This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

December 9, 2001 — Maybe you've noticed a minor but growing phenomenon in the book business lately — clusters of books about the same odd thing coming out all at once. There are similar trends in titles, too, that make you think there's something going on that you're not quite hip to.

Maybe it's another indication of how imitative of the movie industry book marketers have become. After all, the movie biz, as if to show off exactly how bereft of ideas it is, has been doing this for years — giving us not just a rash of Shakespeare movies, say, after none for years, but, sometime next year, two movies about famous monobrowed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

On the one hand, this is great; any movie about Kahlo beats the tar out of the subject matter of most American films. But, on the other hand, why now? Kahlo's story hasn't changed since she, uh, died in 1954.

Anyway, in the book biz, something similar went on earlier this year when there was a cluster of books about Dante. There was a new translation of the "Inferno," a Penguin lives biography, a collection of essays by poets writing about Dante, and an expensive art book that collected Botticelli drawings illustrating the Divine Comedy.

Of course, Dante was one of the most important poets of all time and these books make sense, even if the coordinated timing of their appearance is still puzzling. Or take the current rash of books about last year's endless presidential election. Even their timing makes sense (and, a year later, is more seemly than the first rash of "instant books" that hit stores right about the time the Supreme Court judges were stepping out of their robes).

But sensible trends aren't what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about are those clustered publications that seem to appear for completely obscure reasons.

Why, for example, was the word "honeymoon" considered a hot choice for titles this year? (There was "Honeymoon," by Kevin Canty, and Chuck Kinder's great novel, "Honeymooners.") Or how about the word "hunter"? ("The Hunter, by Julia Leigh; "The Hunters," by Claire Messud.) Or "corrections"? ("A Few Corrections," by Brad Leithauser, and "The Corrections," by Mr. Anti–trend himself, Jonathan Franzen.)

And what do you think is going on with the color red lately? Seems like everyone's using it — there's "My Name is Red," by Ohan Pamuk, "The Red Tent," by Anita Diamant, and "The Heart of Redness," by Zakes Mda. (Not to mention Anne Carson's "Autobiography of Red" from a couple of years ago.)

Also, let's not forget the great, ongoing rage for titles involving the suffix "ist," such as Colson Whitehead's "The Intuitionist," Donald Antrim's "The Verificationist," and, coming soon, Peter Rock's "The Ambidextrist."

But my favorite no–apparent–reason trend this year had to do with a trend of subject matter, not title. Yes, I'm talking about the fact that someone named this Johnson year — this was the year for books oriented around the great eighteenth–century British writer Dr. Samuel Johnson. Most of them also threw in his sidekick and biographer James Boswell.

There was, for example, "Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson," by Adam Sisman, which focused on their relationship and the seven years it took Boswell to write his bio of Johnson. "A Life of James Boswell," by Peter Martin, was a more straightforward bio. "Dr. Johnson's London" by Liza Picard looks at life in London during Johnson's time. And there was even a novel — Beryl Bainbridge's "According to Queeney," which, as the book jacket says, "illuminates an intimate corner of the great man's life that his devoted biographer James Boswell never knew."

The best of the lot, for my money, is Sisman's book. Boswell has long been portrayed as a dissolute character who somehow got "lucky" when he wrote his masterpiece, a theory akin to the one that if you give a monkey a typewriter he will eventually type "War and Peace" (until then, he'll produce what are known as "insurance policies"). But Sisman portrays Boswell as someone with talent overcoming his troubles, and it's a stirring story. Bainbridge's "Queeney," too, is an absorbing charmer.

Which goes to show an old trend–basher like me. I mean, despite their importance as literary figures, Boswell and Johnson are not the stuff of the bestsellers that drive the industry nowadays. And yet here's a bunch of books about them. It's an encouraging sign for the industry, and a reminder that some trends are better than others.

Last Week’s Column: WEIRD BOOKS FOR WEIRD PEOPLE It's easy to saunter into a bookstore and get someone a bestseller. But what if you've got to get something for someone with really weird taste?


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