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.
4. Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, Ann Coulter
This is the era of the Id Conservatives, right-wing shock troops whose rage betrays the dark underbelly of conservative thinking. They call Democrats “traitors” and feminists “whores” and say they wish the hijacked jets had killed everybody at The New York Times (this is what they term a joke). The queen of the pack is, of course, Ann Coulter, the kind of baleful, leggy blond you expect to see in bed with James Bond just before he kills her. Although Slander (Crown) was only one of the recent best-sellers attacking our supposedly leftist media — Bernard Goldberg’s slipshod Bias sold over 400,000 copies — it was so virulent in its anger that it made Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh look positively mainstream. And its sales marked something of a sea change in publishing. In the past, such books tended to be brought out by right-wing houses such as the lamentable Regnery (which is still releasing books attacking Bill Clinton). But after the success of Slander, the Crown Publishing Group (a division of Random House) got hungry for those right-wing dollars. It didn’t merely sign Coulter up for another hot-button jeremiad, Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, it launched a whole new imprint, Crown Forum, devoted exclusively to tossing conservative readers their ideological red meat. In the process, Slander became the first book in history to radically change its publishing house without managing to change a single reader’s mind.
Mayflies enjoy a single day of adulthood, pass on their genetic message and promptly die. The publishing equivalent of this may well be Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm (Random House), which became obsolete the moment the Coalition of the Piddling (as Jon Stewart dubbed it) actually did invade Iraq. Still, during the six months after its release last September, Pollack was as inescapable as cheeping cell phones; you couldn’t turn on NPR or CNN without hearing someone intone the book’s portentous, pseudo-Churchillian title (this storm wasn’t just gathering). While some of Pollack’s success was historical serendipity — one can’t imagine making a best-seller out of “The Case for Invading Grenada” — its strength lay in his increasingly rare knack for coming off as a calm, honest broker with no hidden ideological agendas or talking-head vainglory. (I kept waiting for the customary debunking profile from inside the Beltway, but none ever appeared.) His evident fairness helped The Threatening Storm define the whole debate over Iraq by appealing to readers on both sides. Liberal hawks (such as The New Yorker’s David Remnick) used the book to justify toppling Saddam; skeptical doves used its arguments to show how the Bush administration was racing into things without thinking them through properly. It’s a measure of Pollack’s skill that, even today, both pro- and anti-war people can still think he was right.
One hallmark of Bush-era culture is the explosion of what Nietzsche called ressentiment— a twisted feeling of envy that comes mixed with moral superiority toward those one is envying. Such emotion has rarely taken a breezier form than in The Nanny Diaries (St. Martin’s Press), where Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus depict the comical horrors of working for the Boss From Hell — in this case, a chilly, narcissistic Park Avenue wife better acquainted with Prada than with her own son. This is the kind of book that people describe with crushing accuracy as “very good for what it is.” Yet what makes it so influential is the ease with which its appeal can be duplicated. While it would be nearly impossible to sit down and emulate a novel like Atonement— where exactly would you start? — The Nanny Diaries offers a simple formula for success. You take a bitchy rich employer, add an endless retailing of status details, and filter it all through a heroine who, despite her innate decency and modest prep-school training, clearly wants to own those upper-class accouterments herself. Do all this and you have the latest ressentiment best-seller, the egregiously ill-written The Devil Wears Prada, whose infernal fashion-magazine editor actually snaps at her beleaguered assistant because her latte is too cold. Can you imagine such wickedness? Much of America obviously can and takes no small pleasure in hearing that Manhattan socialites and fashionistas are shallow, selfish and mean. But reading about their bad behavior out here in the Hollywood of Scott Rudin and Joel Silver, where the term “you stupid cunt” is an accepted form of address, these books’ idea of a really bad boss feels positively quaint.
7. Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, Robert Kagan
The terror attacks of September 11 were soon followed by a second assault: the Attack of the Foreign Affairs Pundits, from beaming William Kristol and Bernard Lewis to Robert Kagan and Fareed Zakariah (whose “Bollywood” charm was recently hailed by Tina Brown). Suddenly these guys weren’t just turning up in the third slot on Charlie Rose, their books were hitting the best-seller list and defining The Conversation. Of the bunch, none has carried as much impact as Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power (Knopf), which has been excessively celebrated for its elegance (meaning it’s only 103 pages) and for its explanation of why America and Europe see things like the ä invasion of Iraq so differently: Even as Old Europe (to use the Rumsfeldian formulation) is busy building a “Kantian” community of laws and collective action, the U.S. inhabits a “Hobbesian” world where we must exert our might even at the risk of employing double standards. One could argue for hours against Kagan’s justifications for neo-imperialism (and his gratuitous sneers at European social programs), but that would in no way diminish his book’s influence. It offers the clearest statement of the new conventional wisdom behind the Bush administration’s cocky attitude toward the rest of the world.
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.