FYI: The US and Britain speak the same language, so why aren't they reading the same books?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am


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For all their historic, linguistic and political closeness, the United States and Britain are poles apart when it comes to their taste in literature. Whatever best-seller lists one chooses to consult they point to a stark cultural divide. A quick look at the top sellers on Amazon shows cookbooks and celebrity biographies leading the pack in Britain while Americans are more taken with tomes that promise to help them do everything from lose weight to find new meaning in life.

So profound are the differences that pundits have seized on book sales as a barometer of national character or sentiment. The 'self-help' genre, made up of works with impossibly optimistic titles such as Happier than God or A New Earth, has virtually taken over US publishing, with total sales quadrupling in the past decade to more than US$2 billion - and this in an environment in which book sales as a whole are slipping.

But self-help books are no recent phenomenon. Works on self-improvement were popping up as early as the 18th century and are said to tap into a deep-rooted desire among Americans to achieve goals and better their lot. American columnist Jean Hannah Edelstein, who writes for British newspaper The Guardian, has hypothesised that the US love for self-help titles reflects the country's 'endemic, excessive earnestness', and accuses the books of endorsing 'the kind of constant self-analysis that deprives people of the ability to find the humour in the inevitable vicissitudes of life'.

Few such accusations have been levelled at the Brits. While how-to guides are gaining ground there too - Britons snap up about 400,000 self-help books each year - if best-seller lists are anything to go by, the general mood of Blighty's readers is more morose. The hottest new thing to sweep British literary charts has been dubbed misery literature, or 'mis lit', by Bookseller magazine. The runaway popularity enjoyed by unflinching accounts of disintegrating relationships or childhood trauma has prompted bookstores to create sections labelled 'Painful Lives'. Some psychologists have suggested Brits soak up deeply confessional books as their traditional reserve prevents them from discussing these kinds of experiences in public; others have argued the trend makes them a nation of voyeurs.

While a few translated US or British works will inevitably make it onto European best-seller lists, the reverse doesn't hold true. The two countries are arguably the most lingua-phobic in the world in literary terms; translated works make up a mere 3 per cent of the approximately 14,000 books published in Britain each year and, in the US, the proportion is an even lower 2.8 per cent.

Literary preferences diverge even further beyond the English-speaking world. The French have a deep and perverse affection for books lamenting the country's apparent decline; Free-Falling France and French Arrogance are two titles that have done well in recent years. Italians are fond of political non-fiction and Germans more partial to works by homegrown writers than other Europeans. In Japan, keitai novels, tapped out by young authors in SMS-speak and beamed to mobile phone screens nationwide, account for about half of the country's fiction best-sellers.