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Our Guilty Pleasures

The rest of the country sees us as radicals, but the Bay Area still falls for the top of the publishing pops.

Gay marriage. Nuclear-free zones. Dog walkers. Green Party power. Bay Area politics is different than most of America, but a recent survey suggests that our reading habits aren't.

In the past two weeks, a comparison of the New York Times list of best selling hard cover fiction -- compiled and weighted to reflect nationwide sales -- and the San Francisco Chronicle's local version revealed ten overlapping titles between the Times' top 20 and the Chronicle's top 10. Yes, but the Chron is hardly radical. Surely the plethora of independent Bay Area bookstores serve as a better gauge of our underground tastes.

Well, no. To a large extent the hot sellers at local indies line right up with the mainstream. Of the top 15 best-sellers on the list of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, nine overlap with the Times and eleven with the Chronicle. Wherever you shop, it seems you're reading The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, Absolute Friends by John le Carre, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, Pompeii by Robert Harris, Mr. Paradise by Elmore Leonard, The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson or The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. Oh, and don't forget the -- what is it again? -- The Da Vinci something or other.

In non-fiction, the NCIBA, Times and Chronicle lists overlap with six books: American Dynasty by Kevin Phillips, The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands by Laura Schlessinger, The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken and Dude, Where's My Country by Michael Moore.

So much for book sales. What can library loans tell us about our particular reading habits? Our local libraries don't track most circulated books, but Laura Lent of the San Francisco Public Library's Collection Development office says anecdotal evidence points to a clear and present rampage for Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Of the 6.15 million copies in print, the S.F. main library and its 26 branches have 160, and more than 500 requests from people who can't find it on the shelves.

Also remarkably high on the request lists are Chinese language books and graphic novels: finally a trend not mirrored in the best sellers list! Lent points out that library reserves usually reflect what's hot in bookstores, but they also have perennials. "In San Francisco, anything that has to do with cooking, sex or home-remodeling and is set in France or Italy is going to be in demand," she says.

What about our region's legendary left-wing politics? Aren't they reflected in our book choices? Lent says yes, left-wing titles by authors from Noam Chomsky to Al Franken are more popular than their corresponding right-wing titles, which the library dutifully stocks. Also in demand is anything about Charles Manson -- OK, not exactly a bragging right. And Lent concurs with the San Mateo public librarian Joan Biederman that do-it-yourself divorce books are always blockbusters.

Of course there are still fierce pockets of resistance to mainstream publishing. San Francisco's City Lights Book Store doesn't even carry The Da Vinci Code (or most of the other best sellers mentioned above). The store's top recent titles include You Back the Attack, We'll Bomb Who We Want by Micah Wright and 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know by the Disinformation Co. and shares just one title with the Times. (Booksellers of all stripes are no doubt asking Mr. Moore, "Dude, where's the sequel?")

But San Francisco's most famous indie bookshop and original publisher of Allen Ginsberg's once-controversial poem "Howl" wouldn't be caught dead with Dr. Atkins, Dr. Laura, or Dr. Phil. According to Paul Yamazaki, City Lights' buyer since the 1970s, the longtime favorites are A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, Reflections by Walter Benjamin, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and anything by Michel Foucault.

Despite the weight City Lights holds in our local cultural imagination, the little beat bookstore won't skew us too much from the national mainstream. I haven't read The Da Vinci Code, but my roommate started it two days ago and hasn't left her bedroom since. She says I can borrow it when she's done.