Americans endorse good and great books

Sunday, June 23, 2002

NEW YORK -- President Bush is reportedly studying Aristotle. Book clubs proliferate in the media. A self-published, 1,200-page science text sells and sells.

Are Americans reading more, or do they just want you to think they are?

"I'd be happy if it were either," says Richard Russo, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls," a novel selected by USA Today's book club. "If people aspire to read and see something missing in their lives and conclude reading might be part of it, that would be good."

Sales have been flat in recent years, but praise of books both good and great is on the rise. Since TV host Oprah Winfrey announced she was cutting back on her picks, at least four new clubs have been formed, with literary novels such as "Empire Falls" among the beneficiaries.

Finding best-sellers

The "Today" show opened its book club Thursday, asking a famous author to recommend the work of a first-time fiction writer. John Grisham, creator of such blockbusters as "The Firm" and "The Client" emerged from a door-sized book cover and selected Stephen Carter's best-selling legal thriller, "The Emperor of Ocean Park."

Carter's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has reprinted an additional 250,000 copies, but even Grisham seemed to question how many could get through it. He warned that the book is long and "at times a bit complicated."

"I tell people all the time I'm a famous writer in a country where people don't read," Grisham told interviewer Katie Couric. "It's not a book culture. It's a movie culture. It's a TV culture. It's a sports culture."

Carter's novel is 657 pages, barely half the size of another best seller, Stephen Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science." Thanks to word of mouth and media attention, Wolfram's self-published book quickly sold out a first printing of 50,000 and has spent weeks in the top 10 of Amazon.com.

Wolfram's premise is both accessible and appealing: simple rules, not complex equations, are the key to profound scientific mysteries. But with a recent survey saying only 22 percent of Americans can even define a molecule, "A New Kind of Science" may follow Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" as a book easier owned than read.

Reading occupies an uncertain place in American culture, which has simultaneously celebrated and suspected the thinker. The United States was conceived by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other intellectuals, but the true folk heroes tend to be generals, cowboys and gangsters.

At the same time, millions have subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club and joined reading groups.

"I get the feeling there are so many book clubs and people have less and less time. They need a little help," says Justin Kestler, executive editor of SparkNotes, which has published guides to several popular novels.

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