Taking the best out of bestseller

Haven't read anything on the literati's best-book lists? Don't worry - neither have they. Ann Treneman examines the bluffs and blushes

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The chair of the Booker panel, Carmen Callil, is telling me her books of the year but I cannot understand a word. When in doubt, bluff, and so I ask for a book's name to be repeated. She bursts out laughing - it's an author. He was on the Booker shortlist! Rohinton Mistry.

Oh, that Rohinton Mistry. I not only blushed but flushed so red that I feared the fire alarm would go off. Nor am I the only one in this predicament; reading the seasonal best-books-of-the-year lists is always a humbling experience, and the odd flash of guilty ignorance is only to be expected. After all, many of these authors are not bookshop names, much less household. Why is it that the great, the good and the glamorous never seem to pick a bestseller? Perhaps it is time to share the blushes.

This year, readers of The Sunday Times, Telegraph and Independent on Sunday were treated to 200 odd titles put forward by some 60 literati. Just one of them is among those mentioned by Bookwatch director Peter Harland as being in this year's top sellers. Hardbacks that he does mention include Jilly Cooper's Appassionata, Jeffrey Archer's The Fourth Estate and John Grisham's Runaway Jury. In paperback, there is Sophie's World, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, The Horse Whisperer, Stephen King's Green Mile series and John Grisham's The Rainmaker. In non-fiction, look for Jack Charlton's Autobiography and something called True Animal Tales by Rolf Harris. Delia may outsell them all; and don't forget to add on something to do with the X-Files to most of those lists. That could end up as series of the year, says Mr Harland.

So why have the literati taken the best out of bestseller? "Many pick books that they are pretty confident no one else has read, including themselves," says Jeffrey Archer, secure in the knowledge he had chosen a Le Carre. "Also, it's quite common for critics to support each other." Sure enough, the lists have a mesmerising roundabout quality in terms of names and name-dropping.

Archer's is not a name on that roundabout and that must rankle a bit. "Someone is reading, because I'm selling more than ever. For my part, I do choose the books that I like," he says. "Some I choose are so-called low-brow, popular fiction and I'm not at all embarrassed to do so." But what are we to make of his other choice? The Dictionary of Art runs to 34 volumes and costs pounds 4,900. Archer is clearly thrilled with it - " For art buffs like myself, if you can't get John Julius Norwich to come and live with you, this is the next best thing." But low brow it isn't.

Jilly Cooper seems to have suddenly been struck by an attack of the interestings. Her books of the year are a diary of a Hollywood gofer and an opera history primer. She's lucky that those prowling the aisles of one of Britain's busiest bookstores do not take their book choices quite so seriously.

Some five million people are served each year by various John Menzies outlets in the south terminal at Gatwick Airport, and Darrell Blake is the man in charge of making sure they find something to buy. He reads voraciously - so what is his pick of the year? "I would choose 48 by James Herbert. It's his first non-horror tale. How can I describe it and not give it away? Let's just say there is a plague, and not many survivors."

When I ask shopper Michael Twohey for his book of the year, he quickly puts The Horse Whisperer back on the shelf and starts apologising. "I'm reading a lot of popular novels now as opposed to literature," he says. "My book of the year would probably be Ken Follett's Night Over Water. It's a very nice piece of work." Mr Twohey has been at Cambridge getting a doctorate in Chinese politics, and his holiday reading is a Tom Clancy techno-thriller. He also mentions Proust.

Mich`ele Roberts is a poet and novelist who has appeared on two "best of" lists. "It's important to be as honest as you can and not to give books written by best friends," she says. "The problem is having to choose only a few." I press her for a popular choice: "I read thrillers for fun. The latest Michael Dibden was very good."

Georgina Sims might agree. She is found at Menzies in possession of a Ruth Rendell and admits to a passion for mystery. Her book of the year is The Bad Place by Dean Koontz: "I just like him. He gets a bit waffly, but at other times it gets quite intense and very frightening. I like being frightened when I'm reading books." Ms Sims is a midwife from Sutton in Surrey.

Carmen Callil believes that I have called with an agenda. "I'm not fitting in with your theory, I'm afraid. Perhaps what you're complaining about is the people they ask. They may not have read books such as Popcorn by Ben Elton, or Terry Pratchett. I loved both of them but I'm afraid I was asked to give one or two books, not 20."

There are a few books - and Popcorn is one - that bridge the gap between popular and literary worlds. Authors include Kate Atkinson, Fay Weldon, Margaret Atwood and Beryl Bainbridge. It can work the other way - Wild Swans was mentioned first as a book of the year before catching on with the public.

Back at Gatwick, names for "favourite of the year" include Bill Bryson, Wilbur Smith and something titled The Education of a Little Tree by a native American called Forest Carter. A few people say they do not read enough to have a favourite. I wave a "pick of the year" list and ask if this provides any guidance. "I haven't read a book in a while," says one man who is a clinical researcher, "but it's been even longer since I read a book review." And we all blush together.

Critics' choice

Last Orders Graham Swift

Reading in the Dark Seamus Deane

Alias Grace Margaret Atwood

Every Man for Himself Beryl Bainbridge

The Spirit Level Seamus Heaney

People's choice

Sophie's World Jostein Gaarder

Behind the Scenes at the Museum Kate Atkinson

The Horse Whisperer Nick Evans

Green Mile series Stephen King

The Rainmaker John Grisham

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