Obviously the appreciation of any form of media is wildly subjective. Sometimes my opinion falls in line with the popular vote. Hey—I thought David Cook could sing circles around David Archuleta. Other times I’m in the minority. Frankly, Titanic and Leo couldn’t sink fast enough for my liking. But I think books are steeped in an even deeper form of subjectivity. There’s so much more left to individual interpretation than anything we see at the theater or hear on the radio. So it’s no surprise that even the opinions of experienced publishing professionals can completely contradict each other.
Most of us embrace the subjectivity of this business. Instead of begrudging the success of books we didn’t like, we try to understand what made them work. Still, in the spirit of demonstrating just how subjective this business is, we’ve decided to talk about the New York Times bestsellers we did and didn’t “get.”
Successes Kim totally “gets”:
THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini — This book and Hosseini’s second, A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, are two of my favorites of the last five years. These novels blend storytelling and enlightenment more seamlessly than any others in recent memory. They’re timely, riveting, and thought-provoking. I’ll admit that a few plot points in THE KITE RUNNER bugged me a bit, but the book still delivered and I found SUNS to be pretty close to perfect.
THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown — It’s one of the more controversial successes in the industry, but also one of the biggest blockbusters. There are a lot of naysayers out there—many of them inside the industry—who say that Brown didn’t break any new ground here . . . that it wasn’t so unique an idea to have made the splash that it did. I won’t disagree with that. The more newsworthy themes of the book weren’t exactly fresh—but may have felt so to the average reader. Still, I’m not convinced that’s what made the book take fire like it did. The truth is that Dan Brown is an expert in the art of the chapter cliffhanger. This book is a brilliantly crafted page-turner. Brown defies the reader to put the book down and it completely works.
Successes Kim didn’t “get”:
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY by Robert James Waller — Quite possibly the longest 200 pages I’ve ever read. I never found myself caught up in the romance and I was never able to sympathize with the characters. I’ll admit that I read this book as a senior in college, while interning at Putnam Berkley, so maybe my perspective would be different now. Unfortunately, though, I just don’t think I can force myself to crack this one open again.
SHE’S COME UNDONE by Wally Lamb — I’ve admitted many times here that I love a good cry, but this book made me want to gouge my eyes out. This has to be one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. I give the author credit for so effectively putting the reader inside the character’s head. But it wasn’t a place I could stand to stay for very long. My timing was bad with this one too. I read it on my honeymoon. It didn’t exactly set the right mood.
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by John Berendt — I didn’t dislike this book. In fact, I think it’s beautifully written and it totally made me want to go to Savannah. But I never would’ve predicted the type of success it had. And I’m sure many would say the same. I’m surprised that the book’s format (observations of the locals at the front with the true crime story starting almost halfway through the book) was so readily accepted by a mass audience. It’s heartening to see a book that’s not so clearly categorized find astronomical success.
I can chime in here since there are those NYT bestsellers I completely got behind and those that left me wondering, “Go figure.”
EAT PRAY LOVE: Ate it up. Prayed for more. Loved it. I went to an event that Liz Gilbert did in New Hope, PA, and she delivered in person as well. She’s a beautiful writer whose humility hit home with me. I’ve bought many, many copies of this book for friends and family. It’s a home run.
THE ROAD: Cormac McCarthy is one of a kind. The writing in this book and ALL THE PRETTY HORSES is breathtaking. It’s a tough story, and one that feels sadly prophetic. Absolutely amazing.
MARLEY AND ME: I have a yellow lab. He makes my heart sing. But Marley, he did nothing for me. I was bored.
90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN: Okay, admittedly I’m not the audience for this and I read it at the request of a friend, but the writing, the story, the cover . . . it was a big flop for me. I REALLY don’t get it.
And of course, we have to mention . . .
A MILLION LITTLE PIECES: I knew it was bs from page 1. Who is letting a bloody and battered man on a plane post-9/11 with a hole in his cheek? Who orders lobsters and gambles on football in rehab? Come on, I had no sympathy for anyone who bought this one.
I’m also with Kim on THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and SHE'S COME UNDONE, though I enjoyed (but didn’t love) MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. THE DA VINCI CODE did nothing for me, but THE KITE RUNNER . . . wow.
This is a really tough question for me to answer and frankly I’m surprised by that. While there are a lot of New York Times bestsellers that I haven’t loved, I can often see why they’ve hit the list or why they’ve had the success they’ve had, even if they didn’t appeal to me in the same way.
To make my list I actually had to do some thinking and reviewing of the bestseller list now and in days gone by. But after doing so I was able to come up with a few. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books or my least favorite books, they are just books I either clearly did or did not get.
One book that I know has been incredibly controversial for its success, but that I really enjoyed is THE DA VINCI CODE. One of the things I’ve found interesting about this book though is that when talking to people who read both THE DA VINCI CODE and Brown’s ANGELS AND DEMONS, the one readers tended to like the best was the one they read first. For me it was ANGELS AND DEMONS. Either way, what so clearly made THE DA VINCI CODE a bestseller was the broad appeal. It introduced readers to an interesting and secretive world, it explored historical and religious beliefs, and it was easily accessible for all readers. It was also a thrilling adventure and I think I read it in a day.
Another book or series of books I do get is the Harry Potter series. I do get why these books have captured the imagination of children worldwide and I applaud that. How can you not be thrilled with a book that gets kids reading again? And you know what? I enjoyed them too. I haven’t finished the series yet, but I have read the first two books and I really do like rooting for the kid who lived in a cupboard.
There are two books that I never got, but before talking about them I need to fully confess that I’ve never read either of them from cover to cover. However, I think I’ve read enough to know why I don’t get them. They are THE RULES and SHE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. There is such a narrow audience for these books, single women who are desperate to understand men, and yet they sold thousands and thousands of copies. I do not get it. I didn’t get the appeal of these books when I was single and I don’t get them now.
And another book that I never got and that, quite frankly, irritated me a little was DECEPTIVELY DELICIOUS by Jessica Seinfeld. There was obviously a huge controversy over the publication of this cookbook on how to sneak vegetables into your child’s diet, but that should not have made this a bestseller. I know, I know, it’s all because she was on Oprah. But really?! A bestseller. No way.