People of the book

John Sutherland on the US taste for religious novels and spiritual self-help manuals

Bestseller lists began in the United States in the 1890s. They were introduced over here, foot-draggingly ("damned Yankee things"), in 1974. Since then, with cultural globalisation, Anglo-American taste in very popular books has converged. No surprise to see Stephen King riding high on both sides of the Atlantic. Or, handy-dandy, J K Rowling.

But recently there has been a symptomatic divergence. Topping the US hardback fiction lists has been Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book. This is an epic, set in the Balkans, following the fortunes from the 15th century of a single, very sacred, Jewish book - the Sarajevo Haggadah. Unlike the bulk of the Jewish people, scattered or exterminated, the Haggadah has survived, to glow, inextinguishably, like the lamp in the chapel at the end of Brideshead Revisited. The novel is less than nowhere in the UK. Last time I looked on Amazon's UK site, it was holding at roughly 5,000. Not much glow there.

The top non-fiction title in early 2008 is A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. It is labelled "a spiritual classic by one of today's leading spiritual thinkers". Supra-denominational in his spirituality, millenarian in his vision, Tolle is the prophet of "the power of now".

Here is a taste of the gospel according to Eckhart: "Ego is a conglomeration of recurring thought forms and conditioned mental-emotional patterns that are invested with a sense of I, a sense of self. Ego arises when your sense of Beingness, of 'I Am', which is formless consciousness, gets mixed up with form." This is what most literate voters in the world's sole superpower are lapping up. Does it make you feel safe?

Neither Brooks nor Tolle has made the slightest impact on the British reading public. It is hard not to feel, like latter-day Henry Jameses, a surge of Old European superiority. Our sensibilities, world-weary as they may be, are unclouded by the fumes of religious superstition.

Yet things are less clear-cut than that. As Stephen Fender points out in his recently published Fifty Facts You Need to Know: USA, the tides of evangelicalism are volatile in the US, and not easily interpreted. According to a Pew Research Centre survey, in 1999, 44 per cent of the adult American population believed that Christ would come again, during their lifetime. By 2006, however, a less publicised Pew survey showed the percentage had dropped to 20 per cent. Does that record a drastic collapse of faith, in the face of neo-rationalism? Dream on, Richard Dawkins.

Fender suggests that American religiosity is a powerful force that ebbs and flows with circumstance. It ran flood-high with the millennium, then receded. Why is it running so high at the moment? Easy: the high religious content in this year's US election campaigns. When Oprah Winfrey (a believer in Eckhart) declares that "I have seen the truth and the truth is Obama", the barrier separating church from state disappears. But, in November, the tide will recede again. One hopes.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters