a little lower. Ask around. Booksellers may want to move those 500 copies of Patterson's latest nursery rhyme that they ordered, but if you talk to them for a while, you'll probably get a better recommendation. These people practically live with the books, after all. Otherwise, without Oprah, we're on our own now. I think that's probably for the best.
The Inlander recommends these books from 2002:
From a Buick 8, Stephen King; Middlesex,
Jeffrey Eugenides; Atonement, Ian McEwan;
Bad Blood, Lorna Sage; Nonrequired Reading,
Wislawa Szymborska; One Hundred Demons,
Lynda Barry; The Age of Gold, H. W. Brands;
Three Junes, Julia Glass; After the Quake: Stories,
Haruki Murakami; The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster.