(Hint: It's not all reviews, word of mouth, or advertising. Sometimes it's not even Oprah"¦.)
One of the great pleasures of most of my mornings lately has been to sit down and look through the best sellers lists; I'm a little nerdy, I admit, but I do feel at peace when I notice that even while I slept nothing much had changed in Bookland. Fifty Shades of Grey, in all forms, is still at the top of our lists, and Gone Girl; is never far behind.
But then I get further down on the lists, where the surprises start happening. Suddenly, for example, I spot David Mitchell's brilliant Cloud Atlas at #53, a book originally published in 2004. Why the sudden surge in popularity, I wonder. It's not a book for absolutely everyone"“it's difficult and loooong. Some snooping around the Web reveals that it's also about to be released as a movie, and the trailer for said movie"“ starring Halle Berry"“ came out in late July. We always know that when a movie hits the screen, the book on which it's based will soon hit the best sellers list, even (or maybe particularly) if the book hasn't been that high-profile in the first place: I'm thinking, for example of The Descendants, which enjoyed a nice ride around the time the George Clooney movie came out. Likewise the huge success of The Perfect Storm, book and film, when that one appeared. (Hmm. That movie starred George Clooney, too. Coincidence? You decide) And I don't have info from this far back, but I'd bet you when Sissy Spacek played Carrie in the 1976 movie, the Stephen King novella shot to the top, too.
But trailers? They"“ or rather their reach"“ has changed a bit since this thing called the Internet came along. I would have said, for example, that The Great Gatsby is sitting around #13 on the Amazon Books best sellers list these days because it's required summer reading for lots of high school kids and/or being bought to be read in English class in the fall. And that may be part of it. Except then I learned that there's a new Baz Luhrman 3-D version of the classic Fitzgerald book coming out on Christmas Day (starring Leonardo DiCaprio)"“and the trailer was released in late May.
Still, let's speak more about course adoption and required summer reading lists. Because looking at these lists, you start to see a pattern: books you haven't thought about since high school are made famous again by high schools and colleges [or "by English teachers"]. How else to explain how Brave New World; has spent 62 days in Amazon's top 100, lately at around #89? Unless I missed it, there isn't a new movie version in the works. Ditto Things Fall Apart; which is a perennial bestseller thanks in part to appearing on many high school reading lists. In the New York Times last June, Claire Nedell Hollander, a middle-school teacher, admitted she and her colleagues would be happy if their students read the obvious coming of age books like To Kill a Mockingbird, but she also recommended such modern classics as the graphic and disturbing A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah's memoir of being a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. Sarah Crichton, who published that book at her eponymous imprint, hoped the book would be course-adopted (one reason she kept it short, she says), but she worried that its graphic scenes of war would be too much for high schoolers. "We owe a lot to the teachers of America," she says.
So, probably, does the estate of JD Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye has been in the top 100 for at least the past nine months; likewise the late Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!, which lands this week at #99 and has been thereabouts for the past 337 days. Why? It's a perennially popular gift for grads.
Who says the American education system is out of whack? Obviously, students are reading"“a lot"“at least when a book promises to help them make the grade. To wit, what book, would you guess, has spent 875 days in the top 100? Is it something by John Steinbeck, or maybe Toni Morrison? Is it, perchance, Gone with the Wind or even The Firm? Sorry, not quite. The book that holds this not-so-dubious distinction is one that every high school junior (or his parent) has bought or is about to buy: it's called the Official SAT Study Guide, and it's had a little plunge lately, but as of this writing, the newest version was still listed at an impressive #36.