Culture | The five best-selling nonfiction paperbacks as measured by placement on four leading lists as of June 24, 2001

Issue: "Schundler's bliss," July 7, 2001
Scoring system:10 points for first place, 9 for second, down to 1 for tenth, on the lists of the American Booksellers Association (independent, sometimes highbrow stores), The New York Times (4,000 bookstores, plus wholesalers), Publisher's Weekly (general bookstores), and (web purchases).
The Greatest Generation
Tom Brokaw 29 points ABA: 2nd; NYT: 1st; PW: 1st; not listed
Short biographies of Americans who grew up during the Depression and came of age during World War II.

This tribute to the World War II generation rode the 1990s wave of interest in the war and helped create new interest. Mr. Brokaw brings a liberal sensibility to his task, but he deserves credit for taking the time to put down on paper the stories of many well-known and not-so-well-known Americans.

Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris 27 points ABA: 1st; NYT: 2nd; PW: 3rd; not listed
A collection of self-absorbed essays starring Mr. Sedaris and his eccentric family.

These autobiographical accounts find gay humor in a family's perversities. Mr. Sedaris writes of his food-hoarding father and his foul-mouthed brother. He recalls taking speech therapy with other lisping, unathletic boys and wonders whether they all became homosexuals as he did. He'd like to be an artist, he thinks, because he'd have a studio full of naked men.

In the Heart of the Sea
Nathaniel Philbrick 21 points ABA: 3rd; NYT: 3rd; PW: 6th: not listed
Account of the 1820 sinking of the whaleship Essex and the struggle for survival of its 21-member crew.

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Using observations by the first mate and a 14-year-old cabin boy, Mr. Philbrick writes a harrowing story of a whaling disaster that became the basis for Melville's Moby Dick. Mr. Philbrick brings his tale to life by skillfully weaving in information about sailing, current research on starvation, and other survivor stories.

The Four Agreements
Don Miguel Ruiz 19 points ABA: 7th; NYT: not listed; PW: 4th; 3rd
A guide for living based on ancient Toltec teaching.

Mr. Ruiz, arguing that man is good and part of a pantheistic god, claims that external rules, laws, customs, and manners leave us shackled. Only by rising above the Ten Commandments or any other rules can we love ourselves and be all we can be.

Christians will recognize this as blather, but others could be confused by the book's twisting of words like "sin."

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggars 17 points ABA: 4th; NYT: 5th; PW: not listed; 7th
A 21-year-old raises his 8-year-old brother after their parents die.

The brothers journey to Berkeley, where their sister is beginning law school. Dave hangs out with high-school buddies, tries to start a magazine, has sex and thinks about having sex, and raises his brother without any moral foundation but with a determination to do it better than his parents could have.

Language, hostility to God.

Since its publication in 1998, The Greatest Generation has spawned a mini-industry of books about the generation that won World War II. Now available in paperback (Dell, 2001), the book brings much-needed attention to the discrimination faced by minority soldiers both in the military and when they returned home. But Tom Brokaw's book also provides some insight into the worldview of one of America's most influential journalists. When Mr. Brokaw writes about ordinary folks, he often mentions the importance of faith and traditional values, but discussion of virtue largely disappears when he writes about the famous and politically powerful. When he does mention marriage, as in the chapter on Ben Bradlee, long-time editor of The Washington Post, glib sentiments dominate: "After a lifetime of achievement and adventure that includes three wives ..." Mr. Brokaw profiles both liberal and conservative political leaders, but he gives several examples of how war experiences enabled liberals to stand up to conservatives. In one, Democrat Rep. Sam Gibbons pulls on the tie of a Republican committee chairman and yells, "You're a bunch of dictators.... I had to fight you guys 50 years ago." Mr. Brokaw speaks admiringly of the "enduring qualities of love, marriage, and commitment" that characterized the WWII generation, but he also praises the social changes of recent decades that have undermined marriage. He does not connect the dots.


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