Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bestsellers, 2008

I've been looking at Publishers Weekly's list of bestselling books 2008 (which they inexplicably title "Bestselling Books 2009," but publishers must think ahead), and I confess I have read very few of them.

The list includes books that were published in 2007 or 2008 and that sold (in the United States, in 2008) more than 100,000 copies each. Of these, 156 were fiction and 119 were nonfiction. I have read eight of the novels and one and a half of the nonfiction books (although I spent a long time at Barnes & Noble leafing through another nonfiction book on the list, How Not to Look Old.)

PW's fiction list is predictably heavy on brand names: Grisham, Patterson, Cornwell, Baldacci. My own brand preferences run more to PD James and Alexander McCall Smith, both of whom also made the list. Here are the eight bestselling novels I read, with comments:
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. David Wroblewski. Ecco (9/08) 1,320,000 (Well, it’s about dogs and families, and it’s well written, but why did everyone like it so much?)
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial (368,288) (Yes! By far the best of the lot. A book for booklovers, and also a beach book.)
  • Remember Me? Sophie Kinsella. Dial (336,870) (Forgettable fluff, but fun)
  • One Fifth Avenue. Candace Bushnell. Voice/Hyperion (290,004) (Also FF but F)
  • The Private Patient. P.D. James. Knopf (235,000) (Excellent. PD James is still wonderful at age 88.)
  • People of the Book. Geraldine Brooks. Viking (212,498) (Good, but I liked Year of Wonders more.)
  • The Miracle at Speedy Motors. Alexander McCall Smith. Pantheon (150,000) (Mma Ramotswe is my favorite serotonin enhancer.)
  • Liberty. Garrison Keillor. Viking (101,000) (Ranges from annoying to infuriating, with occasional spots of comedy.)


The nonfiction list was crowded with “how to fill your life, which currently sucks, with wealth, meaning, and beauty” books, which I have avoided ever since it occurred to me that if any of these books actually worked, no more would need to be published.

Since 2008 was an election year, political and issues books were also popular. I read half of
  • Hot, Flat and Crowded. Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (9/08) 625,363
a book with an excellent premise that is easily understood in the first chapter or two, so that eventually the remaining chapters seemed superfluous.

I also read
  • Things I've Been Silent About. Azar Nafisi. Random (100,305)
perhaps not as compelling as her earlier Reading Lolita in Tehran, but still a fine memoir that has increased my understanding of the frequent scary headlines from Iran.

Religion books
Interestingly--at least to me, since I've worked for some 30 years in religion publishing--21 of the 119 nonfiction bestsellers were religion books. Each of the 21 either was by an already well-known author or else profited from a recent sensational news story. I can't comment on their content, since I haven't read any of them. One of two looked worth reading (if you wrote one, no doubt I am referring to yours).

Of the fiction books, only one was published by a religious house: Dead Heat by Joel C. Rosenberg (Tyndale). Alas, it's a right-wing political thriller.

Marilynne Robinson's Home didn't make the bestseller list, though perhaps it will in 2010. Meanwhile, it is accumulating awards. Christianity Today chose it as the best religious novel of 2008, it won Britain's Orange Prize, it appeared on the New York Times "100 Notable Books of 2008" list, and it was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.

Which just goes to show . . . bestseller lists are interesting sociological and business phenomena, but they're not a great guide to good reading.

You knew that all along. Now you have the data.

1 comment:

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

I totally agree with you about Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. LOVED it! Haven't read Home yet, but it's on my list. I listened to a great interview with her re the writing of Gilead, which I read slowly, thoughtfully, prayerfully--like a devotional.