by Campbell Geeslin
In March, 2,300 Americans were asked to name their favorite books and the Bible was No. 1. The results were posted on the Harris Poll Web page. Gone With the Wind was No. 2 and No. 3 was the Harry Potter series.
Next, were To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby-Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. No surprises there.
But over the years, this list has changed in interesting ways. In 2008, it included novels by Stephen King, Dan Brown and Ayn Rand.
“In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others,” Andre Maurois wrote in 1963.
THINKERS: It takes a book to establish a big thinker. The current big thinker is a Frenchman, Thomas Piketty, and his book is Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Only two or three big thinkers appear in every decade. Sam Tanenhaus began his account of them in The New York Times with Susan Sontag and followed with Christopher Lasch, Allan Bloom, Francis Fukuyama and Samantha Power.
Capital, 577 pages of text and graphs and 78 pages of notes and an appendage called “Contents in Detail,” is a major bestseller: “Amazon can’t keep it on its shelves.”
Tanenhaus’s essay ended with: “Will Mr. Piketty achieve longstanding star status like Ms. Sontag and Ms. Power? Or will he retreat back to his scholarly lair like Mr. Lasch and Mr. Fukuyama? It will be up to Mr. Piketty, but also to the public. Tastes are fickle and even big thinkers can go out of fashion.”
In an interview for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Piketty said he hoped to adapt Capital into an opera. The Times said that was “unlikely.”
NOW A NOVEL: Ruth Reichl is a food writer who has published cookbooks and memoirs. She also wrote newspaper columns and edited a food magazine. Now she has written a novel, Delicious!
Asked by The New York Times Sunday Magazine why a novel, Reichl said, “I had always said if I didn’t have a day job, I would write a novel, and so there it was; I didn’t have a day job; I better write a novel.“
ADMIRATION: Christina Baker Kline is the author of a bestselling novel, Orphan Train. Other novels are Bird in Hand and Sweet Water. She has a blog on the Internet.
She was born in Cambridge, England, and grew up there and in the U.S. South and Maine. She has taught at Yale, Fordham, New York University and Drew University. She lives in Montclair, N.J., with her husband and their three sons.
On her blog, she wrote about how much she admired the writing of Alice Adams, author of Superior Women, who died in the late 1990’s. Kline wrote: “Her books are so absorbing that I feel like I’m reading gossip from a close friend, about people I actually know, except the writing is so much funnier and clearer and more beautiful than any gossip I’ve ever read.”
It’s only fitting that Christina Kline is currently working on a novel about Andrew Wythe’s painting Christina’s World, a favorite of visitors to the Museum of Modern Art.
GIFTS: After publishing five chick-lit novels, Karin Gilespie, author of Bottom Dollar Girls, found herself without a publisher or an agent. She decided to get an MFA in creative writing, and she wrote about that experience in The New York Times.
She concluded: “I gained something invaluable: Each writer enters into the craft with a specific strength. For me it was humor. For another it might be storytelling or the creation of beautiful sentences. As beginners we tend to rely too heavily on our strengths, and sometimes we have to minimize them in order to focus on our weaknesses. Along the way, different styles beckon. Eventually though, we must embrace the gifts that enticed us into being writers in the first place.”
DIGITAL AT LAST: To Kill a Mockingbird will be out as an e-book on July 8.
Harper Lee, 88, who held out against the format for years, was quoted in a publisher’s statement, “I’m still old fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries. I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”
STUDY: Alice Goffman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. The book, published this month, is described in The New York Times as a study of the impact of the criminal justice system on life in a low-income, African-American neighborhood.
Goffman spent years as an on-site observer. Her doctoral dissertation advisor, Mitchell Duneler at Princeton, said, “She got access to the life of the ghetto and came to understand aspects of it we don’t ever get to see.”
Not only did she live in a ghetto, but she gave up her vegetarian diet, listened only to hip-hop and R&B, and adopted “male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language,” she said in her appendix. Drugs pervaded the neighborhood, but she did not use them because “it hampered writing the field notes.”
Goffman told the Times, “Note taking is a way of living. On a good day, I think I’m touching some kind of truth about everyday life. On a bad day, I just think it’s insane.”
NUMBER NINE: The publisher, Abrams, said there are more than 120 million copies of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy books in print.
The ninth in the children’s series, The Long Haul will be out in November. Abrams president Michael Jacobs was quoted in PW: “These books have turned millions of kids on to reading, The Long Haul will do the same.”
INSPIRATION? HA! “Talent is like a faucet; while it is open, one must write. Inspiration is a farce that poets have invented to give themselves importance,” wrote French dramatist Jean Anouilh in 1960.
PROLIFIC: Kristen Ashley’s The Will is a bestseller. She has written dozens of books, many of them self-published, as is The Will.
With her long list on Amazon, it’s difficult to believe that she does anything but produce books. She wrote on her blog: “Stories come to me at the time and anything can be my inspiration. A television show, a movie, an experience. This will morph and grow; then the hero and/or heroine will come to me very strongly…and they’ll guide me and I go along and take their journey.”
According to The New York Times, The Will is about “a fashionable globetrotter and a retired boxer who fall into the same orbit.”
PRE-CLEANING: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. His last published story in the magazine was “Taps at Reveille.” Turns out he was heavily edited.
A new collection of his stories, including “Taps,” will be published in June. The editor, James L. W. West, went back to Fitzgerald’s pre-edited version and found that the Post “had sanitized Fitzgerald’s work….They excised or inserted substitutions for profanity and certain slang words, cut out references to sex and drugs and drunkenness, masked specific locations and names and either deleted or softened several anti-Semitic slurs uttered by some of the author’s less pleasant characters.”
West said in The New York Times: “I used to think The Saturday Evening Post stories were rather fluffy, but with the restorations they seem a little grittier.”
READ ON: If there is an award for best first sentence in a novel, Howard Norman has a contender in his new book, Next Life Might Be Kinder. His entry:
“After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me.”
Janet Maslin called attention to it in her New York Times review.
FANTASY JOB: Gabrielle Zevin is author of a novel, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. It’s set in a fictional bookstore. Zevin told The New York Times Sunday Book Review, “I think [having a bookstore] is the pet pipe dream of many of us who love books. . . . However, this is just fantasy. Running a bookstore is ridiculously difficult and the challenges bookstores face—e-books, online competition—are enormous.”
PURCHASE: “Bodice-Ripper in New Hands” was the smirking headline The New York Times put on a business section article about Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of Harlequin, publisher of more than 100 romance novels a year. He paid $415 million.
The Times said, “Like the rest of the book publishing industry, Harlequin is dealing with declining revenue and income, a product of the continuing shift toward digital books. The mass-market, grocery-store paperback, long the company’s bread and butter, is rapidly disappearing.”
DEATH: Lois Wallace, 73, died April 4 in Manhattan. She was the agent for Joan Didion, Don DeLillo, Erich Segal, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ben Stein. In a memorial Stein wrote for The American Spectator he said, “She never conceded defeat on a book, and she never conceded that anyone who owed me money should be allowed to get away with it.”