As a longtime fan of the book world, I approach summer eager to read the best-seller lists. After all, it's so much more fun to read the lists than to read the books.
What is new this season is the sudden disappearance of books about the Japanese or about sex. Even Barbara Woodhouse seems to have retired to the doghouse.
True to the spirit of the times--conservative--we have a hit list of books about the perennial favorite topics: health and wealth. One hard-cover is telling us how to create wealth through real estate and another how to create health through fiber. Jane Fonda is still working out with the women and Charles Hix is working out with men, and George Burns is working out with humor.
The fiction list, for its part, is using its muscle to sell sequels. We not only have "The Return of the Jedi," we also have the return of Robin Cook's doctors and Andrew Greeley's priests and Norman Mailer's excesses. The only innovation is the surprising number of horses who have raced to the top of the '83 heap.
The ways things look, if some future anthropologists were to use the best- seller list of 1983 as the Rosetta stone of our civilization, they would describe a world full of international terrorists and bankers who capture former priests and torture them with an all- fiber diet.
Having said this, it is clearly time to present you with my own Summer Dog Days Reading List of best (and less) sellers. This annual sample is based once again on such old standbys as personal prejudice.
First on my list and first on anyone's list should be Alice Walker's stunning novel, "The Color Purple." I can't remember a story that pulled me into a life as quickly or made me as reluctant to leave. Her novel gives voice to the lives of poor rural black women and men in all their harshness and strength.
Way up north, in the urban world of the '80s where men and women have relationships and analysts, there are three entries worth making this chart. One of them is Laurie Colwin's "Family Happiness," a novel about the woman who has everything and yet develops "a working interest in what unhappiness might produce." Colwin is at her best this time out, not in talking about men and women but about an individual existence in a thoroughly secure and rigidly ordered family life.
Nora Ephron shuttles the same piece of East Coast turf, but this time it's family unhappiness. Now that all the literary fuss has died down--guessing who's who in this roman a clef--read "Heartburn" for the one-liners, and the pathos.
Read "August" for Judith Rossner's extraordinary description of the lives of an analyst and a patient, and the month that looms so large in their five years together.
In the nonfiction world, scientists who can write about their business in an engaging way are as scarce as, well, "Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes." Stephen Jay Gould--who has made this list often enough to have his number retired--is one of them. It is a pleasure to follow his mind in this collection as it wanders through questions of evolution, creationism, genetics, the workings and politics of science.
My other candidate for the Scientists-Who-Can-Write Award is Lewis Thomas. In the most moving parts of "The Youngest Science," he talks about the growing distance between doctors and patients. In the days when his father was a physician, he writes, "the touching was the real professional secret." Dr. Thomas still has it.
So does Russell Baker. In "Growing Up," Baker has shared all the tastes and smells of his childhood and family, has written of childhood in an era when it was still a special and separate place, and of the complex and rich relationships between a mother and the son she tried so hard to mold.
While we are on the subjects of secrets and psyches, Sissela Bok's book, called simply "Secrets," is about as pristine and finely tuned an ethical discussion of the world of private and public secrets as I've seen.
On the side of revelation, however, another book about the Scarsdale Diet Doc. After Diana Trilling's disappointing quickie on the Harris trial last year, we have Shana Alexander's fine piece of reporting on Jean Harris, "Very Much a Lady." It ends with the headmistress remaking prison clothes into preppy shirtwaists.
Before you retire to the hammock, one last entry on the list. For those who want to know where Reagan is taking the country, avoid all the recent economic and political treatises. Head straight back to the world of Theodore Dreiser. "Sister Carrie" is as good a portrait as any of life without a safety net.