Since so few books are published in December, the best-seller lists don’t change much this time of year. John Grisham’s “The Reckoning” remains atop the fiction list, and Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” still holds the No. 1 nonfiction spot.
But it is something of a surprise to see Obama’s memoir, which has been translated into 23 languages, selling so well the world over. In Finland, for example, the former first lady’s book has been at No. 1 on the bookseller Akateeminen Kirjakauppa’s nonfiction list for weeks, followed closely by “Paranoid Optimist,” a memoir from the Nokia chairman Risto Siilasmaa (clearly that title works better in Finnish than it does translated into English). Next door in Sweden at Svensk Bokhandel, “Becoming” is at No. 2, edged out by Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think,” which was one of Barack Obama’s favorite books last year. Sweden is a Scandinavian outlier, though; “Becoming” is No. 1 in both Norway and Denmark. It tops the lists in other European countries, too, including Germany, Portugal and England.
[ In this essay, Isabel Wilkerson brings all her narrative firepower to Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” ]
“Becoming” is No. 3 on Ireland’s combined list, where it follows “Normal People,” a novel by the hugely popular Irish writer Sally Rooney, and “At All Costs,” a memoir from the hurling manager and player Davy Fitzgerald. It is No. 4 in both France and Spain; in Italy, where most of the books on the combined top 10 list are by Italian authors (Elena Ferrante commands the four top spots), “Becoming” is No. 9. It’s No. 14 in Poland and No. 20 in the Czech Republic, and it seems to be selling briskly at bookstores in Albania.
In fact, the only European country where Obama’s book sales seem weak is Greece, where the No. 1 book is Xenakis Stefanos’s “The Present” — “Every day is a Gift. Open it. Do not throw it away.” “Becoming” doesn’t appear on Greek nonfiction lists at all.
Obama’s memoir is selling well elsewhere in the world, too, including Japan, Australia, Israel and South Africa. It’s No. 1 in Singapore and No. 4 in South Korea. It’s a hit in South America, though in Brazil its sales trail those of “Lessons,” a memoir by the Brazilian-born supermodel Gisele Bündchen. But “Becoming” doesn’t seem to have caught on in Peru, where it doesn’t make the lists — like one from bookstore Planeta de Libros — at all. The No. 1 nonfiction title there is Jessica Vega Puch’s “Yoga or Clonazepam? Emotional Emergency Kit.”