Lists are the junk food of journalism — that’s what they run in Entertainment Weekly when the editors can’t think of anything else — and books are a serious matter. But junk food can be awfully tasty, and recently I found myself wondering, What were the most influential books that came out in the last year? Soon, I was asking my friends and fellow critics, e-mailing literary agents and book-review editors, getting book-trade journalists on the horn. “What do you mean by ‘influential’?” they’d ask. I’d tell them that the term was deliberately loose. A book can be influential in any number of ways — by changing readers’ behavior, shaping political policies, inspiring other writers (think of those years reading Raymond Carver knockoffs), even transforming the publishing world itself.
Although my polling was (to put it generously) unscientific, the same handful of titles — perhaps seven or eight — kept being mentioned over and over. Eventually, I felt sure that they were the right choices. As for the other two or three books on this list, well — don’t you expect some fat in your burgers and fries?
1. Bush at War, Bob Woodward
It has become a cliché that journalism is the first draft of history. Bob Woodward’s books go that one better: They’re the first draft of journalism. The guy gets amazing access to big Washington players because they know he’ll let them tell their story yet never do what a serious reporter would — dig into the truth of what they’re saying, even if (especially if!) it might make them look bad. But this very vacancy is what makes Woodward’s books go down so easily. They give the illusion that we’re seeing “behind the scenes” with unmatched clarity. Never was this truer than in Bush at War (Simon & Schuster), which, on its release last November, instantly became a defining piece of pop iconography. Forget those earlier myths about Bush the dope, Bush the CEO, Bush the “compassionate conservative.” Here Woodward creates the myth of Bush that we all must live with, the story of an untested president who rose from early mistakes to become a wartime leader fully in control of his government. This is an “authentic” Bush who tears up with compassion, runs meetings with a stern hand and makes a point of insisting that he doesn’t want any photo-op wars — perhaps the stage-managed rescue of Private Jessica Lynch and the president’s Top Gun landings are a different matter. Not that such skeptical thoughts could ever creep into Bush at War, which happily prints the legend on its way to the top of the best-seller list.
2. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
Novelists aren’t always the most generous of people, and each time I bring up The Lovely Bones(Little Brown) in their presence, somebody grumbles about how Alice Sebold’s novel is Literature Lite, a self-help book in disguise, and anyway, isn’t there something slightly fishy about writing about a dead kid in the first place? I know what they mean — the book is unnervingly cheerful. Although it’s narrated by 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who’s been raped and murdered by a serial killer, she’s not exactly William Holden lying in that pool in Sunset Boulevard. Pure anti-noir, the book gives you death without the finality of, well, death. Which is one reason why the hardback sold over a million copies, was passed from hand to hand and became the talisman of last year’s Summer of Stolen Children. At once tender and unexpectedly light, The Lovely Bones presents a vision of healing that in its lavish doses of wish fulfillment taps into the same pop-spiritual fantasies as that other story of life after death, The Sixth Sense. America remains a profoundly religious country, and in a post-9/11 world that many found terrifying, Sebold’s novel could almost be titled Sunrise Boulevard: It reassured readers that those we’ve lost aren’t completely gone and that the dead can help the living find peace.
There are scads of noble, well-researched, well-written books out there, and as enlightened souls, we’d like the good ones to make our world more literate, more sensitive, more historically aware. A lovely dream. But if you’re looking for the books that actually change people’s lives, then you’re in the land of self-help, pop psychology and, especially in our liposuction-worthy times, life-changing diets. The late Dr. Robert C. Atkins was the Newton of the modern diet book — a loaf of bread fell on his head, he didn’t eat it and, voilà!, the pounds burned away. He put this discovery in his 1972 best-seller, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, the anti-carb manifesto that he essentially rewrote over and over for the next three decades. Indeed, his valedictory Atkins for Life is a huge best-seller and perhaps deserves to be one of the Top 10. But to dwell on Dr. Atkins somehow misses the point. For at bottom, the vast readership of diet books is like the audience for kung fu movies or reality TV. It craves novelty — nothing too radical, mind you (like eating sensibly!), but an exciting new regimen that lets you willingly suspend disbelief in your own lack of willpower. Enter The South Beach Diet (Rodale Press) by Arthur Agatston. It’s got a groovy blue cover that already makes you feel thinner. It’s got chichi South Beach cachet (a few years removed from its excessive Birds of a Feather vibe). And it’s got a clever riff on Atkins’ basic idea: Agatston will let you start eating carbs after the first two weeks, which is about as long as most people will last before they start wondering if another diet might be easier.