‘God is Not Great’ Flying Off Shelves
Jeffrey Trachtenberg chronicles the success of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in today’s WSJ.
[T]he biggest surprise is a blazing attack on God and religion that is flying off bookshelves, even in the Bible Belt. “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” by Christopher Hitchens, wasn’t expected to be a blockbuster. Its publisher, Twelve, a fledgling imprint owned by France’s LagardÃ¨re SCA, initially printed a modest 40,000 copies. Today, seven weeks after the book went on sale, there are 296,000 copies in print. Demand has been so strong that booksellers and wholesalers were unable to get copies a short time after it hit stores, creating what the publishing industry calls a “dark week.” One experienced publishing veteran suggests that Mr. Hitchens will likely earn more than $1 million on this book.
A spin-off is already in the works. Rival publisher Da Capo Press, which is owned by Perseus Books LLC, got in touch with Mr. Hitchens and signed him up to edit, “The Portable Atheist,” a compilation of essays by such writers as Mark Twain and Charles Darwin that will be published in the fall. “This is atheism’s moment,” says David Steinberger, Perseus’s CEO. “Mr. Hitchens has written the category killer, and we’re excited about having the next book.”
I’m not sure why anyone’s surprised at this. There’s no subject more interesting to Americans than religion, and books and movies that incite controversy about religion always do well. And nobody does controversy better than Hitchens, arguably the most important non-fiction author of our time.
Mr. Hitchens, 58 years old, is well-known in media and political circles as an erudite raconteur and essayist; his Vanity Fair columns and frequent TV appearances on political shows have raised his profile. More recently, his loud support for the Iraq war has infuriated many of his former compatriots. His unabashed affection for alcohol and tobacco has been widely chronicled — sometimes by himself. “I smoke, sure, and I can take a drink when offered,” he says. “It’s impolite to decline.”
Now he has turned his caustic gaze on God and organized religion. “A heavenly dictatorship would be like living in a celestial North Korea, except it would be worse because they could read your thoughts even when you were asleep,” said Mr. Hitchens in an interview. “At least when you die you get out of North Korea, which is the most religious state I’ve ever seen.”
Maplethorpe Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Scorsese and Kazantzakis “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” Hitchens is reaping the benefits of interest from both sides:
Part of what is driving the sales of “God is Not Great” falls under the concept of know thine enemy. Conservative-minded customers have been snapping up the book because they want to be familiar with its message, says Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan. “There is a very strong presence of the religious right, and they want to know what’s being said and figure out how to move against it.”
Some of the same forces were at work last fall when Bertelsmann AG’s Alfred Knopf had a surprise hit with Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation,” which questioned whether the Bible is the work of God, and Houghton Mifflin Co., a unit of Houghton Mifflin Riverdeep Group PLC, successfully published “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. Today there are 500,000 hardcover copies of Mr. Dawkins’s book in print, and 185,000 hardcover copies of Mr. Harris’s book in print.
But those guys are pikers compared to Hitchens, who is a master of the outrageous analogy and speaking ill of the dead:
Mr. Hitchens makes a passionate case against organized religion as well as theocratic, fundamentalist states. He writes that “religion is not unlike racism.” “Literature is a better source of ethics and a better source of reflection than our holy texts,” he says. “People should read George Eliot, Dostoyevsky and Proust for moral leadership.”
Booksellers say Mr. Hitchens has helped his own cause by staging colorful confrontations with religious figures and by making incendiary statements about the late Jerry Falwell. On “Anderson Cooper 360,” Mr. Hitchens was asked if he thought Mr. Falwell would go to heaven. His response: “No. And I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.”
Says Barbara Meade, a co-owner of the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.: “Part of the appeal is that he’s a personality; we sold 106 books when he visited our store.”
When Mr. Hitchens debated Al Sharpton at the New York Public Library recently, the event made national news after the Rev. Sharpton attacked Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. An estimated 1,000 turned out in Miami to listen to Mr. Hitchens challenge a panel that included an Orthodox Jew and a Buddhist nun. “I now wish I hadn’t participated,” says Nathan Katz, a professor of religious studies at Florida International University. “He was utterly abusive. It had the intellectual level of the Jerry Springer Show.”
Polite academic debates don’t sell books. Nor, frankly, are they as much fun when done with the level of skill Hitchens brings to the table.
Mr. Hitchens says he has received surprisingly little hate mail since his book was published. What does he think readers have learned from “God is Not Great?” “That your life is probably better led after you’ve outgrown the idea that the universe has a plan for you,” he says. “The cosmos isn’t designed with you in mind. You might as well just consult an astrological chart.”
That’ll sell another 100,000 copies.