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Harry Potter, Dan Brown dominate U.K. list of best-selling books

The stereotype has it that England is filled with recondite literati ensconced in mahogany-lined libraries reading leather-bound volumes of Romantic poetry and plump Victorian novels. This as compared to the beer-swilling philistines in America, gorging themselves on a diet of Dan Brown and Tom Clancy (if they read at all). Well, newly released data indicates that this conception is flawed. Readers in the U.K., it would seem, have every bit as much devotion to Dan Brown as their counterparts across the Atlantic.

As noted in the Guardian over the weekend, Brown took the number one spot on Neilsen Bookscan’s list of the U.K.’s best-selling books released since the company began collecting data in 1998. According to the service, which tracks 90 per cent of book purchases in the U.K., The Da Vinci Code moved 4,522,025 units between 1998 and 2010, which accounted for a staggering £22,857,837.53 in revenue. Angels and Demons, Brown’s prequel to The Da Vinci Code, took the fourth spot on the list, with 3,096,850 units sold, accounting for sales of £15,537,324.84.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the top 10 is devoted to Harry Potter: all seven of J.K. Rowling’s books about the boy wizard are featured, with the first in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, taking the number two spot. The only place in the top 10 not devoted to Brown or Rowling goes to Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight, which clocks in at number nine. In fact, one has to make it to number 13 before a title by an author not among the three already mentioned appears: Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.

Perhaps surprisingly, Stieg Larsson does not crop up on the list until number 17, although the three novels in the Swedish author’s Millennium Trilogy came in at numbers one, two, and three respectively on the list of U.K. bestsellers for 2010.

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Empathy, wit, and rage towards Mr. Million Sales

To finish off Dan Brown Week – doesn’t have quite the ring of Shark Week does it? – here’s a roundup of some Lost Symbol brouhaha for your reading (dis?)pleasure.

CBC pop culture columnist Sarah Liss reads The Lost Symbol in a single twelve-hour sitting:

Sometimes, Dan Brown, loosely adapting Anthropology 101 texts for fiction just doesn’t work. Also, why do I get the sense you’ve never been tattooed – or met a gender-variant person? Also: “transgendering” is not a verb.

The National Post blog gives us a quote-fest of big names talking about Dan Brown’s success, including this one from Salman Rushdie:

“Do not start me on The Da Vinci Code, a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.”

Guardian blogger Jean Hannah Edelstein confesses that she doesn’t hate Dan Brown – she feels empathy:

I would thus be willing to wager all of the income I have ever made from writing fiction (nothing, but the sentiment is there) that sometimes, even as he wallows in his piles of money, Dan Brown wonders why he’ll never be able to write exactly as well as he wishes he could; why while being one of the world’s most financially successful writers, literary acclaim eludes him; why no one ever says, “actually, there’s a sentence on page 344 when Langdon says something rather profound and eloquent”. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we just cannot help the way that we write, and sometimes, it is just a bit crap.

Might our communal antipathy towards Brown in fact be a displacement of the energy that fuels the oft-unspoken but pervasive anxiety that the even attainment of longed-for commercial success is no guarantee that we are actually any good at writing? And yet would we keep writing at all if we didn’t still have a shred of hope, deep down, that it might be possible that we might be brilliant? We are all Dan Brown. Except for the staggering wealth.

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The gospel according to Dan Brown

New York Times columnist Ross Douhat (who does not look at all like David Brent … well, maybe just a little) believes that Dan Brown’s novels are successful not just because the books are cheesy page-turners, or because the notion that the Vatican conceals nasty little secrets is inherently interesting (especially to many Catholics), or even because, well, corny thrillers often sell huge, but because The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons (the film of which just opened to big numbers) present an alternative vision of faith, one more attuned to modern life:

Brown is explicit about this mission. He isn’t a serious novelist, but he’s a deadly serious writer: His thrilling plots, he’s said, are there to make the books’ didacticism go down easy, so that readers don’t realize till the end “how much they are learning along the way.” He’s working in the same genre as Harlan Coben and James Patterson, but his real competitors are ideologues like Ayn Rand, and spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology.

[...]

For millions of readers, Brown’s novels have helped smooth over the tension between ancient Christianity and modern American faith. But the tension endures. You can have Jesus or Dan Brown. But you can’t have both.

Jesus and Dan Brown, then, are kind of like cake and cookies – you can only pick one.

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Another day, another literary award controversy

The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which is partially funded by the Booker foundation, has been announced. The majority of titles on the shortlist – HungerThe Unfaithful TranslatorThe American GranddaughterTime of White HorsesThe Scents of Marie-Claire – read like standard lit-prize material.

