July 18, 2004

An Article That Explains Bookselling

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

AS it turns out, changing the world is not as tough as you might think.

A decade or so ago, book authors began assigning axis-tilting properties to people, events, substances and devices that had once simply seemed a part of the march of human evolution, not a driver of it.

Much of this made sense. As William Blake suggested, you can see the world in a grain of sand. The discovery, or discoverer, of longitude, penicillin or internal combustion left behind a marked world.

But publishers in search of robust sales are finding the planet writ on other, less universal subjects. Other "changed the world" books suggest that for want of the Nasdaq, the color mauve or the Fender bass, civilization as we know it would be lost, or at least remarkably different. Each central thesis winds around a very different maypole while asserting its own primacy.

Perhaps such flexibility suggests some immutable marketing law of the free market - that any ploy that moves product will eventually evolve far beyond its original intent. Certainly, this kind of pop history is popular. Authors who take something banal and ubiquitous - cod, salt, coal, the pencil - can reach a broader audience, not just history buffs, but temporary autodidacts who want to know everything about one thing.

Or who want one-stop shopping, to learn everything through one thing. Why scale four-volume accounts of the French Revolution, if a single topic, be it fire or a Fender Bass, is able to serve as a can opener on the broad sweep of history?

The tendency to walk back the cat in wildly different directions to sell books has led to a disparate array of inflection points in human history.

The recent lineup at bookstores offers "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World" (the seeds of the next world conflict were planted in the negotiations in Paris after the Great War) ; "The Cable: The Wire that Changed the World" (a trans-Atlantic cable connects the world in unforeseen ways); and "Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History" (the discovery and deployment of substances derived from distinct molecules - ones that make pepper sting and silk shine - leaves the world an enriched and more complicated place).

Recently, the trope was rendered more elastic in "How Soccer Explains the World." "I would say that half my tongue was planted in my cheek," said the book's author, Franklin Foer. "People want the medicine to go down smooth and easy. They'd rather read some stories about soccer than a bunch of highfalutin' theories about globalization."

There is also a ghetto of titles that suggest that certain ethnicities, by themselves, saved, or radically altered, the world - Jews, Scots and Irish - and there is much truth in these tales' assertions. But it sometimes seems that what is being saved is the sluggish book industry.

"People who deal in history have always tried to claim as much as they can for their topics," said H. W. Brands, a history professor at Texas A. &M. "From a marketing perspective, it makes sense. It creates a question in the minds of reviewers and readers. I don't know if the color mauve changed history, but I certainly might give it a look to find out."

Last week, at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in Manhattan, an entire table near the front was devoted to this genre. If you had grazed long enough, you would have found that germs, rockets, alcohol, cellphones, bees, chloroform and handkerchiefs all had tectonic effects on humankind. The sign on the table "Who Knew?" neatly captures the counter-intuition of the books below it.

Some historians say the intellectual track for the category was laid down in 1963, in a paper delivered to the New York Academy of Sciences by Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who suggested that a single flap of a seagull's wings could alter the weather forever through a gradual accretion of energy.

Thus, small was not only beautiful, it became powerful. And everything could become fraught with implications. Gunpowder not only allowed for European colonialism, it changed the very nature of governance because feudal lords were no longer safe behind their castle walls.

The seminal tracks of the genre, the successful books that launched a thousand proposals, include "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time" by Dava Sobel and two books by Mark Kurlansky, one about cod and the other about salt. (Perhaps a combined sequel about salt cod?) The books were critical and business successes, and the book industry, whose history hews more closely to the behavior of lemmings than wolves, promptly fell into line.

"We live in a society of superlatives," suggests David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster. "Everyone lives in extremis and wants whatever they have to be the 'mostest' of whatever is out there."

The book "Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World" would seem to stretch the category to the breaking point, but its hyperbole is mostly supported in the execution.

Back in 1856, an English chemist was working on developing a treatment for malaria and found the color mauve, sparking the discovery of other dyes, which produced a riot of new fashions, which eventually led to one of mankind's crowning achievements: the September issue of Vogue, a massive seasonal introduction of fashion.

Well, it also sparked a burgeoning interest in the chemical process and the beginning of the modern pharmaceutical industry, but who is to say that the presence of Vogue on the magazine shelf is not in itself somehow world changing? Everything, including scribbled riffs in newspapers, changes the world a tiny bit, but perhaps not enough to be worthy of a book.

Eventually, the trend will burn itself out, but for the time being, the race for juicy topics to serve as Sherpa for human history could get ugly. Don't be surprised to find "Lint: How a Laundry Byproduct Attained Iconic Status and Changed the World" on your local bookshelf soon.

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