Which Books Matter?

Leon Uris (1924-2003) Author of very long books, most of which sold very, very well, and most of which now gather dust in those bookstores which bother with bygone bestsellers.

You learn a lot about a person from the books left behind. Sherlock Holmes could do a better job, of course, but it doesn’t take those finely honed powers to recognize certain trends in the boxes. Ethnic pride, if any, stands out, and religion, sometimes, and, especially, generation. If you give me all of Dale Carnegie you are probably older than a person who has all of Og Mandino, just to pluck out one example.

This being Chicago, we get a lot of Irish Catholic collections, and, this being 2009, we get collections from a certain generation. There’ll be every book available on the Kennedy family, for example, and Fulton Sheen will generally be there. Edwin O’Connor is usually represented, along with some books of Irish prayers, Irish jokes, and Irish songs. There should be Yeats and leprechauns and Cuchullain. And you’re certain to find Leon Uris’s Trinity, an epic novel of the Irish struggle, which sold millions of copies, especially to Irish readers.

We also see a goodly number of Jewish collections, also of a certain generation. The autobiography of Golda Meir will be there, as well as the memoirs of Moshe Dayan. Fiction by Yael Dayan will be included, as well as a Union Prayer Book and some Haggadot (Does anyone ever consider the possibility that the Seder ceremony inspired the modern Book Group, where everyone around the table has read the same book?) There will be black and white books about the Holocaust, and triumphant books about the Seven Day War. And you’re certain to find Leon Uris’s Exodus, an epic novel covering generations of Jewish history. (If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the movie, or at least the theme song.)

What draws my attention to the phenomenon is that almost every time, the Irish collection will include a copy of Exodus, a quintessential novel of Jewish heritage. And, almost every time, the Jewish collection will include a copy of Trinity, an essential novel of Irish identity. Nothing too alarming, I suppose: someone who buys one bestseller might easily buy another one by the same author.

But when somebody—even me—starts in about bestsellers and their frothy, temporary fame, I think “The Irish readers who bought Trinity bought Exodus. And the Jewish readers who read Exodus read Trinity”. And sometimes I think it’s nothing at all, and sometimes I think maybe…maybe….

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