8. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
Yes, I know. J.K. Rowling’s latest hasn’t even come out, and like the rest of the world, I haven’t yet read it. No matter. Just looking at the pre-sales of the new Harry Potter book (Scholastic Trade, June 21), you know that it’s already sending rip tides through the culture — how long has it been number one on Amazon? Kids are revved, and booksellers are bracing for the bonanza. With Harry’s help, publishing gets more and more like Hollywood all the time. (Harry Potter and the Golden Calf!) Just as George Lucas corrupted the movie business by creating the mega-profitable Star Wars franchise for adolescents — he lowered the age of the target audience and raised the threshold of expectation for profits — so the Potter books have created a blockbuster-greedy climate in which everybody seems to be turning out children’s books. Ian McEwan and Madonna, Michael Chabon and Jamie Lee Curtis, Clive Barker and Francine Prose . . . every day you hear about somebody new. It would be cynical to suggest that all these fine people are producing children’s books in hopes of scoring just some of the money being earned by Rowling (who’s now richer than the queen). So, let’s just say that a whole bunch of well-known people all decided at the same time that they really love kids and would love to write books that will make them happy.
The scientists I know take a perverse pride in boasting about the lab world’s ceaseless gossip, backbiting, hustling and office politics: “You think Hollywood’s bad,” they begin, then launch into stories of faculty members filching their assistants’ ideas, researchers fiddling with results to win grants for their lab, universities abruptly shifting research aims to better woo the fickle tastes of government money men. The unsavory politics of science lies at the heart of Brenda Maddox’s Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (HarperCollins), the biography of a King’s College, London, scientist systematically denied proper credit for her role in helping map the DNA double helix. While Maddox fills the pages with fascinating details about Franklin’s life, including her horror on visiting Hollywood (she found it “sordid” and filled with “depravity”), what made this book special is how it portrays the workings of power in science, especially the politicking and bias that often determine who gets credit for scientific breakthroughs. As both a Jew and a woman (and a “difficult” one, to boot), Franklin was an outsider who lacked institutional power. Although her famed Photo 51 of “B” form DNA was instrumental in helping “discover” the double helix, she wasn’t merely cut out of the glory — James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize after her untimely death at age 37 — but Watson pointedly undercut her reputation, creating an image of this major scientist as Rosy the Witch. An important work of historical restitution, The Dark Lady of DNA matters because it has already begun influencing the way that the scientific community thinks about the material reality of their world — who gets rewarded, who gets the credit.
10. STUPID WHITE MEN . . . AND OTHER SORRY EXCUSES FOR THE STATE OF THE NATION!, Michael Moore
When part of the film-industry audience booed Michael Moore at the Oscars, this wasn’t simply because they disliked his anti-war rhetoric. They were driven nuts by how he was using their big night to promote his own brand. After all, Moore’s ball cap, gibbous belly and tireless self-promotion have turned him into an international icon — perhaps the left’s first new one since Che Guevara. This has paid off with an astonishing yearlong run for Stupid White Men (HarperCollins), whose significance goes beyond the fact that it’s selling millions of copies. Like Bowling for Columbine, his book proves that the audience for left-wing ideas is as large and receptive as the audience for books by Ann Coulter or Michael Savage. Although far less filled with hatred than either of that pair — his jokes are funny, not toxic — Moore is no great thinker. Whatever the medium, he serves up an angry, scattershot populism that makes many on the left faintly uneasy. In fact, watching him cheap-shot ordinary people while shilling for his own products, I’m reminded how many African-Americans must feel when they realize that Al Sharpton is thought to represent their point of view. Yet as little as I enjoy Moore’s antics, Stupid White Men serves as an antidote to what has crippled the left in recent years — the tendency to think and behave like a humorless elite out of touch with what ordinary people find infuriating and absurd. For all his hustling, nobody has radicalized more people in the last few years than Michael Moore. Except, of course, for George W. Bush.