THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Books are back, and their pages are filled with politics, biography, and history

By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / January 1, 2004

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Like a battleship, book publishing doesn't turn on a dime, so the old year's trends don't usually determine a new year's books. However, conversations with literary agents, who are always trying to sniff out what publishers want, turn up a few trends in publishing that may affect our reading in 2004 and beyond.

The readers are back. Book publishing and selling were hit hard by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says Ted Weinstein, a San Francisco agent. But people still want to read, and they still want books. And publishers have regained their confidence.

Weinstein says: "People have looked up and said, `The world is not coming to an end.' There's a real feeling, if not of optimism, at least of aggressiveness. Publishers are saying, `If we don't get out there and sign up books, there won't be anything to read in 2005.' "

Extremely partisan political books. Such books as Ann Coulter's "Treason," Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country?," and Bill O'Reilly's "Who's Looking Out for You?" dominated the nonfiction bestseller lists for 2003.

"The big surprise is the polarization of politics," says Boston agent John Taylor Williams. "It's all `go for the jugular.' People believe so strongly about their team, the left or right, that they're willing to spend $30 to read about it."

More Founding Fathers. Three years after David McCullough's "John Adams," Walter Isaacson struck it big with "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life." Below bestsellerdom, but widely reviewed, were several books about -- or partly about -- Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or John Adams. This year's lineup has a biography of Alexander Hamilton, and several books about Abraham Lincoln are on the way.

Book clubs. People may be bowling alone, but increasingly they're reading in groups, which is giving word of mouth more power in making bestsellers. Publishers' websites now have instructions on starting book clubs, and of course they also have books to recommend.

"I keep meeting people who say about a particular new book, `Oh, my wife's reading group is reading that,' " says New York literary agent Philip Spitzer. "It's one of the most positive trends."

The bust of e-publishing. Two years ago, there were widespread predictions that the printed book might go the way of the dinosaur, as more people did their reading on electronic devices. Not so. In 2003, the giant Barnes & Noble stopped selling e-books through its website, while both Palm Digital Media and Gemstar dumped their e-book businesses. It seems that people still want to read an old-fashioned book the old-fashioned way.

As for the books themselves, 2004 looks like a bigger year for nonfiction than fiction, at least through summer. There are plenty of books by hot younger writers but relatively few from marquee names. As befits an election year, there are both contentious and lighthearted books on politics, and lovers of biography won't be disappointed.

In literary fiction, the biggest name in the year's first half may be Anne Tyler, with a January novel called "The Amateur Marriage," from Knopf. The author of "The Accidental Tourist" and "Saint Maybe" writes about a Baltimore couple who copes for decades with the consequences of a hasty World War II marriage. Kids, grandkids, money woes, yet they keep at it. Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat also has a new book coming out, in March, "The Dew Breaker."

One of the hottest Massachusetts writers is Sabina Murray of Amherst, whose short-story collection, "The Caprices," won the 2003 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. Her new novel, coming in July from Grove/Atlantic, is "A Carnivore's Inquiry." A young woman, newly arrived in the United States from Italy, travels about the country. Horrifying murders seem to happen wherever she goes, as she reflects on cannibalism in life and literature.

Other Bay State writers with new novels this year are Ward Just of Martha's Vineyard ("An Unfinished Season") and Dennis McFarland of Cambridge ("Prince Edward"). Both novels concern young men struggling with conflicting cultural forces involving their parents -- Just's on the North Shore of Chicago, McFarland's in a small Virginia town in 1959.

Alice Randall rocked the publishing world two years ago with "The Wind Done Gone," her satire of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," which the Mitchell estate tried unsuccessfully to stop. Randall returns in May with "Pushkin and the Queen of Spades," a novel about an accomplished African-American mother who is appalled when her son becomes engaged to a Russian lap dancer.

Chang-Rae Lee's new novel, "Aloft," appears in March from Putnam. Lee's first novel, "Native Speaker," won the PEN/Hemingway award. The new novel concerns a middle-class Long Island man whose small plane flying becomes a metaphor for his approach to life's puzzles and challenges.

Literary fiction will reach bestseller lists, as Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" and Toni Morrison's "Love" did in 2003. But thrills and suspense, in books disdained by critics, will doubtless dominate the lists, as they always do. New books are on the schedule this year by John Grisham, Catherine Coulter, Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler, Danielle Steel, and Mary Higgins Clark. More-literary mystery writers with books on tap are Robert Parker, Rita Mae Brown, and Walter Mosley.

It's an election year; that mandates a bumper crop of books on politics and policy. John Kenneth Galbraith, professor of economics emeritus at Harvard, weighs in with "The Economics of Innocent Fraud," from Houghton Mifflin. We expect household names will be mentioned.

President George W. Bush comes in for tough treatment at the hands of Kevin Phillips and John Dean. Phillips roughs up the president in "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush," from Viking in January. Dean chimes in with "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush," from Little, Brown in April.

For the defense, there's "The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty," by Peter Schweizer and Rochelle Schweizer, from Doubleday in January, which is described as "the complete, unvarnished story of the Bush family from its humble origins in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to George W.'s tenancy in the White House."

Local writers show up in this year's nonfiction lineup. In January from Random House, there's "The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness," by Harvard Medical School professor and New Yorker essayist Jerome Groopman. From Somerville-based psychologist and writer Lauren Slater, author of an acclaimed book about her struggle with depression, comes "Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century," from Norton in January. Former Globe reporter Larry Tye offers "Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class," from Henry Holt in July. It's the tale of a brotherhood that became the first black trade union and the core of a more prosperous black America.

Atlantic Monthly staff writer William Langewiesche, a hot property since his bestseller "Uncommon Ground: The Unbuilding of the World Trade Center," has a book about the use and misuse of the oceans called "The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime," from Farrar Straus & Giroux in May. In biography, Ed Cray writes of the legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie in "Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie," published by Norton in February. Among other modern icons, there's Gavin Lambert's "Natalie Wood: A Life," from Knopf in February, and "Somewhere: A Life of Jerome Robbins," the famed choreographer, from Broadway Books in March. The author is Amanda Vaill, who has written a best-selling biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy.

Former Boston Globe sports columnist Leigh Montville's biography of the Kid appears in March from Doubleday, titled "Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero." Not only the story of origins and the great Red Sox years, the book is said to recount the Williams family's quarrel over the decision to turn the Splendid Splinter into the Splendid Icicle.

One of the oddities of the history lineup is the profusion of books about Lincoln. Only a few weeks ago, David Herbert Donald published "We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends," from Simon & Schuster. The theme continues in the first few months of 2004, and if it continues through the year, Lincoln buffs will need to buy new bookcases. From Ballantine in February, there's "Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington," by Daniel Mark Epstein, described as a portrait of "two great men and the era they shaped through their common vision." Also in February, Simon & Schuster publishes "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America," by Allen C. Guelzo. March brings "Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War," published by Norton, by Colby College historian Elizabeth D. Leonard. From Random House in April comes "Lincoln's War: The Untold Story of America's Greatest President as Commander in Chief," by Geoffrey Perret. Also in April, political commentator and former conservative Michael Lind offers "What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President," published by Doubleday. Ron Chernow looks back a few administrations and gives us "Alexander Hamilton," from Penguin Press.

The truth about publishing, of course, is that no amount of tea-leaf reading will tell which, if any, of these books will hit the bestseller lists. Every year, there are improbable hits, such as Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit," and former president Jimmy Carter's first novel, "The Hornet's Nest." Some book none of us has heard of -- and might laugh at now -- could well be the blockbuster of 2004. People love to read; that much is clear. But as to what they will want to read this year, even they don't yet know.

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.