Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 12/28/03

You’d be surprised how many people who find out what I do for a living express disappointment with the current quality of books — and that my response is that I’m delighted with the quality of books today.

Admittedly, there are books that I complain about. But almost every day I get excited about two or three new books written on fascinating topics by exceptional literary talents.

I know that everyone has varied tastes in reading material. Some people don’t like to read books at all. But I get a curious exhilaration from a good book — and when I finish it, I need to quickly get into another.

I used to read history and biography almost exclusively, but now I get genuine enjoyment from high-quality novels. I like to find a book that grabs my interest early on and holds it. Even though I know I forget much of what I read, I think I have learned important things by reading books of great variety.

You may think, “That’s easy for him to say — he reads books for a living!” And it’s true that I probably read more books than the average person. But I believe that people who consistently read books in their leisure time, even if they do it slowly, are often more interesting and more fulfilled than those who don’t. Digesting various good books seems to enrich the brain, and to accelerate the ability to enrich others.

A vocal contingent was not happy about a special National Book Award going to popular horror-writer Stephen King. But a lot of people enjoy reading his novels, as well as the dependable annual works of John Grisham, Janet Evanovich and Tom Clancy.

Others believe it’s a giant leap from those often predictable mysteries to the more literary, upscale writing of John Updike, Louis Begley or Tobias Wolff.

But we all have different interests, so we should probably read what we like to read, books we enjoy — books that make us think or books that just make us happy.

That said, this has been an enormously successful year for the writing and reading of books.

Another “Harry Potter” novel was published (“The Order of the Phoenix”), with J. K. Rowling playing an important role in making children’s books more attractive. Last year, it became a mark of prestige to have read a “Harry Potter” book — even for adults.

Locally, Shannon Hale wrote a wonderful book for young people, “The Goose Girl,” published and recognized nationally. We will hear more from this talented writer in 2004.

The most consistent best-seller this year, and perhaps the most talked-about, has been Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” a mysterious, historical novel that critics call “clunky” in style but which many readers find fascinating. Brown may not be the best writer of the year, but he is the one who most clearly struck a chord with the current public interest in religion, symbolism and history.

Fantasy writers, such as Patrick Carman (“The Dark Hills Divide“) and Michael Stackpole (“The Grand Crusade”), are cashing in on the continuing popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, which continues to charm moviegoers.

This was an especially notable year for political writers because the established niche that conservative writers have enjoyed has been effectively challenged by liberals. They are popping up all over the non-fiction best-seller lists — conservative Bill O’Reilly, the host of TV’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” has “Who’s Looking out for You?” which has been among the top-four best-sellers since its publication; glamorous conservative Ann Coulter has hit the big time with several books, most recently “Treason”; liberal Al Franken’s “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” has been a consistent best-seller; Michael Moore’s “Dude, Where’s My Country” is enjoying popularity, much like his earlier book, “Stupid White Men.” There is even a liberal talk-radio network about to hit the airwaves in January, with liberal hosts (including Franken) getting their own shows to compete with O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

This has also been the year when non-historians cashed in on writing historical works, such as “Benjamin Franklin,” written by former CNN /CEO Walter Isaacson, and “Franklin and Winston,” in which Jon Meacham, a Newsweek managing editor, has markedly contributed to the public scrutiny of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

Scholars of great distinction, such as Fred Kaplan and Robert Dallek, have also written interesting, definitive books on Mark Twain and John F. Kennedy, respectively.

Although book sales have been down, along with the rest of the economy, the quality of books in my view has generally remained high. And that is good news indeed.

Patrick Carman