The day before Super Tuesday, psychology professor Steven Pinker betrayed more than a little skepticism toward the presidential primary system. But we weren’t talking about the election. We were talking about bestseller lists.
“Bestseller lists are like the Top 40 in music or presidential campaigns,” Pinker said. “Chance fluctuations tend to be amplified.”
Pinker united with fellow literary luminaries Robert Pinsky, Leslie Epstein, and Maureen McLane to decry bestseller lists at an event called “The Best Recommended: A National Book Critics Circle Project,” co-sponsored by the Harvard Book Store and held at the Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 6.
The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) started its “Best Recommended” project at the end of 2007 to bridge the gap between bestseller lists, which show what a lot of people are reading, and book reviews, which show what a few people think is good. According to their blog, “Critical Mass,” “it felt like a moment had yet to be seized about finding out what a lot of people said was good.”
Nearly 500 of the NBCC’s member critics voted on the first “Best Recommended” list, plus additional finalists and winners of its yearly book awards. Writers like John Updike ’54 and Cynthia Ozick were able to vote for one book in each of three categories: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. For their second list, released on Tuesday, the NBCC changed the name of the project to “The NBCC’s Good Reads.”
Wednesday’s event, moderated by Boston Globe writer David Mehegan, was part of a series of panels across the country sponsored by the NBCC. The quartet discussed February’s list, the best and worst recommendations they’d ever received, and just who has the authority to make one.
Pinker has had plenty of experience with bestsellers. Both his 1999 book “How the Mind Works” and his latest book, “The Stuff of Thought,” made appearances on the New York Times Best Seller list. Pinker’s advice to fellow authors could as easily be applied by presidential hopefuls: remember that style matters, and don’t talk down to your audience.
“Most people who are going to be reading your book aren’t chicken pluckers,” Pinker says. “Writing as if they are is just as bad as writing in academese.”
Pinker gave The Crimson his own “Best Recommended” list of books that balance style and substance:
“The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design,” by Richard Dawkins
“The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do,” by Judith Rich Harris
“Passions Within Reason,” by Robert H. Frank
“The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are, The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology” and “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny,” by Robert Wright