Then there’s the winner, Egyptian author Youssef Ziedan’s Beelzebub, a work of historical fiction that “features a 5th century Egyptian monk in Alexandria and delves into the history of divisions among fathers of the church over the nature of Christ,” according to The L.A. TimesThe title refers to the Devil, who “unlike in classical religious thought . . . is not cursed as the voice of evil but implicitly hailed as the voice of human reason, which pushes the protagonist throughout the novel to question the universe around him.” As The L.A. Times puts it:

[Ziedan's] critique goes beyond the role of religious institutions to the essence of monotheistic religions: “The substance is the same; it is based on the superiority of oneself over others under the pretext of possessing a god who owns the truth. This element of superiority is the same in all three religions, which gives rise to violence. As long as religions last, violence will persist.”

[...] The work sympathizes with sects that challenged the divine nature of Christ, and it quickly ignited fury within the Coptic Church, which has about 10 million followers in Egypt.

In the manner of all good journalism, this Quillblogger will refrain from commentary; however, he looks forward to the inevitable English translation and Da Vinci Code-like storm of protest.

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Twelve must-haves for booksellers

Market research firm Nielsen just released a list of the top 12 books that booksellers “cannot afford not to stock.” The U.K.’s Telegraph notes that the works of Jane Austen, The Lord of the Rings series, and even the Bible aren’t included. Instead, the list is full of “long tails” and “evergreens” – books that continue to sell long after their peak.

Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong claimed the top spot, which was surprising to both booksellers and editors, as it has sold just under one million copies since its publication in 1993. As the Telegraph explains, it’s not about books that sell millions of copies (à la The Da Vinci Code, which sold 4.5 million), it’s about the “bunsen burners.”

Andre Breedt, research and development analyst at Nielsen BookScan, said the evergreen list gave a guide to booksellers in a vast market in which 200,000 unique titles are sold every week. He said: “People usually only look at the bestseller lists. The evergreen list is a way of showing that some unusual books do incredibly well over time.”

Publishing phenomena – like the Harry Potter books and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner – often bumped along as consistent but unremarkable sellers for years before sales erupted, he added. “With all the marketing material in the world you can only really make a book sell over the short term,” he said. What really drives book sales over longer periods is “word of mouth.”

Here’s the list:

1. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle
3. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Complete Cookery Course – Delia Smith
5. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – Michael Rosen
6. The Celestine Prophecy – James Redfield
7. The Colour of MagicTerry Pratchett
8. Long Walk to FreedomNelson Mandela
9. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
10. The Road Less Traveled – M. Scott Peck
11. The Light FantasticTerry Pratchett
12. Mort Terry Pratchett

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Talk books, knock boots

Over at The Tyee, Shannon Rupp has posted a lengthy response to a recent New York Times piece about bibliophiles judging potential mates by their reading material.

Using a booklist to divine a man’s character seems no worse than rating his shoes – which many women swear is infallible – and it may be better. A meeting of minds as a prelude to a meeting of . . . well, it just seems more authentic. Or so I thought, until I saw male reaction to the Times piece and discussed it with a few of my well-read men friends who began reminiscing about how knowing what was between the covers got them between the covers.

From there, Rupp shares a number of her men friends’ cheesy book-related pick up lines, and also exposes the all-too-common practice of “bookwinking” – pretending to have read and/or liked a book in order to get laid.

In perusing online comments it became clear that bookwinking is common. For every woman who dismisses a man for not knowing Pushkin, there are 10 men who have been literary poseurs. While it’s generally agreed by those of all sexes that a fondness for The Da Vinci Code, Ayn Rand, Dianetics, The Secret, and anything by Ann Coulter or Eckhart Tolle will get you booted out of bed by most thinking singletons, women note that there are a few books that serve as a kind of code-speak that a man’s taste in fiction is just that.

For example, beware any guy who claims Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being on his reading list. He’s trawling for casual sex.

Another warning sign is an alleged fondness for Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Apparently, it’s the title-of-choice among men posing as sensitive guys.

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Whither Dan Brown?

It’s been five years now since Dan Brown’s insanely popular The Da Vinci Code was published, and a lot of publishing industry types are getting antsy waiting for the follow-up, which is purported to be about freemasonry and America’s founding fathers.

From The Wall Street Journal:

The whole industry is impatient. Book sales are generally sluggish, and one explosive, high-profile title can jump-start sales across the board as customers pour into the stores and walk out with a bagful of titles. [...] So where is the new novel? It’s a mystery worthy of the deepest secrets of the Knights Templar. Mr. Brown, holed up in New Hampshire, isn’t saying. His agent, Heide Lange, isn’t, either.

“When a major author doesn’t deliver, you get down on your knees and pray,” says Laurence Kirshbaum, a book agent who heads up LJK Literary Management in New York. “You can’t threaten, you can’t cajole, you wait.” Back in November 2004, a spokeswoman for Doubleday said the target publishing date for Mr. Brown’s next book was 2005, although she noted that “there are no guarantees.”

