I've always been fascinating with Top 10 lists, especially when they involve books. I suppose that comes from being around books all my life: selling them, writing them and now publishing them. Just this week I ran across a Top 10 book list that made me stop and reflect on what makes a book a bestseller. Thanks to a post from Justin Taylor, I found a graphic showing the Top 10 books over the last 50 years (If you can't quite read the graph, click here for a closer look). It's a fascinating and instructive list for one very simple reason: 8 of the Top 10 books are stories.
Number one, of course, is the Bible, the greatest Story of all (and the bestselling book, not just in the last 50 years, but for all time and by a wide margin), followed by Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Alchemist, The Da Vinci Code, The Twilight Saga, Gone With the Wind, and The Diary of Anne Frank. The only exceptions are Quotations from Chairman Mao (otherwise known as The Little Red Book), and Think and Grow Rich (one of the bestselling "self-improvement" books of all time). And if you throw out Quotations from Chairman Mao, mainly because it's probably required reading in Chairman Mao's home country, you're left with just one book in the Top 10 most popular books of the last 50 years that isn't a story.
It might be a bit of a stretch, but you could make a case for the average reader preferring a great story to a self-improvement book by a margin of at least 8 to 1. And yet the Christian book industry, where I have worked nearly all my life, is committed to the idea that self-improvement books are what people want. So year after year, Christian publishers churn out an dizzying array of books and resources designed to help you and me become better Christians.
Don't get me wrong. There's a place for books that help us grow spiritually. I've written a few myself. But a self-help book--even a great self-help book--is no match for a great story for effective and lasting impact. Even a towering literary figure like C.S. Lewis is best remembered for his stories--most notably Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia--even though he wrote many popular non-fiction books.
So where are the great storytellers of today? Are there any future "Top 10 Books of the Last 50 Years" being created in our time by fiction writers informed by a biblical worldview? Truth is, we have more than enough self-help book writers. What we need are really good storytellers--and not just those who can spin a good yarn from a pulpit or conference platform. We need writers who can use story to prompt us to think about the grand themes of creation, fall and redemption that permeate the greatest of all storybooks.