While I was in England a while back I observed a curious phenomenon in the bookstores. They all had the same display, front and center – a large-format book called What Not to Wear by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine. Inside, the book consisted of a series of chapters with titles like “Short Legs” and “Flabby Tummy,” lavishly illustrated with photographs of the authors in various kinds of apparel. One page showed the best choice of clothes and accessories, and the facing page showed the worst choice. I couldn’t tell the difference.
The curious thing about this fluffy book was its ubiquity. It occupied the prime selling spaces in all the bookstores, pushing out the Booker Prize winner and some important new books about the Middle East. I soon discovered why. What Not to Wear was the number one non-fiction bestseller in Britain, and it is based on a popular television show. If you want to write a bestseller these days, first get a television show.
How embarrassing, I thought, the British have become as trivial and fashion-obsessed as the French. I wondered what piece of empty narcissism was at the top of the French bestseller list, so I logged on to a French web site and found the answer. The best selling non-fiction book in France right now is a philosophical treatise by Luc Ferry called What is a Successful Life? Luc Ferry is a well-known intellectual, and also the secretary of state for education. His book is a passionate defense of secular humanism, which argues that a “successful” life is first and foremost one in which we make our own choices and take responsibility for them. It’s not a book for the faint-hearted reader. There are no colored pictures. References to Seneca, Nietzsche and Marcus Aurelius are scattered throughout. Just to make it more difficult, it’s in French.
This contrast between British and French bestsellers seems to confirm the triviality of one culture and the sophistication of the other. Luc Ferry doesn’t even have a television show to excuse his success. But the comparison led me to the obvious question: what’s at the top of the American non-fiction bestseller list? The answer is almost certain to be something about going to heaven or making a lot of money, the two major preoccupations of the age.
It’s a curious and piquant fact that the top-selling titles in Britain, France and America are all, in a sense, national self-help books. The British want to know how to look fashionable – a lost cause if ever I heard of one. The French want to know how to make the most out of life. Americans want to achieve wealth or eternal life, or both.
It is possible to make too much out of bestseller lists, but you can’t deny that the comparison is interesting. We have learned to accept, however reluctantly, that we are what we eat. Some people think that we are what we wear. Could it also be true that we are what we read?