Analysis: Religion propels best sellers

By JESSIE THORPE, United Press International  |  Nov. 28, 2003 at 2:13 PM
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Recently, the Guiness Book of Records announced it had passed the one hundred million mark in sales. That is quite an achievement, especially for a book that has been published only since 1955 and annually only since 1964.

Immediately, those who keep track of such things began calculating how the Guiness sales figures compared to the venerable best-selling book of all time, the Bible. The truth is, according to Russell Ash, who complies lists in "The Top 10 of Everything," no one "really knows how many copies of the Bible have been printed, sold or distributed." When one takes into account all the translations and worldwide sales since the early 19th century when publication figures began to be somewhat accurate, a number close to six billion is about as precise as it gets.

Still, the Guiness feat comes close to a tie for its time period of the late 20th century. Does this mean God is in a slump or tapering off as a prime subject?

Hardly. If current best-seller lists are any indicators, customers are eagerly seeking all sorts of reading matter on religion and spirituality. In fact, the hottest novel this year has been "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown (Doubleday, 454 pages, $24.95).

Brown has writted a literate thriller compiled of rather arcane theological arguments that have existed since the writing of the Gospels. His plot boils along on the backs of a hunky Harvard symbologist and a French dish named Sophie. A tantalizing mixture of history, art, music and science teases the reader with the question of whether Jesus had a "personal relationship" with Mary Magdalene. Brown makes a search for the true Holy Grail seem like a breathless and current mystery.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare today's darling of the publishing world to yesterday's has-been. Yet not so long ago, David Guterson basked in the limelight with his stunning "Snow Falling on Cedars," a deserved triumph. His latest, "Lady of the Forest," left me wondering if fame and early success drive some writers right off a cliff.

In his present effort, Guterson chronicles the tale of Ann Holmes, a scraggly teenage girl running away from an abusive stepfather and indifferent mother. She winds up in a crummy trailer park in the upper Northwest and supports herself by selling mushrooms that she gathers every day in the deep, deep woods. Her other main activity is what used to be called, euphemistically, "pleasuring oneself." Sickly and pale, she does not bathe or brush her teeth and is about as skinny as a nail, yet she inspires lust in just about every male who comes within a hundred yards of her.

One fine day, while going about her usual routine, a vision of the Virgin Mary appears to her in the forest, telling her to build a church on that very spot. The apparition tells Ann that she will appear for five days. As word of the miracle spreads through the Internet, drawing thousands of pilgrims to the forest, Ann goes to the young local priest and begs him to help her get started building Our Lady's church. Father Collins has a problem, though. He just cannot seem to focus on anything but his intense desire for Ann's increasingly ill body. If readers have not been quite repulsed enough by all the recent publicity about priests, the father's icky, prurient fantasies should finish them off.

Cutting to the chase, Ann is exploited by a shrewd con-artist and fellow trailer park resident, she is stalked by a loser out-of-work logger who badly needs a miracle and, ultimately, she is the sacrifice everyone requires in order to fulfill their thoroughly despicable goals. Miracles, it is clear, are big moneymakers, and many people profit off her.

Judging from the charts, on which "Code" has stayed at the top for almost 40 weeks, and "Lady" has appeared not at all, religious themes sell well if they respect the reader and deliver a great story. Novels that exploit their subject, characters and readers will sink and disappear, even if an author possesses stellar writing craft.


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