Now, the publisher is hinting that a manuscript is close. “Dan Brown has a very specific release date for the publication of his new book, and when the book is published, his readers will see why,” says Stephen Rubin, president of Bertelsmann’s Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, whose Doubleday imprint publishes Mr. Brown. Mr. Rubin declined further comment.

From there, the Wall Street Journal reporter ties himself in knots trying to guess what the “very specific release date” will be. Could it be July 4th, perhaps? Or Oct. 13th, when the cornerstone of the White House was laid in 1792? Or maybe it’ll be Sept. 18, the same day that president Washington led a Masonic parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol Building in 1793?

For our money, the more pressing question is: how is Doubleday going to sell the film rights to this one, considering that the film has already been made under the title National Treasure?

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No Satanic Verses reading in mosque

German journalist and author Gunter Wallraff has been trying to get permission to read from Salman Rushdie’s infamous novel The Satanic Verses in a mosque in Cologne, but has so far been denied permission.

From DW-World:

The request posed a dilemma for the Turkish-Islamic union DITIB, an Ankara-funded religious foundation: If the group members denied Wallraff’s request, they would be seen as not being liberal, but granting permission would anger a large number of their members.

DITIB officials said they had discussed the proposed reading with Wallraff until two weeks ago, but negotiations failed after he refused to compromise.

“He lacks understanding for the feelings and needs of members of our Muslim community,” said a spokesman, without specifying what DITIB had proposed to Wallraff.

Any sentence with the words “Muslim” and “Rushdie” in it tends to raise temperatures on all sides of an issue, and to be fair, it’s unlikely that one would easily get permission to read, say, The Da Vinci Code in a cathedral. Maybe, like so many of us, the DITIB officials just don’t care for literary readings?

Either way, Wallraff has vowed to keep trying.

(hat tip: The Literary Saloon)

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In praise of bad books

George Orwell, in his essay “Confessions of Book Reviewer,” wrote that “until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.” He saw this mostly despairingly, with the professional reviewer wasting precious time and words on unworthy books and ultimately “pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.”

Joe Queenan, however, views the ever-growing pile of crappy books as something to be celebrated. In an essay in The New York Times, Queenan contends that bad books should be seen for what they are: the life of the party in an often solemn and overly serious field.

Most of us are familiar with people who make a fetish out of quality: They read only good books, they see only good movies, they listen only to good music, they discuss politics only with good people, and they’re not shy about letting you know it. They think this makes them smarter and better than everybody else, but it doesn’t. It makes them mean and overly judgmental and miserly, as if taking 15 minutes to flip through The Da Vinci Code is a crime so monstrous, an offense in such flagrant violation of the sacred laws of intellectual time-management, that they will be cast out into the darkness by the Keepers of the Cultural Flame. In these people’s view, any time spent reading a bad book can never be recovered. They also act as if the rest of humanity is watching their time sheets.

Such prissy attitudes are neurotic and self-defeating. Bad books are an essential part of life, as entertaining and indispensable as bad clothing (ironic polyester shirts), bad music (John Tesh at Red Rocks, Phil Collins anywhere), bad trends (metrosexuality, not using toilet paper for a year in order to “help” the environment) and bad politicians (take your pick). I started reading extremely bad books as a boy, when my beloved but slightly unhinged Uncle Jerry lent me the classic Reds-under-the-beds screed “None Dare Call It Treason,” and have been reading them ever since.

Of course, even Orwell admitted as much, in another essay entitled, appropriately enough, “Good Bad Books”:

All of these are definitely absurd books, books which one is more inclined to laugh AT than WITH, and which were hardly taken seriously even by their authors; yet they have survived, and will probably continue to do so. All one can say is that, while civilization remains such that one needs distraction from time to time, “light” literature has its appointed place; also that there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power.

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Too much reality at the Mogadishu Public Library

The cover of The Handbook of Metal Treatments and TestingThe Toronto Star reprints a story from the Washington Post about the Mogadishu Public Library, a one-room affair in the middle of Somalia’s perpetually war-torn capital. The library, which is privately funded by its 7,000-odd members, stocks mostly non-fiction titles of a practical bent, books like The Handbook of Metal Treatments and Testing and The Multinational Construction Industry, though there is the odd work of poetry and philosophy.

[Manager Hirsie Mohamed Hirui] said it was slightly easier to find novels during the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre, who was overthrown in 1991, and he recalled a slight craze in the 1980s over two books in particular, Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days and Franz Kafka’s Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared.

“Everyone wanted to learn a little English,” Hirui said.

Of course, just because you are in the middle of a city where random AK-47 fire is the norm doesn’t mean you’re immune to book hype:

Lately, some worn copies of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have been circulating from house to house.

No word on whether copies of Oprah’s latest book pick, The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier, have appeared yet in the Somali capital.

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