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Why Are These Two Novels So Popular?

NightingseeIf you look at the Amazon books bestsellers list, you'll notice that there's very little adult fiction on it. What you will see is lots of coloring books and children's and Young Adult books. That's the moment we live in: we are in a coloring and children's and YA books heyday.

On top of that, winter is over—if it ever even existed where you live—and there's typically a lull in fiction reading around this time of year.

If you scroll down the list, though, you'll notice two adult novels that, for more than a year each, have withstood all comers. Those novels are The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr—all the coloring books, diet books, and celebrity books in the world couldn't drive these two from the list. 

There are reasons for that, and I have my theories.

But first, let's look at the success of these two novels. According to Nielsen BookScan, which measures sales of books nationally, The Nightingale has sold over 400,000 hardcover units since it published. All the Light We Cannot See, which published seven months earlier than The Nightingale, has sold more than 1.4 million hardcovers. Those are some really impressive numbers, and they don't even take e-books into account. Both novels are massive publishing successes that show no signs of slowing.

AllthelightAnother sign of success, particularly on Amazon, is customer reviews. Looking back, Kristin Hannah's previous books averaged around 2,000 customer reviews per book. The Nightingale has received 10 times that number of reviews, with an average rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars. Doerr's customer reception has been even more impressive. His previous books averaged around 200 customer reviews per book—but All the Light We Cannot See has received more than 100 times that many reviews, and with an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars.

So why do people love these books so much, and do they have anything in common?

The way I see it, there are two answers. One is obvious; the other is a little less obvious. The obvious commonality between these two books is that both are set during World War II. We live in a time of moral ambiguity—with much public arguing among our leaders and change taking place, whether technological or social, at a rate never before seen. It's not easy reading the news, with daily questions of who's right and who's wrong dancing in our heads. On the other hand, no one questioned why we fought World War II. We knew the enemy and the enemy was led by some well-known bad guys. In the seventy years since the war ended, no one in their right mind has revised their views on Hitler. He was, and remains, a very bad guy who had to be stopped.

NightingaleSuch was the luck of The Greatest Generation. They had a major challenge to meet, and they rose to meet it with a sense of obligation, moral certainty, and optimism that makes us feel good about humanity's possibilities. Fast forward to today, and we can't—or refuse to—agree on the biggest challenges facing our world. No wonder people want to read about a different, simpler time.

The other answer is perhaps a little less obvious. Both books contain full-on, genuine love stories. They're so comfortable embracing emotion that they even turn sentimental—but readers don't seem to mind. Today's world runs on heavy doses of sarcasm and irony, Tinder and Facebook. Mystery and allure have been replaced by swiping right or left and a general oversharing of information.

I've always felt that the astounding success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels, and much YA in general, was a result of authors taking love seriously—like adults are supposed to. Most forms of popular culture today don't offer many serious, non-ironic examples of people sharing genuine feelings. Just look at our movies: you can laugh at Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen playing adults who don't want to grow up; you can spend two hours following the path of a conflicted superhero; you can watch an animated masterpiece (strangely, kids movies—Up, for example—often deal with more mature subjects than popular adult movies); you can watch Matt Damon or Tom Cruise kick some ass; or you can watch a Young Adult series adapted to the screen. Say what you will about the acting and the dialogue, but no one questions whether Edward loves Bella. And he probably makes it home for dinner most nights, even if he doesn't want to eat it.

Of course, those aren't the only reasons for the success of these two books (and yes, there are many other novels that contain love stories), but in my mind they are the major ones.

You could point to All the Light We Cannot See winning the 2015 Pulitzer as a success driver—and you would be right—but the book was already a best seller when that happened, and a lot of Pulitzer winners receive a temporary sales bump just to drift off into mid list numbers again. Kristin Hannah's books have always sold well, so you'd expect The Nightingale to do the same; but she's never seen success like this.

Is it that we want to return to a simpler, more genuine time? Do we want that time to return to us? I suspect, looking at the runaway success of these two novels, that the answer to both questions is a resounding Yes.

That might even explain why people are buying so many coloring books.




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