Fall is the most important season in the book business: From the Monday after Labor Day until close to Thanksgiving, the biggest books by the biggest writers and the most promising debut novels of the year relentlessly spew forth. Almost all will fade; each year sees fewer than a dozen extraordinary critical and popular successes. And every author knows that he or she is engaged in a zero-sum game: readers have limited time, and most of them have limited book-buying budgets, so if they are spending hours and money on one writer's book, they are almost certainly ignoring another's. The competition this year is especially severe, owing to the anniversary of 9/11. Publishers knew the somber commemorations would leave no room on the Today show for author interviews and would divert attention from book reviews—so the fall season starts late, the week of September 17. Most galling for writers is that to a large extent the game has been decided long before their books are in the stores. Publishers, of course, don't distribute advertising and marketing budgets evenly among their titles—they bet on the surest things and the sexiest subjects; at sales conferences in the spring they decide which books have the best chance of breaking out in the fall. The rest are pretty much left to die—no ads in major newspapers, no national author tours. During the summer, sales reps report which fall titles have won over booksellers across the country, further refining the list of titles the publishers will push. By late summer the trade journals—Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal—have nominated the upcoming season's winners and losers, which greatly influences which books, and how many of them, bookstores and libraries will order. By summer's end the cognoscenti in New York have already decided which fall titles to anoint with elaborate author profiles in The New York Times (the only paper that matters in the publishing world) and other publications. This seemingly idiosyncratic sanctification alone can explain the reams of flattering attention devoted to the Yale law professor Stephen Carter, which helped to propel his stilted, swollen, and predictable novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, onto best-seller lists. We don't want to tell you which books will be the hot books. Rather, we want to tell you which to read—and which to ignore.
Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
by Janet Browne
Knopf, 627 pages, $37.50
The second and concluding volume of Browne's life of Darwin covers the publication and reception of On the Origin of Species, Darwin's subsequent fame, and the gestation and writing of The Descent of Man. It is a masterpiece. At once wide-ranging and tightly woven, The Power of Place is as profound an intellectual history of Victorian Britain as has ever been written; an incisive consideration of Darwin's mind, personality, marriage, and tragic family life; and an elegant exegesis of his ideas, influence, and literary style and technique. Browne took on an enormously ambitious project, and only an astonishingly skillful writer and a masterly historian could have pulled it off. She has.