From time to time, there is a Book That Everyone Is Reading. In 2010, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was inescapable, as was Kathryn Stockett's The Help. In 2009, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society seemed to be everywhere. Oprah helped The Story of Edgar Sawtelle capture the latter half of 2008. Let's make up a new award for these books: the Bookmarks Zeitgeist Award.
Sometimes these books need a high-profile prize to give them momentum; others are passed on by word of mouth and from book group to book group until they break through. We would never have predicted that Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen would ride that wave a few years ago.
But as we compiled our list of the Best Books of 2011 (page 8), there didn't seem to be--yet--any clear Zeitgeist Award to bestow. This absence exists all in the eye of the beholder, of course. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad came out in the fall of 2010 and went on to win both the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. In the end, though, it never reached Zeitgeist status, perhaps because readers who avoid short stories weren't sure if a book of "linked" stories was secretly a collection of shorts.
There was a lot of hype for The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, but it didn't sustain. The same for Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. The latter was a book for Wallace devotees (count me in that group), but an "unfinished novel" will never grow big...