For some reason that I refuse to analyze, I am a devoted student of comparative best-seller lists. In fact, on the whole, I read more lists than I read actual best-sellers.
As proof of my studiousness, I must report on some curious changes in the nonfiction list since last summer. Last year's passion for diet books has been replaced by this year's passion for exercise books. Two 1981 books admiring the Japanese way of management have been replaced by two 1982 books reminding us of the Japanese way at Pearl Harbor. A touch of hostility there?
As for emotional relationships, last summer's best-seller was "The Hite Report on Male Sexuality." Now we have been brought to heel by this summer's hit "No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way." In all fairness, I think Barbara Woodhouse is kinkier than Shere Hite. The first time I saw her training dogs on TV, I thought it was a Monty Python skit.
The fiction list is blessedly more consistent. The themes of love, money and intrigue are as familiar as the authors. Still, reading the book titles, I get the feeling the entire list could be replaced by a single book about a three-generation family, including one former priest and one politician, who saved the world from destruction by discovering the formula for fitness.
In response to all that I hereby offer you my own Summer Dog Days Reading List of best (and less) sellers. This is a list based entirely on unscientific, random and personal prejudice.
For openers, the most insightful book on women, men, and the differences between them comes from Carol Gilligan's "A Different Voice." This exploration of the ethical development of women places some sturdy intellectual planks across the gap between the baritones and sopranos.
Another neglected territory is charted out by two special novels that deal with the relationship between adult children and their parents.
Gail Godwin's "A Mother and Two Daughters" is about three women, each living separately and yet permanently connected. The mother, now a widow, is still soothing and arbitrating between her children; the daughters, now 35 and 40, are still envious and caring.
The family in Anne Tyler's intricate and marvelous story, "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," is much more chaotic. Their relationships are as unresolved as the endless "family" dinners that end in disaster.
In a sense, John Updike's most lush book also fits into that genre. "Rabbit Is Rich" now, and middle-aged--a grandfather. In Updike's world, "a man in America is a failed boy," and Rabbit is that man. Now a Toyota dealer, Rabbit brings out the worst in his sullen son, and the best in his author.
Susan Allen Toth's gentle memories of growing up slowly in Ames, Iowa, in the '50s is a relief from the intensity of those novels. "Blooming," in paperback this summer, is rosier than realism, but the chapter on the shifting emotional ground of girlhood friendships is bittersweet.
Sylvia Plath's youth was a wildly different place. "The Journals of Sylvia Plath" come from the interior of this young writer from the moment she entered college to a year before her death. I am not one of Plath's death-worshipers. Nevertheless, each page is alive with the intensity and energy-- and self-doubt--of her remarkable creativity.
John Cheever's last book, "Oh, What a Paradise It Seems," was not his best, and yet there are sentences and moments that could serve as eloquent eulogies. There are few writers who create their own world, but he was one of them.
Raymond Carver may be another. His world, seen in the collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," is not always attractive, but his sensibility is unique and contemporary. His characters live with the understanding that "it took only one lunatic and a torch to bring everything to ruin."
The same sense of foreboding is what's driven Doris Lessing into her science fiction future. Her science fiction has driven me back, way back to the Martha Quest books, when she first began to describe the emotional realities of a female life. They're worth the trip.
If nearing the end of the list, you need something to read on the beach, Jonathan Schell's book is well named: "The Fate of the Earth." His careful, thoughtful analysis about nuclear war is a perfect antidote for the Reagan civil defense follies. Read it or I will sic Barbara Woodhouse on you.
One last note from the Best-Seller List Trivia Contest about the top two trade books. "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche" is selling better, by far, on the West Coast. "Thinner Thighs in Thirty Days" is selling better, by far, on the East Coast. As a student of these things, I suspect that this means absolutely nothing.