In the bookstores, seeking self-help

If it's true that we are what we eat, that surely holds for the ideas we eat up, too, as we browse at bookstores - virtual or real -- or page through the latest book-club flyers. In fact, "browsing" originally meant nibbling on twigs and leaves, as foraging animals do.

And so a book such as Michael Korda's new opus, "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999," (see article, page 17) is likely to tell us as much about those who put the books on the list as about the books themselves.

And our choices in nonfiction may be more revealing than those in fiction.

Commenting on the perennial appeal of education as a topic for American book-buyers, Mr. Korda writes, "Hardly anything has been more remunerative to book publishing than the touching and deeply seated American belief that one's children are brighter than they seem and could be taught better than they are at school."

Closely related to education is self-improvement.

Many Americans continue to tend the child within, we might say, continually pursuing self-improvement on all fronts - in their careers, their relationships, and their spiritual lives - to say nothing of their golf game. This may be especially so in January, when conscience calls us most insistently to hold to our New Year's resolves.

A difference between American and European bookstores is the space given to "literature." In a European bookstore, "literature" tends to be so much the main event that it may not be labeled as such. American bookstores tend to have a section labeled "literature" - often a mere island of belles lettres in a sea of self-help, self-improvement, and all the texts "for dummies."


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