A Tough Year For Reading

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In 2004, books never seemed so vital and so endangered.

The publishing industry, ever worried about "relevance" in a multimedia age, proved well suited to the most emotional presidential election in memory, with countless authors summoning the muse of one George W. Bush. Readers responded to the quips of Jon Stewart's "America (The Book)," the hearsay of Kitty Kelley's "The Family" and to the firsthand revelations of Richard Clarke's "Against All Enemies" and Ron Suskind's "The Price of Loyalty," two books that both mirrored the public debate and helped shape it.

But political works - nearly 1,000 of them - were only a small, noisy minority of the more than 150,000 titles overall that were published in 2004, the vast majority meeting a speedy, if unjust death. Publishers and booksellers felt grateful just to break even and two industry studies confirmed their fears.

A survey from the National Endowment for the Arts found that the industry's fastest growing demographic was nonreaders, with more than 40 percent of the adult population not even averaging a book a year. The Book Industry Study Group reported that sales dropped by 23 million units from 2002 to 2003, with used books the hottest genre.

So it has been a time when emotions run higher than sales, and the books that succeed often do so not because of language and logic but because of how they make readers feel. Admirers of Bill Clinton remained so fascinated by the former president that they didn't care if critics found "My Life" about as sexy as the memoirs of Gerald Ford. John Kerry detractors were unmoved that allegations about the Democratic candidate's war record in "Unfit for Command" were contradicted by military documents.

Fiction readers, too, did not let facts spoil a story. "The Da Vinci Code" kept on selling even as scholars dismissed author Dan Brown's speculations on the lineage of Jesus Christ. Scholars also dismissed the End Times prophecy of "Glorious Appearing," the latest in the million-selling "Left Behind" series by authors Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

Some books reflected wishful thinking; others indulged pure fantasy. The hottest debut novel was Susanna Clarke's 782-page "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," while the finales of Neal Stephenson's "Baroque" fantasy cycle and Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series were also big best sellers in every sense, running longer than 800 pages apiece. A faster, more grounded read was a dating advice book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, wired to the souls of the single masses by its sobering, slap-in-the-face title: "He's Just Not That Into You."

People interpreted books as they pleased. The anti-Bush novel of the year was supposed to be Nicholson Baker's "Checkpoint," which weighed the virtues of assassination. But readers instead took to a novel set in an era predating the president's birth: "The Plot Against America," Philip Roth's historical fantasy of the United States, circa 1941, under the authoritarian rule of Charles Lindbergh. Roth insisted he wasn't thinking about Bush, but others disagreed, finding a timely message in Roth's story of an amiable front man for the dismantling of democracy.

The public was drawn to at least one other story that ideally would not have happened, but did: the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Composed by the most unlikely of literary auteurs, the United States government, "The 9-11 Commission Report," was a million seller and National Book Award finalist.

The only major resistance came from the United States government, which proved quicker to praise the report than to act upon its recommendations.
By Hillel Italie